If I have to travel a long distance, and time is not a pressing issue, I love riding the train.
There are myriad benefits to travel by train, such as far more leg room than airplanes or private automobiles, more comfortable seats, more storage room for luggage, and the ability to get up and walk around with worrying about turbulence. Trains have club cars where you can get a sandwich or snack and a drink, at your pace, and you aren't insulted by being limited to a cracker or some sort of gelatinous mess that the airlines refer to as "food."
You can have a hot dog if you want, or nachos, or a bag of peanuts. You can select what you want to drink, or you can even pack your own lunch if you prefer.
On my regular trips to the nation's Capitol I find that I can get there in the same time by taking Amtrak as I can by driving, without any of the hassle, at just about the same price. I also can work on the train, as cell phone service is fairly consistent, and I can use a laptop if I wish since I don't have to keep my eyes on the road.
But the biggest benefit to riding a train, from my perspective, is the sightseeing. I can stare our the window for hours as the scenery passes by, and never get bored. In fact, in the not-too-distant future I would love to take a long trip on one of those double-decker, bubble-topped trains out west where you can sit on the top level and absorb panoramic views of our country.
I would love to see the northern Rockies, and maybe even go to Alaska by train. You can sleep on a train too, in a bed. I have done it and it is far more comfortable than trying to catch a few winks on an airliner.
But if there is one downside to riding by train, it has to be the condition of the rights-of-way. I mean this in terms of the amount of litter along the rail beds. I have seen everything from scraps of paper and run-of-the-mill trash to building debris, appliances and even abandoned cars.
Grant you, it is much better now than it was in the late 80s and early 90s when I first started making commutes to DC by train. It was obvious back then that America's back porch desperately needed cleaning, and to a considerable extent it has improved.
But there still are stretches, mostly near the large cities, where the Amtrak right-of-way is considered to be a substitute landfill or transfer station for residents of that area. Transfer station in the context that the dumpers transfer their garbage to the railbed and then leave.
So what does this have to do with compulsory national service? Everything.
My college students, many of whom were vocal and enthusiastic supporters of the current president-elect, seemed quite surprised last week when I asked them if they had given any thought to how they would like to spend their period of compulsory national service.
The typical response was "What?" When I repeated "compulsory (or mandatory) national service" they repeated "What?" So I showed them a speech where the current president-elect was extolling the virtues of such service, backed up by a video interview with his appointed chief-of-staff delving a bit further into the issue - talking about the mechanics of how it will work.
Then the "What?" response was replaced by an "I'm not doing that. How are they going to find me? How do I get out of this?"
Frankly it sounded very much like the commentary from people in the 60s who didn't want to be drafted into the military and go to Vietnam.
Nonetheless, I think there is a place here where the president-elect and the youth who will be involved in this compulsory service can all come together for the national benefit.
As I noted above, the high cost of gasoline over the past couple of years has led many people to reconsider train service as opposed to driving their own vehicles or even car pooling. Many have had reacted with pleasant surprise upon rediscovering how nice it can be to let the engineer do the driving and the conductor take care of everything else.
But if trains are to make a big comeback on the national scene, and help reduce our energy dependency, especially on foreign oil sources, we have to convince even more people to take the train, and do it regularly. Cleaning up the scenery would be a nice addition to ongoing efforts to build more efficient engines and modern passenger cars.
This endeavor would be very similar to the Depression-Era Civilian Conservation Corps, where Americans lived in military style barracks, wore what amounted to uniforms that kept everyone's clothing budgets in check, and worked on tree cutting, road and bridge building and related projects.
Imagine if you will, squads of young college students and twenty-somethings, all clad in khaki shirts and trousers, with matching functional work boots instead of high priced name brand sneakers, dispatched for their summer vacations to the outskirts of major American cities where they would pick up trash for 8-10 hours per day at minimum wage. They would learn the value of hard work, learn the value of a dollar, forge lifelong relationships with their colleagues, and develop a greater appreciation for the challenges faced every day by the less fortunate among us.
America would benefit from a pristine landscape, and I am sure that regular travellers on our nation's railroads would be very appreciative of the improved scenery.
Granted, some of the work would involve graffiti removal near the cities, since that form of expression often is an escalating form of blight the nearer you get to big-city terminals. Much of the graffiti is gang-related and is placed on buildings, bridge abutments and overpasses by the gangs that control the surrounding areas.
We have to be realistic here and consider that the gangs wouldn't take kindly to a bunch of college kids descending on their turf to remove their messages and statements of dominance.
Obviously we also can't rely on a bunch of untrained suburbanites, whose best developed muscles are in their index fingers from years of playing video games, to provide their own security to ward off hardened gang members.
But here it gets even better. Our president-elect also is calling for establishment of a national police force - or security force if you will - that will be equivalent in size, funding and armament to the military.
If necessary, and it probably would be necessary, we could divert some of these forces from their primary mission - tracking down 18-25-year-olds who don't want to perform compulsory national service - to providing security for those who eagerly embrace this opportunity to serve their country.
See how this works? Everyone will benefit from this outside-the-box thinking. We most definitely will see the "change" that was promised in the pre-election rhetoric, we will enjoy a significant shift away from personal vehicle modes of transportation back to public transportation, our dependency on foreign oil will drop, the scenery will improve, and the nation's youth will have a new appreciation for their country.
Be honest with me. What are you feeling right now? Is that a tingle running up your leg, or a warm glow in your heart?
Wednesday, November 19, 2008