– How we perceive our trains is how we perceive America.

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Many years ago when I was a lad, my friends and I would put pennies on railroad tracks. We would hide and wait for a massive freight train to flatten them into a shiny, paper-thin strips of copper with Lincoln’s face still visible. We would then have a lucky token or something to exchange, such as for baseball cards or candy. Thus began my love affair with trains.

During the early 1960’s, my father commuted by train from Connecticut to Manhattan. If we wanted to go into the city, the New Haven Railroad was the sensible alternative to driving. This was my first train ride which I found fascinating as do most children on their first trip. I remember it was comfortable and very scenic. We moved away from Connecticut in 1965, and the New Haven RR filed for bankruptcy shortly thereafter.

Since then, I have traveled on a wide variety of trains of different makes and models. In Chicago, the North Western RR was a commuter service to and from downtown. It would stop at Arlington Park, a well known horse track, where executives could catch the last few races of the day and have dinner. We would also take the North Western to Wisconsin for skiing trips. It played an important role in the lives of the residents of Chicago. After we moved from Chicago, the North Western also was shut down and replaced by the Union Pacific.

I have also had the pleasure to ride on Japan’s Shinkansen or “Bullet Train” which reached speeds over 100 mph as I traveled between Tokyo and Osaka. It was clean, comfortable, and an enjoyable way to see the Japanese countryside. A few years ago, we took Alaska’s Denali Star Line from Denali State Park to Fairbanks, an enjoyable ride inside double-deck dome cars, which made for a picturesque viewing of the Alaskan wilderness. I have also been on many subways, including the London Underground (also known as the “Tube”), as well as in Japan, New York, Philadelphia, and the “L” trains in Chicago. I have also had the pleasure of riding the legendary San Francisco Trolley Cars which are not trains in the strictest sense, but an enjoyable ride nonetheless.

Trains used to define America. They criss-crossed the nation as the primary form of transportation for many years. During times of war, troop trains moved soldiers throughout the country and was symbolic of the greatness of our country and its unity. Trains bore proud names like The Zephyr, The Hiawatha, The Chief, and The Comet, all before political correctness caught on. Sleeper cars were comfortable and clean, if not a little cramped. Dining cars served good food and drinks. Massive train stations became the busy hubs of cities, all designed as architectural wonders. went to the station not just to travel, but to eat, drink, talk business, and pickup the latest newspaper. However, this all began to fade away with the rise of automobiles and airplanes after World War II.

Since 1971, the country has relied on Amtrak, a publicly funded passenger service managed as a for-profit business. The American taxpayer has been funding Amtrak on an average of $1.4 billion per year. In other words, it cannot stand on its own feet. When you compare it to domestic airlines and bus services, Amtrak earns twice the amount of revenue per passenger mile, and consumes much less energy to operate. Only the airlines have a better safety record. Regardless, it cannot survive without the support of the taxpayer.

I have never traveled on Amtrak personally, but several friends have told me of their experiences, which weren’t exactly glowing. Nonetheless, Amtrak continues to modernize in order to compete by including such things as free Wi-Fi on board, e-ticketing to compete with the airlines, and powerful new GE locomotives. Despite all this, Amtrak suffers from an image problem. If you are interested in traveling around the USA, your first inclination is to consider the airlines, then the Interstate Highway System, and finally Amtrak. Service, reliability, on-time performance, safety and price is what Americans consider when it comes to transportation, not to mention a financially sound operation.

In Florida, we recently shelved the idea of creating a passenger train system which would unite the major cities. Frankly, the people liked the idea in theory, but realized it would be cost prohibitive to implement with little in return on investment. Other states have also considered such massive projects. I believe people are attracted to such endeavors not so much for practicality, but as a fond reminder of a bygone era and our love affair with the train.

I believe our fascination with the train is because we perceive it as this massive and powerful locomotive, followed by several cars for passengers or freight, a complicated piece of equipment consisting of millions of parts, making it a marvel of engineering and transportation. Yet, to me, despite its strength and complexity, it is a thing of beauty, sleek and elegant, a real athlete. It reminds me of a thoroughbred race horse like the late great Secretariat, an animal you were simply in awe of. I believe this is how a lot of us look at trains, making each journey an interesting ride.

Our fondness for trains is so great that toy trains are still a favorite, especially during Christmas time. Kids love them, even to this day. I still have our Lionel train set from the 1950’s. Whenever I set it up around the Christmas tree, I vividly remember how much I played with it as a child, not just because it was a toy, but because it was a train, a symbol of strength and beauty. The train set still works as well as it did 60 years ago, maybe because I keep it safely wrapped up in its original packing. It may not be as glitzy or combative as a computer game, but it is a gentle reminder of the greatness of trains and our love affair with them.

Although trains have experienced a decline in this country, I cannot imagine America without them. The sound of its horn, the rhythm of the tracks, the comfort and service of the cars, and the majesty of the beast itself is how I perceive trains, and an iconic reflection of our country.

Keep the Faith!

Note: All trademarks both marked and unmarked belong to their respective companies.

Tim Bryce is a writer and the Managing Director of M&JB Investment Company (M&JB) of Palm Harbor, Florida and has over 30 years of experience in the management consulting field. He can be reached at [email protected]

For Tim’s columns, see:  timbryce.com

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Copyright © 2015 by Tim Bryce. All rights reserved.

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Listen to Tim on WJTN-AM (News Talk 1240) “The Town Square” with host John Siggins (Mon, Wed, Fri, 12:30-3:00pm Eastern); WZIG-FM (104.1) in Palm Harbor,FL; and KIT-AM 1280 in Yakima, Washington “The Morning News” with hosts Dave Ettl & Lance Tormey (weekdays. 6:00-9:00am Pacific). Or tune-in to Tim’s channel on YouTube.

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