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Railroaded: One Man's Ride Involves More Than Just Delays

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In America, train travel has gone off the rails.

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I can recite the 15 or so stops on New Jersey Transit's North Jersey Coast Line in my sleep. I've made the trip from New York to Long Branch more often than I'd like to consider. My friends and I exchange NJT horror stories like trading cards -- though some are too depraved to divulge here.

A few of the milder occurrences: There's the person who slides his smelly, shoeless feet directly through the seat cushion on which you're sitting. There are the times you've fallen asleep and ended up utterly lost at the end of an unfamiliar line. The lone bottle that noisily rolls up and down the car with nobody bothering to stop it, the loud cell-phone talkers, the constant delays. And of course the merciless sonic blast of a conductor announcing stops at which nobody will exit on an early-morning train.

Worst of all, the train travels at a speed that's the opposite of Mach 1. A century ago, the trip from New York to the Jersey Shore lasted about 2 hours. Now it's only about 30 minutes faster, in spite of the benefits of modern technology.

New Jersey Transit isn't some anomaly; instead, it's a fine example of the lowly position train travel occupies in this country.

I myself love traveling by train. And the few times I've done so in other countries reminds me that it ought to be central to life in a civilized country. It's also, in my mind, the most enjoyable and most sustainable mode of transportation. Which is why seeing how time has passed train travel by makes me rather sad.

Some may consider me anachronistic: My other 2 favorite pastimes -- watching horse racing and reading newspapers -- are in even sorrier shape. But recently I've acquired some reason to be hopeful. Trains may be rising from the ashes they've been left in since the dawn of the automobile age some 60 years ago.

The Obama Administration plans to give states $8 billion in stimulus funds to build a high-speed rail network. Because high-speed rail has been deemed a national priority, Congress will follow with another $1 billion annually for 5 years to pay for rail projects.
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