I'm not a true 'railfan'. I have no idea what sort of locomotive is pulling this train (although I think it's blue and silver). I'm not bothered about noting the numbers of the carraiges I'm riding in. And I'm also doing this with a bit of blind trepidation. But then again, that's always how the best journeys are made.
I just love the idea of a journey. Ever since I first started to look closely at the world flashing by from the back seat of my mum and dad's little red VW Cabrio, I've enjoyed just looking. The purest form of entertainment for me is the view from a moving vehicle, traversing territory I've never seen before. And as the 'normal' pace of our commercialised society gets more and more rapid, we get to see these things even less. And when we do see them, we don't appreciate what we're looking at.
Our obsession with speed and convenience brings with it a high cost. A low cost flight from any of London's six airports will take you thousands of kilometres in a few hours. And while I enjoy looking at clouds as much as the next man, I'd rather be looking at the surface of our planet, up close so that I can see the back gardens, buildings, fields, forests and rivers of this crowded planet. I think Philip Larkin says it best, how we are all naturals, born to gaze out of moving windows:
They watched the landscape, sitting side by side
- An Odeon went past, a cooling tower, And
someone running up to bowl - and none
Thought of the others they would never meet
Or how their lives would all contain this hour.
from The Whitsun Weddings
So I'm going out for a good look at everything I can and nothing in particular. North American passenger trains are hardly the fastest modes of transport, but I'm going to see a rapid cross section of the United States of America and Canada. Both countries owe much of their development to the train. But when it comes to contemporary travel, a lack of investment and political vision in North America has left the passenger train unable to compete with the plane or automobile. Our society conditions people to work more to spend more to enjoy more (and enjoyment usually involves more consumption). Traveling by jet plane is now our god given right. Certain environmentalists love to bash those who drive thirsty sports utility vehicles, but they go silent when you threaten to take away their £40 Easyjet weekender flights to the sun (did you know that there is no tax on airline fuel anywhere in the world?).
The train is important, because it offers a realistic and existing solution to tomorrow's environmental and social problems. If we must travel, should do it in a way that treads lightly on the soil we pass over. And if we are to understand more about the world, we should at least take every chance to see it. In it's current form, and in the current political climate, Amtrak may not exist for much longer (although it has survived through some pretty rough times so far). Regardless of Amtrak's fate, I want to enjoy it while I can. Even if North America's passenger train network does survive another round of government budget cuts, and even if the trains continue to struggle along without priority over freight trains, I'm only going to be living in Canada for one year. The novelty of taking a train, and not a plane, to New York or Chicago will soon be gone for me.
So that's why I'm here. I'm off to see a little bit of this continent the way it should be seen: from a big comfortable seat, with an on board restaurant and no need for rest breaks.