Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Beyond bagels

The sorry state of rail travel in the United States (epitomized by the bagel episode I quoted the other day) is just one of the many topics covered in Don Watson's marvelous American Journeys, which I stumbled across by chance in my local library the other day and have been engrossed in ever since.

Most of the problems (slowness, lateness, poor service, aging equipment) stem from a lack of investment, a situation exacerbated by the reluctance of governments to subsidize passenger rail services in the neoliberal age (something all too familiar to us here in New Zealand). Another problem Amtrak, the government corporation responsible for passenger rail travel in the US, faces is that while it owns its own trains, most of the tracks are owned by the rail freight companies, so that passenger trains invariably have to give way to freight trains using the same stretch of track, leading to lengthy delays. It's probably no coincidence that Amtrak's most profitable services are in the so-called Northeast Corridor, one of the few places where the corporation owns its own track.

As Watson notes, however, the reluctance to subsidize rail travel is inconsistent to say the least in light of the huge subsidies enjoyed by road and air travel. Roads are built and maintained using public money, as are airports and the air traffic control infrastructure. As well, aircraft manufacturers in Europe and the US receive massive government assistance in the form of either direct funding or government contracts for military and space research, which subsidize the production of civilian aircraft.

Most of the journeys covered in the book are by rail, but Watson occasionally hits the road to visit places no longer served by rail (including, ironically, Chattanooga, which last saw a train in 1970). In places his writing is so beautiful, and the subject matter so moving, that it brings tears to the eyes. For example, he describes how the American bison, some fifteen million of which once roamed the plains of Wyoming, were hunted to near extinction in the 19th century (five million were killed in 1873 alone). He quotes an old hunter who explained how they took advantage of the animal's better instincts: "When a bison was hit, the others would mill around it, and if there was a hundred or so in the bunch, the hunter could get nearly all of them."

Passing through Oklahoma gives Watson the opportunity to write about one of his many American heroes, Will Rogers. He also visits the Oklahoma City National Memorial, which is dedicated to the victims of the Oklahoma bombing of 1995, which killed 168 people and injured more than 800. He is impressed by the memorial, but unsettled by the adjoining museum.
It is a strange museum: by no means all sentimental, but with a bit of the communal solipsism of daytime television shows. The memorials at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which both express the same instinctive fascination with the moment of annihilation, do it on behalf of a quarter of a million dead civilians, tens of thousands of children. Somehow at the Oklahoma Memorial a sense of scale has been lost. At the same time, in the religious homilies and the unrestrained grief, the altruistic and the narcissistic become inseparable - a paradox that just might have been the root of the evil in Timothy McVeigh.

No comments: