And one of the links to the past I love most are trains.
I’m not sure when that love affair began, but I’m certain it had something to do with setting up my Dad’s train platform for the holidays, the true sign the Christmas season was near. Or, perhaps it was the trips into Philadelphia for special events. Regardless, I was smitten.
Even in my adult life, a year of riding Septa Regional Rail for work couldn’t spoil it, neither could eight years of commuter rail from West Virginia into D.C.
In fact, I even met my partner in crime on the train, and one of our best dates was a trip to NYC. It was certainly one of our most romantic, even though she has had enough of trains to last a lifetime.
Sadly, like all things that harken to another era and another way of life, change is inevitable.
A few months back, Amtrak announced the mechanical train board at Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station was being replaced. If you ever heard it, it is a sound you’d never forget. The clattering as the board updated arrival and departure times transported you back to a golden era.
The first time I heard the board was as a college student. The train offered a convenient way to my childhood home outside Philadelphia. There was a special feeling those days calling a taxi to take me to Union Station, waiting to board with the holiday travelers and military folks heading home on leave, and making the relatively short hop to Philly.
Union Station in Washington was and still is an architectural wonder, but there was something special about 30th Street Station, once the headquarters of the Pennsylvania Railroad. The Art Deco decor, the statues, marble floors, and that famous mechanical board. If the holidays weren’t already special enough, it was the icing on the cake. I was home, among my people.
Now it’s gone, consigned to a museum and replaced by a digital board. Superior technology? Yes, but better? Eh...
Then came word last week that Amtrak was doing away with the dining car.
When I think back on some of my favorite classic films — “North By Northwest,” “The Manchurian Candidate,” “From Russia With Love” — one common aspect is the dining car. Mystery, sophistication — you can’t touch it. Class.
On Amtrak trains, with their fine linen and top-class fare, they are another link back to the romanticism of yesteryear. Think Glenn Miller. “Dinner in the diner, nothing could be finer, then to have your ham ‘n’ eggs in Carolina.”
Now, they too will be placed in the ash heap of history, victim of cost cutting and a public that would rather eat a box meal in their room or carry something on from the station.
As my father put it, “Now we can eat ‘coach’ without having to go to the airport.”
I have no doubt that modernizing the train is necessary to make it competitive. I’ve spent enough time traveling by rail to understand the economic challenges. But in modernizing, we lose something. It just becomes another utility, just another conveyance, much like air travel in the last few decades. We lose the mystery, both in ourselves, and in our fellow travelers.
These old services, like the old stations that dot the landscape — more and more of which are closing forever every day — are like ghosts, reminding us of a bygone era when it wasn’t just about the destination, but the journey.
I, for one, long to take that sentimental journey.