Inside Out

Slow Rail Movement

America's Trains are a Link to Past; Europe's Connect to Future

by Bruno Kaufmann

Back in the 1980s, cruising the European continent onboard a night express was something of a nightmare with bad food and uncomfortable accommodations. Unfriendly border guards disturbed travelers on a regular basis. Too many times my journey ended suddenly at a nation-state checkpoint, when my luggage drew some extra attention or my passport was deemed to be “somewhat” invalid.

Visiting California at that time was pure luxury. As a young Swiss student, I traveled on the brand-new, double-leveled Caltrain and Amtrak fleet with parlour cars serving delicious pale ales and delivering local daily newspapers at each stop. I could start my day in hot, balmy Los Angeles and end it in the cool, cloudy Bay Area, where the brand-new BART system invited visitors to cruise the most European city of the US, San Francisco.

This was just one generation ago. Since then, Europe and California have switched routes with one another. Europe accelerated towards high-speed travel between major cities while California slowed to a halt, stranded somewhere in the San Joaquin Valley.

In 1981, Europe inaugurated its first high-speed rail connection between the French capital of Paris and the second city of the republic, Lyon, 450 kilometers (280 miles) south. The new trains needed less than two hours to make the trip and introduced new levels of comfort, with cushy seats, elaborate meals and the best magazines. Europeans embraced this speedier, more comfortable form of transportation, and the airplane flights between the two cities lost their purpose literally overnight.

I recently boarded a train from Madrid to Barcelona, a distance of more than 650 kilometers (a little more than 400 miles). It took me two hours from downtown to downtown. Two hours during which I could browse the Internet, eat delicious pasta with a tasty glass of Catalan red wine, and take a cozy nap. But what was best about the journey was what I didn’t encounter: no airport transfers, no security check hassles, no cramped seating. It was genuinely effortless travel.

Expanding high-speed rail in Europe has become a priority of the European Union, both of its governments and its citizens. By contrast, America’s high-speed rail initiatives have stagnated. Elected officials and the general public see rail improvements as ancillary to more “urgent” issues, such as the recent debt-ceiling debacle.

California’s rail system, like much of its other infrastructure, is a literal and figurative reminder of its initial promise and subsequent neglect. A flash of emerald marble from an old art-deco station or the sparkling steel of a train car may still be glimpsed briefly – though such sights are quickly swallowed up by all the state’s weathered and crumbling structures.

There’s an irony here that seems lost on Californians: when you ignore seemingly smaller subjects like high-speed rail to bicker over the vitality of society, you overlook the very systems that allow for the easy, efficient movement that are vital to, well, the vitality of society.

The locomotives of 1980s California that glimmered in the afternoon sunlight of the Central Coast are still lustrous in my memory. Those trips, and the possibilities they stirred, are now echoed in my travels across Europe. When I was in my 20s, many people questioned my decision to opt out of car driving (and to some extent flying) and instead use trains (and sometimes bicycles) to get around. These days, my reliance on trains doesn’t seem so strange. I have no problem taking a train to London for a brief lunch meeting after staying overnight in Paris, or filling my agenda with consecutive meetings in Zurich, Milan, and Rome during the very same day.

Although Europe is getting bigger-the EU has grown from 12 member states in 1995 to almost 30 today-it is also becoming smaller, as high-speed tracks and trains bring together people from all over.

Another fascinating consequence of the European high-speed revolution is how the big old railway termini in most capitals have been revived as our most important public meeting spaces. The “railway cathedral” of Antwerp-Central, the breathtaking trainsheds of London St. Pancras, the glass ceilings of Helsinki Rautatieasema-these are more than just transit hubs, they are centres for connection, commerce, and community.

I see the potential for California’s rail stations to serve the same purpose, from the throwback Mission Revival and Art Deco interiors of Los Angeles Union Station to the über sleek, glass-and-steel foundation of San Francisco’s upcoming Transbay Transit Center.

As a frequent visitor to California for my work as a journalist and democracy activist, I take the train when time permits, but the slow pace – and lack of advances to the system since I first visited three decades ago – makes such travel impractical for all but tourists. I hope to take California high-speed trains in the not-too-distant future, when the journey from Los Angeles to San Francisco will live up to the one of my memory.

Bruno Kaufmann is a broadcast journalist based in the northern Swedish city of Falun, where he often boards a 6 am train to reach Stockholm, other Nordic capitals – and the rest of the world. He and his traveling family members do not own a car or have a driving license. He can be contacted at kaufmann@mailbox.euromail.se

*Photo courtesy of Matthew Black.