Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Truth...Plane and Simple...

The mayor named Fiorello was a stand up guy.

The once upon a time New York City mayor once found himself disagreeing with a judge, only to be reminded that he, himself, had appointed that judge to the bench.

"When I make a mistake," he imortally opined, "it's a beaut."

That historic utterance popped into my head as I was reading about the problems fliers are having because of the volcanic eruption and the ash that is shutting down air travel all over Europe.

Because when it comes to mistakes, I've long thought that America made a pretty big one a long time ago.

Well, two if we count thinking Ellen would make a good judge on Idol.

America should never have given up on trains in favor of air travel.

At one time in our history, long before the terms "overhead compartment" "upright and locked position" and "we're number sixty three in line for takeoff" became a part of our everyday vocabulary, we moved from city to city, state to state, cross country via the rails.

And for over a hundred years, the railroads got us where we needed to go, when we needed to go, pretty much when we needed to get there.

The story is actually fascinating. Check it out here.

As is our technologically hungry wont, though, air travel pretty much put the kaibosh on the choo choo and by the 1960's, train travel went the way of the eight track tape player.

Here's a thing, though.

For all of the flash and fancy of winging it back and forth across the land of the free, there was really only one advantage flying had over training.

It saved time.

Simply put, a plane traveling at 500-600 mph is faster than a train traveling at 60-70mph.

So, in theory, you get there, wherever there might be, sooner.

Much like your household budget, though, the numbers on paper are misleading.

A little compare and contrast:

By show up at the station, check your baggage and board the train.

By show up at the airport, check your baggage, bitch under your breath about being charged extra for your luggage, say goodbye to your luggage and grimace as you realize that you wore the socks with the hole in the toe and you're going to have to take off your shoes before they let you anywhere near the jetway.

By take a seat next to, near a, or within easy eye shot of a pretty nice sized window.

By plane...after faking patience at the lady who will, by God, cram that overstuffed backpack in that overhead compartment come hell or high water, you wiggle and squirm your way into one of three seats that will either a) put you next to the porthole sized window, but guarantee that getting out to take a leak will involve some ability at contorting your body, b) put you in the middle between two people who will either put their elbows on your armrest and/or spend the entire trip trying to shove that overstuffed backpack that just wouldnt go in the overhead compartment in the half as much space under the seat in front of him/her or c) put you on aisle where you will be required, for the duration of the trip, to be ever vigiliant lest you get whacked in the shoulder or back of the head by people and/or flight attendants weaving and bouncing up and down the aisle possesing no discernbile depth perception.

By settle back as the train pulls out of the station, gathers speed and begins to move steadily and rhythmically across the landscape of amber waves of grain...( dont give your luggage a second thought as you instinctively know that it's riding comfortably just a couple of cars behind you)

By unbuckle and get up to allow the last minute check in to climb over you to their window seat, sit back down, rebuckle, settle back and wait for the little dinging bell that indicates you and your fellow travelers are about to take your place in the line of sixty odd aircraft taxing their way toward an eventual departure...(ps: you say a quick multi-level prayer that you will a) get off the ground before your kids have kids, b)fly and arrive safely and c) your luggage will also have a safe trip and, ideally, end up where you do)

By train...when mealtime arrives, you walk to the dining car, sit down, order up and eat a nice meal...

By realize that you have learned to accept, without question, that a balanced meal can actually consist of mixed nuts and/or pretzels washed down with a plastic specimen cup sized 7-Up.

By marvel at the wonder of the landscape that is the United States of America.

By plane... you marvel at the wonder of God's creation as you view the cottony blanket of clouds below you...but only if you have the seat next to the porthole sized window and can avoid being totally distracted by either a) that annoying arm on your armrest and/or b)your efforts to put a full bladder out of your mind lest you have to climb over two fellow travelers in search of relief.

By train...the train pulls into the station, you disembark, pick up your luggage and continue with your life...

By plane...the plane touches down, you unbuckle and start calculating how many minutes/hours it will be before the aisle is sufficiently clear of people trying to remove overstuffed backpacks from the overhead compartment to allow you to stand up, let alone head toward the cordial "buh-bye" and the sweet release of the jetway entrance...and the process of traversing to the baggage claim area, all the while hoping and praying that there will, in fact, be familiar baggage to claim at some point...

And by the time you factor in the waiting, delays, etc, inherant in air travel, the single advantage, saving time, is largely illusory.

In hindsight, I think a pretty compelling case could be made that, all factors considered, letting our rail system fade away was a mistake.

I'd also offer it's the kind of mistake that Mayor Fiorello would agree was a beaut.

Not to mention ironic with a capital I.

Given that the man whose wry observation was Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia.

As in LaGuardia Airport.