Traveling by train is a powerful experience for those unused to it. I was unused to it. In the last few days I have seen dreamlands and wildernesses that still the heart. I have seen parts of my country that time itself has forgotten and watched the dawn overtake the stars on a river I grew up on, but apparently never looked at. Not like this.
I have seen barges aglow in the night and townships and villages you couldn't fly to even if you wanted to. I have seen horses in pasture and really looked at them in a way you don't, or can't, from a car. In the comfort of the lounge gallery wherein I write this, I have discoursed with a young man forging his way south to Austin, and with a Wiccan lady who has found all manner of new ways to the divine. I have listened as a young man and woman fell in love. I have watched four old men (old men) playing a game of Munchkin and laughed at jokes I've never heard before, even from Tiro (believe me, that's saying something).
I have traveled, and I have come to the revelation that I have never traveled before. When you are driving, you see nothing but broad expanses of concrete. You pull over where you can and enjoy a hamburger or the world's largest ball of twine, but when you pass a living factory in the night, you cannot simply gaze at it and wonder that such a place exists, where towers of concrete and steel glow golden in the light of a thousand magic stones. You cannot stare openly at the barge tied up, quite literally, to a tree by the side of the river. You pass so near these things but you can never, ever see them.
Twenty-four hours on a train feels like an hour on an airplane, and you don't even have to get molested by security on your way. You can freshen up, walk around, stretch your legs, grab dinner, plug your laptop into a power outlet to charge it, drink leftover beer from last-last night's (amazing) party and chat it up with fellow night-owls in the lounge as the other passengers sleep away the night in the spacious, comfortable, expansive reclining seats of Coach.
You talk to people, too. Plural. People here aren't in a hurry to get where they're going. If they were in a hurry, they'd be flying. A loading dock in the middle of nowhere goes by, workers starting to trickle in already at five thirty in the morning. Cars in the parking lots, men walking, a bridge, conveyor belts still silent, but there is a feeling here that these places are still used, that they do not suffer from the rot and decline of my native city. Would you like to look at my family history tracing back to the dark ages? I have it here, in this binder. Sure, why not. My goodness, you have a lot of bastards in your family tree. Oh, is that what Fitz means? I think we're coming up on the Grassy Knoll. Last time they called it out, but I was in the lavatory, I missed it. Left or right? You watch left, I'll watch right.
We just passed under a vehicle bridge, walled on the sides for safety. The drivers will all be looking straight ahead, desperately wishing they could safely glance out their side windows to enjoy the view. Their view is, at any rate, interrupted abruptly by the wall. It protects them from themselves. It pads the corners of their world so that they do not need to see, and takes their eyes as payment.
I do not envy them the hours they shave off their miserable journeys. They have forgotten that the journey is part of life, and here I sit in exquisite comfort, legs stretched out, fully charged laptop on my lap, Buddy Guy from the weekend's blues playlist flooding my ears, wondering at how easy it was to be reminded. What sacrifices mankind has made for the saved hour... I do not think the hour was worth it.
Mankind doesn't even realize that he's not, in fact, saving it.
If you need to, you can arrive off a train fully refreshed, shaved, in clean clothes, relaxed, having slept pretty darn well and having brushed your teeth in the morning. D pointed out to me, as well, that you arrive downtown. Avail yourself of public transportation and you've saved another 38 bucks in taxi fare and tip. Instead of getting off a plane, crawling into a bed and wasting half a day recovering from jet-lag, you can crawl right out of the sleeper-car (which cost you less than a coach ticket might have on a jet), and into your business meeting. Factor in time saved from security and from the fact that you don't have to check (or subsequently collect) much in the way of luggage (or pay for it), and you've turned one day of miserable airport-hopping into one day of luxurious scenery and relaxation.
And driving? You don't even save all that much time driving to begin with. You arrive tired, with a kink in your back and a foul mood in your gut. You don't get anything done in that time, but you feel like you've been working all week. You save money, probably a bit, but if the trip is over 12 hours or so, you're likely to need to take it in two days, so remember to factor in the 8 hours of (non-moving) sleep per night and the hotel rate, plus gas and toll fares. Add wear and tear into the equation, an oil change, spent tire rubber and the possibility of an accident along the way, and you might start to see where I'm going with this.
When people ask me what I think of the administration's high-speed rail plan and whether it's a gimmick, it's hard to answer them. It isn't so much that there aren't plentiful good reasons why it's not a gimmick, or why it's a good idea in general... Even economically, it's a good idea. It generates productive, useful jobs which will return a net profit to the investors (not move-rock-move-rock-back jobs). It's environmentally advantageous if the rail is built right, and the fuel for the train will come more directly from an electrical grid rather than burned fuel, which means that more transportation can be shifted onto renewable energy sources. It will somewhat reduce our oil consumption and while it may be competition for our airliners, if you hadn't noticed, they're all going out of business anyway, and they're all terrible. Subsidize foreign air travel and let high-speed localized jet travel be cornered by a few smaller companies for all I care.
Honestly though, the major reason I think the high speed rail is a good idea is more ephemeral. Without significantly slowing down the nation, it would give the nation a sense of things slowing down. Business travelers would lose some of the wrinkles around their eyes. Reduced travel costs would improve the melting-pot aspects of our nation, and the increased ability of trains to stop at places airports are more-or-less useless to (D had the excellent suggestion of ultimately setting up two rail systems, one for express travel between large cities and one which stopped along the way) would make a lot of the isolated places in America seem suddenly less remote.
So no, I don't think it's a gimmick. In fact, I think it's one of the best ideas the administration is presently toying with, and I don't think the long-range implications for our future are being fully comprehended yet by the people doing the talking.