Mondays with Mike: 50 years ago, the train from New York to Washington was faster

May 18, 2015 • Posted in Mike Knezovich, Mondays with Mike, Uncategorized by

A few years ago our German friend Gerald visited with us on his way to an extended hiking holiday in Alaska. He’s smart, perceptive and analytical, so it’s always fun, and sometimes painful, to get his take on us Americans and our America. (For the record, he’s a good sport and takes his share of digs from Beth and me about the myriad quirks of life in Germany.)

Gerald sat in the passenger side of our car as we toured. Whenn he noticed the warning on the side mirror that says “Objects in mirror may be closer than they appear,” he looked at me in wonder, his expression begging for an explanation. The same thing happened when we stopped in a convenience store. He bought a lighter for his upcoming camping trip, read the warning sticker out on the Bic out loud, and flashed me the same look. I came up as empty as before.

During this same visit that Gerald wondered aloud, “I don’t know why Americans are so proud of this place.” So many places he’d been were so shabby. “Your roads, airports, trains—they’re like a poor country’s.”

I had no argument then. Still don’t. Our public infrastructure has only worsened since that visit, and I blame it on bottled water.

Well, not bottled water per se, but in my lifetime it sure seems like we have devalued the idea of public space and common interest. It’s like Gordon Gecko from Wall Street has won.

So bottled water. Apart from the idiotic waste in transporting it, packaging it, getting rid of the packaging—and the fact that it’s often not any higher quality than tap water, there’s something more insidious about it. Making water a consumer purchase begins moving away from the idea that clean water is in the public commons that belongs to all of us, and that we all have an interest in keeping it clean and available.

When water is a purchased good on an individual level, it becomes something different altogether. Clean water becomes another thing that some people can afford to have and others can’t. And the ones who can afford it aren’t as likely to be interested in keeping lakes and streams and public supplies clean. We’re not there yet, but I can see it from here.

This every-person-for-him/herself dynamic is playing out everywhere—public schools, public transportation, public spaces like airports. And Amtrak.

We have the money in this country to have the best rail system in the world, the best airports, the best roads. And no hungry people. That tells me something isn’t working.

If we want these things to be better, they will be. We have the money, if we remember the “we” part.

I have a notion about what’s not working, and I’m working on it. In the meantime, as long as we’re talking about Amtrak and the broader ideology around it, read this New Yorker piece. Please do. (Thanks Lydia!) Here’s an excerpt:

We all should know that it is bad to have our trains crowded and wildly inefficient—as Michael Tomasky points out, fifty years ago, the train from New York to Washington was much faster than it is now—but we lack the political means or will to cure the problem.

Please read it. And vote. And don’t watch TV News. And remember, we’re in this together.

Hank On May 18, 2015 at 8:11 am


Heidi Thorsen On May 18, 2015 at 2:03 pm

Hi Mike, I so agree with your thoughts and opinions, ha, and I tend to be a conservative. In any case I just shake my head when I see the millions/billions spent on our defense budget. I am fully supportive of a strong military, and keeping our country safe and preserving our democracy, but the outrageous budgets on top military brass is almost criminal. Just for one example, we have a good family friend graduating from the Naval Academy this week. Now don’t get me wrong, she has worked very hard, is a wonderful person and has a very sincere and humble heart, but it costs our country more than a quarter million dollars to educate every academy grad. The perks they get on top of a free college education is mind boggling. Just as an example of their royal treatment, I am attaching the link to all the activities occurring during their week of graduation. This is an example of our tax dollars at work as a part of the defense budget. America needs to get their priorities straight and it should start in places that benefit the few and privileged. Perhaps then our infrastructure can begin to be updated. Sorry for the long reply, but your post triggered a nerve.

Mike On May 18, 2015 at 2:36 pm

Heidi, thanks for this very thoughtful comment and whew, who knew about that graduation stuff. I think all the ideological labeling and polarizing cable shows and the like keep people from ever realizing there’s a lot of consensus on what’s wasteful and what’s not.

Annelore On May 18, 2015 at 5:16 pm

Having plenty of German family visiting here, I often hear similar comments about our country. I am not sure about Geralds impressions about ‘warning’ labels…or how you tie it to our individualist life style. Or, maybe I do?
Europeans tend to enjoy more responsibility for their own safety (no lifeguards at every watering hole – people watch their own kids, etc).
Still, I love it here….

Benita On May 19, 2015 at 10:34 am

Brilliant, perceptive and concise, as usual. It’s obvious that to (reductive) me, the enemy is capitalism. Conundrum: you should hold public office, but you’re much too ethical to be a pol. We don’t deserve – but we need – the likes of you, Mike.

Mike On May 19, 2015 at 11:02 am

Benita, I’m extremely flattered. But I think I’m a better gadfly. It is vexing, though. The way things are, it seems impossible that any one but a socio- or psychopath would seek office. Three-quarter time fund raiser 1/4 time on the job.

Benita On May 19, 2015 at 3:23 pm

Or at the very least, a narcissist!
And oh those great gadflies! Lincoln Steffens. Upton Sinclair. Even Ralph Nader, before his narcissism overpowered his gadfly-hood.

Sheila A. Donovan On May 19, 2015 at 10:35 am

Mike, you are right. Our infrastructure is in horrible condition. Which bridge will collapse next? What viaduct will kill someone with falling chunks of cement? Which train will derail next? Just think of all the jobs repairing current and building new infrastructure would create. It’s a win, win! Sadly, those in control look the other way.

Milt On May 20, 2015 at 6:56 am

Your German friend makes some good points, but it’s worth noting that while our passenger rail system is terrible, our freight rail sytem has actually become very good (and Europe’s is pretty terrible).

So there’s that.

Mike On May 20, 2015 at 8:12 am

Thanks Milt, I didn’t know Europe’s freight system was not up to par. Do you think it’s an either/or thing to some extent? That is, I know that on many Amtrak routes (like Chicago-Champaign), trains are routinely late because they yield to freight lines. I wonder if that was intentional policy when Amtrak was set up.

Judy On May 20, 2015 at 10:12 am

….it’s not just the trains…public amenities in ‘well-off” communities tend to work better than those in less affluent neighborhoods, cities…states…Money equals power to demand better service!

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