25 June 2014

Solutionary Rail Chronicles, I

A utopian fantasy in the form of an email.

From: Margot Boyer
Subject: Train to Chicago
Date: June 14, 2031
To: Bill Moyer

Hi Bill;

Writing to you from my sister’s place in Oak Park; big airy living room, south-facing with an overhanging porch that keeps off the summer sun, and doors that open to a garden of mostly prairie plants with a couple of roses near the door. They’re near the graywater outflow and seem happy, glossy leaves and strongly scented apricot blossoms that exactly match the cushions on the gray couch. This is not an accident. It’s especially pleasant in the morning with doors open.

Bob & I came out on the train for nephew Beckett’s high school graduation. I used to ride Amtrak cross country in the 80s, equipped with purple poncho, backpack of cheese & crackers, science fiction novels. I always loved trains; the smell of hot creosote still makes me nostalgic for riding the Blackhawk to Galena in 1976. But those trains were slow. When I was in college, the cross-country Empire Builder scheduled 50 hours from Chicago to Seattle, but was normally 6 to 12 hours late. We endured long mysterious waits in the middle of North Dakota while the AC ran at half power, everyone started to sweat, and babies began by whimpering and got to howling before the train moved.

So I was excited, but skeptical, to think that we’d arrive at Union Station after 26 hours, even with a couple of hour-long stops along the way. I armed myself with two days worth of knitting yarn, dried fruit and goat cheese, and your new memoir! Didn’t have much time to read on the train, but I’m loving the revelations of near-catastrophe with Backbone projects twenty years go. You surely have more secrets to spill in the next volume.

Bob brought his mini-computer and a wood carving project; pocket knife blades up to 3 inches are okay, if you want to take up whittling.

The new trains look like trains, duh, with a sort of rocket ship at the front end, but amazingly clean and quiet. The windows are clean, without the scratches and muck that accumulated on diesel trains. All the seats have good views, with folding panels to block the sun if you want. The seats are comfortable and spacious; we paid extra for the ones that fold flat so we could lie down completely -- well worth it.

Plenty of room to walk around among, I think, 32 cars. The lead car, which probably shouldn’t be called an engine. Staff dorm behind it. Further back, two separate lounge cars with drinks and snacks, an excellent diner, one car for big baggage. There were a couple of quiet cars, an official “noisy” car full of teenagers playing complicated board games and old guys watching games on a TV at full volume. I couldn’t sit in there but the atmosphere was convivial. The cars are not identical, but have minor variations in seating arrangement and several different color schemes so it’s easy to figure out which is yours. Wireless net everywhere, natch, and in one of the lounge cars a thoughtful library of actual books. Each one has an envelope tucked in back so they can be finished at leisure, and returned to the train station at either end of the journey.

The staff was professional and seemed to enjoy their jobs. The bartender in the Hawaiian-themed lounge car said she’s writing a dissertation on psychological adaptation to the abandoned cities (Florida, Louisiana, Virginia, southwest England), and the return of drowned-city myths similar to Atlantis or the French city of Is. She’s used her free-rail pass to visit Florida once a year for five years; 32 hours each way from her home in Portland.

The conductor – that’s not the right title, but the guy who looks after things in the cars, answers questions, makes sure people get off at the right station, and wears a sharp hat with a brim – said he’s been working in trains for 30 years. “When my kids were little I’d have to wait for a train to get home and never knew when that’d be. Once I got stuck in Fort Buford for six days in August. It was 110 and I missed my daughter’s big swim meet when her team won the championship. With the new trains I know when I’m getting home: 4 days on, 3 days off. I have a lot of seniority so I get about 8 weeks off a year. My wife and I usually go to LA in the spring and help in my son’s desert plant nursery, but we’ve been through Canada, Europe – next year we’re going to South America. We get great rates on the trains all over.”

Outside the tracks: strange bare rocks in the Cascades where glaciers used to be. Orchards in Eastern Washington; they’re still doing apples but with shade-culture, growing young trees on the east side of old ones and using contour to channel moisture to the growing trees. At CWU they’re breeding new heat-tolerant varieties – have you seen the pale-green Wenatchee apples? A lot of apricot and peaches and maybe pomegranates; is that possible? I swear I saw some.

There’s still a lot of dryland wheat, but the shapes of the fields have changed so it’s less of a checkerboard, instead following the contours of the land. North and east-facing slopes are in grain, south slopes in pasture. Smallish cattle, lots of sheep, lots of black Jacob goats with the fancy horns. In Montana we saw a herd of bison, hundreds or maybe a thousand.

The wind generation starts on the east slope of the Cascades and goes on to Minneapolis, at various scales. The biggest wind turbines have an op-art yellow and silver patterning that apparently scares off the birds so they don’t get caught in the blades.

The old rail towns looked spiffed up; I saw old motels that were obviously refurbished and doing business, signs for B&Bs at the station in every railroad town. Antique-and-café neighborhoods near the train stations. Old houses with fresh paint, bright colors, flower gardens! in North Dakota. Signs for the Prairie Restoration Corridor, state names and Dept. of Interior logo, here and there.

Do you remember 20 years ago we were demonstrating against coal trains and coal ports – downtown Seattle, rainy December, the opponents in red sweaters & Santa hats? I can’t believe we had to work so hard to block such a monumentally stupid idea. It was like the dead hand of a zombie industry dumbly intent on dragging us all into the pit; filling wetlands, contaminating aquifers, blocking traffic, suffocating children, all so it could fulfill its mission of catastrophic climate change. Is that why zombie movies were so popular in the waning years of the fossil fuel industry?

Obviously we reached a tipping point, and it now seems as inevitable as the electric light bulb but we didn’t see it coming. Obama nixed that huge oil pipeline. The big tribal lawsuit in Canada made it way too expensive to keep mining Alberta tar sands. The Whatcom county council refused permits for the coal port, and then all 4 western governors on both sides of the border dug in their heels and insisted that health and safety rules forbade them from letting the coal trains in. The big west coast corporations agreed, saying fuel trains would ruin property values. Buffett set up the electrification project on the northern trunk line. Then the Republican governor of North Dakota had that dream about Jesus and wind turbines, took all the Bakkan shale revenues, and plowed them into renewables. The Lakota and the Blackfeet nations decided to combine solar-voltaic with prairie restoration – so now the buffalo are grazing under the big solar collectors. After Northwestern University voted to divest from the FFs in 2016, the great plains colleges followed, and BP and Shell Oil lost 52% of their value in a single week, April 2018.

We arrived in Union Station, Chicago, 5 minutes ahead of schedule, with plenty of time to make our local, and went up to the Great Hall to stretch our legs. It’s sharp as ever, with some of the ancient wooden benches and new café tables under the 100-foot ceiling, filtered sunlight streaming in.

Have you seen the two huge pillars that guard the hall “To Trains,” each with a monumental female figure way up high? One holds an owl, and the other a rooster. My grandfather told me when I was little that they are Night and Dawn. He said it meant the train station is always open.

cheers for all your work!