I grew up in a Pennsylvania train town where I literally got a front row seat on the sad decline of passenger rail travel. Fast forward to the 1980’s when I was a young mother in New England. I wanted my kids to know what railroads were all about, since by then they had largely become relics in children’s books.
So, starting around midnight from White River Junction, I took my five-year-old daughter and her baby brother on a train trip to visit family in Philadelphia. We crammed ourselves into chilly, uncomfortable sleeper compartments and, after what seemed like about a week of inexplicable starts and stops, we arrived, bedraggled, at 30th Street Station.
Vermont taxpayers support Amtrak, but nationally, the system is woefully underfunded. In White River Junction there's no ticket office - just some hard wooden benches. And for me, the disrepair of this once grand old station stands as a sad counterpoint to the fine furniture my grandfather used to build for luxury Pullman cars.
One day not too long ago, I saw my now grown-up daughter and her little girl off on a train trip to Connecticut. There were no porters to help with the many bags, a stroller, and a car seat. The train windows were scratched and dirty. The air conditioning was on the fritz. The train arrived in Springfield, in the summer, two hours late.
It’s ironic that some train tracks are being ripped up to make gravel pathways for even slower modes of travel - from walking to biking. I don't mean to say it's a bad thing. Vermont cyclists are enjoying the new Lamoille Valley trail, which so far connects St. Johnsbury to Danville. But as much as I enjoy pedaling on resurfaced rail beds, I long for the days when you could step aboard a clean train, head for a dining car with white tablecloths, and go somewhere in real comfort and on time.
A friend who recently took his family on a trip west by train said it was enjoyable, and saved a lot of wear and tear on crowded highways. In my experience, though, rail travel along the eastern corridor is no picnic.
But there's a new statewide rail plan, and I look forward, with guarded optimism, to boarding a train in Vermont and heading for Montreal in what the new plan estimates will be about 20 years.
And in 20 years, that might be my only option because by then I may not be driving much.
I’ll be in my 80s.