Thursday, June 18, 2009

Both vintage and viable

The places and activities I'm most fascinated by are the ones where the relationship between the past and present is unstable and up for grabs. This past week, as I was taking the train up to Canada and back for a family visit, it occurred to me that trains fall into that category--increasingly so, as more tourist railroad routes are developed and as more people are riding trains as an everyday alternative to cars. (While it's true that car use in the U.S. is increasing--it grew 21% between 1995 and 2008--public transportation use actually grew 38% in the same period, while the overall U.S. population grew just 14%, according to the 2009 Fact Book of the American Public Transportation Association [p. 11])

So it was interesting, as I was clickety-clacking my way across New York state on the "Maple Leaf" train, to see the current issue of Amtrak's "New York by Rail" magazine also noting the way that train travel seems to go in two directions at once. "Rail journeys on Amtrak are great for whisking you effortlessly from point A to point B," the magazine says in a page about "Scenic Railroads." That is, trains are an everyday, consequential mode of travel (and maybe close to an ideal one in many ways, combining high degrees of relative mobility, comfort, and accessibility). But our shift into automobility in the early 20th century marooned many passenger and freight routes in the past, where many of them have been re-framed as heritage. The magazine goes on, "Tourist railroads, on the other hand, offer a slower-paced journey specifically intended to bring you close to scenic vistas and historic sites." The article points out the appeal of vintage rolling stock, refurbished depots, historic locomotives, and rail museums along the many tourist railroad routes in New York.

As I noted in an earlier post about Pennsylvania's oil heritage area, these tourist railroads are deeply and somewhat weirdly entangled in car culture, since the usual pattern is to drive to the station, take the train, and then drive away again. Tourist trains don't go from Point A to Point B--they go from Point A to Point A, in a self-referential loop rather than a consequential journey. But they do hold something in public memory of the earlier extent of American rail networks, and in a time when we may actually be moving in that direction again, these symbolic journeys exist on the unstable edge of the past/present relationship rather than simply as nostalgic representations of the obsolete. We can hope.

The Amtrak route across New York offers plenty of opportunities to contemplate the shifting relationship among different modes of transportation. At various places, particularly where the Mohawk Valley narrows, you can sit on the train and see the Mohawk River, the Erie Canal that parallels it (the straighter, lighter-green band), and roads large and small, including of course the New York State Thruway (Interstate 90 on the map). The image above shows all of these sharing space in the valley just west of Canajoharie, in the same neck of the woods as the early 20th century postcard at the top of this post. (The railroad tracks are the light gray line just below NY Route 5.)

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