Friday, August 7, 2009

Riding the post-real railroad

Although this blog is supposed to be about cars and heritage, I seem to keep stubbing my toes on railroads as I’m thinking about heritage and automobility. In an earlier post, I wrote about the divergence of tourist railroads and “real” ones, and about my hope that they might yet converge again in a mode of transport that is more present-oriented, as a viable alternative to automotive travel. That seems to be starting to happen on at least one heritage railroad line, according to an article in the most recent bulletin of the National Biodiesel Board, and it’s raising some questions for me as I ponder just what is emerging or converging here.

The Strasburg Rail Road of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, which one commentator has called the granddaddy of U.S. tourist lines, recently pulled a 27,000 gallon tank car filled with biodiesel—about four tractor-trailer loads’ worth—over a short run for regional energy supplier Amerigreen, which will use it to supply its network of retailers who sell it in home heating oil and fuel for vehicles like my own diesel Jetta. Hauling freight isn’t a new venture for the tourist railroad, which has been very savvy about diversifying its business as a way of keeping itself going (the then-century-old Strasburg Rail Road found a new lease on life as a tourist attraction in 1958, and has successfully branched into locomotive restoration, parts fabrication, upscale wining and dining, and other activities in recent years).

The presence of the biodiesel tanker on the tourist route creates heartening resonances. Alongside the valuing of Lancaster County’s rural landscape for its scenic beauty is the idea that we ought to be turning toward “greener” kinds of energy for a whole host of good reasons, something that is echoed in Amerigreen’s own focus on renewable fuels and its new “100% American Fuel” campaign, which buys petroleum only from North American sources in a kind of attempt at relocalizing the oil economy (Pennsylvania’s own oil production apparently doesn’t factor into its supply, being more suited to specialized uses than to heating and vehicle fuel). And it seems that the people involved are picking up on those resonances. Dave Hessen of Amerigreen, describing the run to me, noted, “It was a beautiful day, and it was great to see the tank car coming in through the farm fields.” His comment evoked the greenness of the fuel, the landscape, and the mode of transport, all of which are easier to see and celebrate within the context of the old-fashioned train line and the pastoral setting in which it operates. You could make a case that this represents what things might look like if we came to our collective senses and started building more diverse, environmentally responsible, and regionally-oriented systems of energy production and delivery.

I think there’s something more complicated going on, though, and it has to do with where tourism fits in all of this. Rather than just being one layer of the overall scene, it seems to me that tourism actually permeates almost all the layers, from the promotional advantage being seized by the National Biodiesel Board and Amerigreen to the carefully-negotiated balance that the area's Amish farmers have developed with curious outsiders. The Lancaster Farmland Trust, which partners with the Strasburg Rail Road, emphasizes heritage in its mission, and the railroad itself, while seemingly driven by its organizers’ desire to see the old trains and the craft knowledge embodied in them survive, has embraced tourism (and its central value of authenticity) as a primary strategy to ensure that survival. The tale of the biodiesel tanker on the tourist railroad suggests to me that tourism—the marketing and consumption of places and experiences—has indeed become ubiquitous in contemporary cultural production.

So this seems like more than just a harbinger of a possible change in direction from an oil-powered, car-centric society to a greener, more local one. At every step of the way, for better and worse, we’re likely to see producers and consumers approaching what they’re doing in a touristic way, with an understanding of landscapes and experiences—from plowing fields to hauling fuel to riding a train—deeply conditioned by the expectations and promotional tactics of tourism. Culture and energy use are fundamentally entwined, and our culture is increasingly a touristic one.

The “worse” part of this equation would be that events like the tanker run become purely symbolic public relations statements or experiences to be consumed like a new wine to be sampled on one of the Strasburg Rail Road’s popular wine-tasting tours. A more positive interpretation—the one that Dean MacCannell was originally imagining when he wrote The Tourist back in 1976—is that we’ve created a touristic culture where both production and consumption are more fully participatory and able to incorporate radically new visions of what our lives might be. If the lines have irreversibly blurred between the real and the “not-real”—if we have in fact entered a kind of “post-real” culture where this distinction has become largely moot—then it probably behooves all of us to enter intelligently into the marketing of places and experiences, and to use the ubiquitous tools of publicity to delineate the kind of society that we most want to see.


Anonymous said...

I love trains.

And just so you know, someone is indeed reading what you post.

- John Cash

Cathy Stanton said...

And how nice to know it's you!