WASHINGTON, D.C. -- I am a conservative. To be precise, I am a libertarian-conservative. That is to say I stand for personal liberty and tradition. In the scheme of government bequeathed to us by the Founding Fathers (and Mothers), those value are maintainable, with various requisite adjustments, all depending on the passing imbecilities of our fellow citizens.
As a conservative, I have for decades found myself in the pipe-puffing presence of traditionalists who adore the railroad. They patter on about the serenity of travel by rail, the graciousness of the service, the quality of the cafe car. Doubtless there are some who sing in praise of ye old cowcatcher. They do not mention that travel by rail is slow, old-fashioned and stupid. That has been my position through all their nostalgic harangues for the railroad car. At least that has been my position until technology heaved up the Acela Express, Amtrak's high-speed train that takes me from Washington to New York as fast as the Delta or US Airways shuttle and at a cost of about 25 percent less.
Hence, once again, the conservative fuddy duddies are vindicated. The rails, at least on highly traveled routes such as the New York-Washington corridor, surpass air travel. I would not advocate the rails for transatlantic travel, but from Washington to New York they are superior. On the Acela I do not have to arrive an hour before departure (and on busy days an hour and a half). I do not find myself grievously limited in the baggage I carry. My points of departure and arrival are near the center of town, cutting down on travel time and taxi cost. And I have available to me the heaven that is Acela's "Quiet Car" -- more on that later.
One of the problems with rail travel that the fuddy duddies rarely addressed was the constant swaying one experiences owing to the ancient roadbeds and the dreadful suspension systems still used on conventional railroad coaches. These are problems that have made dining difficult, walking from car to car hazardous and reading unnecessarily dizzying. Long periods of undisturbed reading is one of the famous promises held out by rail travel, but the swaying and bumping that most enthusiasts of the railroad leave unmentioned makes reading difficult -- not so on the Acela.
The Acela, at speeds reaching 140 mph, glides along the tracks. Noisy cars filled with commuters on cell phones and barking to their fellow passengers are still a challenge to us marathon readers, but this is where the Quiet Car comes in. On that oasis of good sense, cell phones are malum prohibitum. Conversation is kept to the level of pianissimo. Even computers are ordered to quiet their bells and whistles.
Now the enforcement of these strictures can be amusing. The Quiet Car is increasingly patrolled by stern Acela gendarmerie whose officers, I have noticed in recent months, are getting trigger happy. This I believe is because, though many of us in the Quiet Car are benign readers, worldly enough to understand when a forgotten cell phone goes off or a pin drops, many habitues of the Quiet Car are obvious neurotics, waiting to erupt over that offending pin-drop, to say nothing of the errant cell phone. The neurotics, I believe, have prevailed on Amtrak to enforce an Abu Ghraib mentality in the car.
This encourages pranksters to call their travel companions' cell phones just to see if they can cause a scene on the Quite Car. A friend seated in front of me last month, suspecting (correctly) that I had forgotten to silence my phone, stepped out of the car and rang me up, and all hell broke loose. He was vastly amused -- and I admit I, too, had to laugh.
The gendarmerie of the Quiet Car have yet to receive the full authority of the Homeland Security Department and are thus not much more menacing to adults than school crossing guards. Moreover, one can easily spot the neurotics among one's fellow travelers, and they are delicious targets for practical jokes -- for instance, a coughing spell or leaving one's cell phone out as if in wait of an urgent call from a loud-mouth pal.
Now do not misunderstand me. The Quiet Car is not Animal House. We devotees of the car are there to read or to rest. The remainder of the train is also mostly peaceful. It is a civilized two hours and 45 minutes between cities, and the stress factor is almost non-existent. Even seasoned flyers suffer stress in air travel. There is none on the rails. I am proud to say I am a big enough man to admit past error. The railroads have a future.
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