Get Rail!

I once punctuated a doomed love affair with a ride on the Empire Builder to Glacier National Park in Montana. It was my 25th birthday, and I spent it sighing deeply into a window-framed postcard of North Dakota, idly expecting the steel rails to yield some inspiration.

Instead, I was deposited unceremoniously outside an RV park in West Glacier with a too-heavy pack, bad shoes, and a strong impulse to hitchhike east. A week later, I was back on board, but feeling more like a commuter than a wandering romantic—sort of like grabbing the 21A back to St. Paul after last call in Minneapolis. Except I really needed a bath.

Still, I understand the allure of faraway places and the mystique of train travel, even though that understanding mostly comes from old Hitchcock movies. I’m less certain of the train’s appeal as engineering marvel. It is very large and very powerful and afflicts its devotees with a delicious sense of danger. (Early steam engines were liable to explode at inconvenient moments, and modern trains remain slightly prone to derailment.) But there is something prehistoric about these machines in their lumbering, inertia-bucking clumsiness. Even at moderate speed, the modern train has little sense of balance and nothing remotely resembling grace. It is a big old clunky, foul-smelling, grease-spewing juggernaut that somehow has dodged extinction for the past half-century.

So, I’m not sure about trains. It’s great that they’re often cheaper and more comfortable (especially for kids) than the terror-stricken airliner. It’s great that you can get a decent breakfast on the 8 a.m. to Chicago. And it’s great that you can check out the appliance-strewn backyards of people you’ll never meet as you pass through towns you’ll never visit. But trains are surprisingly slow, seldom run on schedule, and reliably serve bad beer. And on the mythic level, well, I think it’s pretty much over.

Or is it? Two blocks from my house in east Minneapolis, crews of bundled, burly men are building an 11-mile rail line that about this time next year will be carrying what the state’s policy wonks pray will be large numbers of happy commuters into downtown Minneapolis and out to the airport and Mall of America. The half-billion dollar project is not only the largest publicly funded construction effort in state history, it may be the most maligned, ridiculed, and lampooned as well.

I can’t say I disagree.

You can trace the stupidity of Light Rail Transit way past Jesse Ventura and Ted Mondale, before Arne Carlson and John Derus—all the way back to a gloomy rail yard in 1954, where on a rainy June day a man named Fred Ossanna, hiding out under a damp fedora, supervised the burning of the last Minneapolis streetcar.

The Twin City Rapid Transit Company, which Ossanna headed, once operated nearly 530 miles of electric streetcar track in the metropolitan area. Lines tied Minneapolis and St. Paul together and ran as far west as Minnetonka, east to Stillwater, north to White Bear Lake, and connected suburbs as far flung as St. Louis Park and Columbia Heights. It was, according to some observers, the best transit system in America. But between 1949 and 1954, Ossanna and his crew of progressive-minded bean counters successfully transformed it into a bus line.

And here we are, nearly a half-century later, starting all over—but with none of the wild frontier optimism that allowed the system to be built in the first place.

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