Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

Flying this Thanksgiving? Let's recall Ta-Nehisi's case for trains over planes

November 23, 2011 - 11:52 AM
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The joy of trains. (Photo: flickr/edenpictures)

Airports and airplanes inspire any number of reactions — and most seem to be negative. People curse the white sterility, the security lines, the hassle with confirmation codes and boarding passes, the waits, the delays. I understand the reasoning well enough. The airport might as well be a metaphor for hell in many people's minds.

I personally never minded air travel. What I liked was the sense of possibility. Airports always signified the excitement of a new destination in my mind, and navigating the gates and terminals never struck me as too confusing.

But today, as countless people take to the air for their Thanksgiving breaks, I feel it's worth revisiting one recent case against air travel. Atlantic blogger Ta-Nehisi Coates first expressed reservations about flying on our airlines in September due to all the perils of TSA. On November 1, he reiterated these concerns and a vow to avoid our planes if he could in a post called "The Time Machine." But what also caught my attention was the way he elevated the experience of riding on a train. I especially liked his thoughts on what the train can mean to an American traveler, to the romance and leisure and pause of travel. I don't inherently privilege the train above the plane but after reading Ta-Nehisi's ode, I am far more likely to look up train tickets for wherever I'm traveling on the East Coast next. Too often a train has come to mean WMATA for me; I forget that there's a whole country full of long-distance trains out there on the rails.

Coates doesn't hesitate in labeling the superiority of this transportation method:

The train, in all aspects, was a superior experience. The first thing was the feeling of everything melting away, of someone else taking control. When flying there are generally so many rules to be obeyed, and times when specific things can happen that I generally feel like, as a passenger, I'm actually a co-pilot. Lights tell you when you can and can't move. Announcements indicate (because I use a lap-top and iPad) when it's safe to read, write or listen to your music. Food and drink are administered at precise times. All of this within a confined space.

But there was a freedom on the train that you may need to be taller than six feet to really understand. You could walk as you needed to. You could sit in the cafe car and watch the scenery. You could fall into your book. Or you could just sleep, something I can't really do on airplanes.

I like this. What's fundamentally different about the train experience seems to be the pace, the meditation, and the space both physically and psychologically. I'm 6'1 so I can appreciate some of the additional space a train offers. There's a greater ease about the experience as well as thoughtfulness, a chance to saturate in landscape.

My past train travel is limited. I once took an Amtrak train from Chicago to St. Louis after returning on an international flight but nothing more, at least in the U.S. I appreciated the room and the space to be a person but I also recall significant delays. But I liked it well enough and I'd love to hop onto a train again to give it another chance.

Where Coates and I differ most is in our perception of airport abuse. I believe that the TSA has, at times, reached too far and there are extraordinary cases of airport security-line misery. But so far I've been lucky enough to avoid any of that inconvenience when traveling on planes. I've been on a healthy number of flights in the last couple years, and security lines rarely take more than five to 10 minutes of my time. They're annoying but I've got the system down and it's not terribly inconvenient. Coates refers to "that sick feeling I get whenever I see passengers arbitrarily herded into full-body scans, or stranded on runways for hours, or yanked from their seats and stripped searched." Such sights would understandably be upsetting, but I haven't personally seen quite such visceral drama in my own flying experience. Yes, America does need to watch the TSA and curb those abuses, of course, but all those strong verbs and adjectives don't amount to the typical flying experience I know (exceptions do, of course, exist — I have no doubt of the misery that many people feel in airports, some unjustifiably).

More than anything, though, I like the notion of what our different modes of travel can mean. Whether traveling by plane or train today, have safe Thanksgiving travels this year.

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