Friday, June 13, 2008

"I've never been on a bus"

A couple of weeks ago, waiting for my luggage at Oakland Airport, two thirtysomething young women visiting from L.A. asked me how to get to downtown SF. For about $6 each, I said, they could take a shuttle bus to the BART train and be downtown in about 30 minutes, and since I was going that way anyhow, I offered to help guide them there.

As we paid the bus fare, one of them enthusiastically said "Wow, this is cool! I've never been on a bus before!"

After they got off the train, I began trying to reconstruct a life path in which someone would never have been on a bus. I wasn't able to do it.

The folly of our abandoned railroad system

So this week I had a business trip that required me to visit Chicago and Cincinnati.  Chicago has a first-rate metro (the "El") and commuter rail (Metra), and is the railroad capital of the US if not the world, with tracks running into it literally from every major city in the Northeast, Southeast, and eastern Great Plains.

Therefore, since Chicago to Cincinnati is about the same distance as New York to Boston or Washington (where there's at least hourly train service), I naturally assumed I'd be able to take a train from Chicago to Cincinnati and fly home from there.
It turns out there is one train per day (Amtrak only--no regional service), which takes over 8 hours to travel 200 miles and arrives in Cincinnati at 3:15 AM.  Not useful.
So instead I took a 48-minute jet flight from O'Hare—which, given the travel times to/from the airports, the time to get through security, and the 3 hour flight delay due to late arrival, maintenance problems, and runway congestion, turned out to be no faster than driving and a lot more expensive not to say a pain in the ass.

Sitting in traffic between Cincinnati airport and my hotel, I noticed the railroad tracks paralleling the expressway, now used only for freight trains.  They lead directly into the beautiful Art Deco-inspired Cincinnati Union Station, which is now a science museum and shopping mall, served by a bus.