Strictures of Steel

For the first time in my life, I commute by train. Some of you, knowing that I have spent more than a decade living in Japan, are going to call bullshit on this statement, but it’s true. I do admit to riding the occasional train, of course, but at no point did I use Japan’s famously efficient rail network as a part of my commute. And let’s not even talk about the bus – that shit’s a non-starter. No, believe it or not, most days, my ass was in the driver’s seat.

The switch away from driving my own car has required some adjustment. In the past, the moment I clocked out and slipped behind the wheel, the concerns of the work day fell away. There, in my familiar space and surrounded by my kind of music, and in an environment has hot or cool as I chose, I felt immediately at home and fully in control of my own destiny. And although the place I went always ended up being home, and as quickly as I could get there I might add, there was always the possibility of adventure, the possibility of mayhem and the possibility that I might, just once, go somewhere else. Now those possibilities are gone.

Without a vehicle, my many possibilities have been reigned-in by steel rails, iron-clad timetables and the shocking inability of my own two feet to carry my flabby body beyond a certain distance. I board the train at a set location and exit at another. There is no variation in the routine and the only possibility I am left with is the one where the damn train breaks down and leaves me stranded. I’m locked in, trapped, and I can’t get loose.

Trains, I think, work well for the Japanese because their culture plays down individuality and honors conformity. People go where they are supposed to go, do what they are supposed to do and play the role they are supposed to play. Schedules and routes feed into the desire to conform and while you and I might chafe at the boundaries they form, the average Japanese person feels entirely comfortable living their lives between them. Over there, the train is simply an accepted part of the natural order. So why, after living so much of my life so closely with the Japanese, don’t I feel the same? Might I be wired differently?

Our country had trains too, once. In fact, at the turn of the last century our society was largely dependent upon them. But the story goes that, in the 1920s and ’30s, the auto and oil companies conspired to tear up our public transportation networks and force people into private auto ownership. I have no doubt that this is true, I love a good conspiracy theory as much as the next person after all, but I think that the average American was a willing partner in the destruction of that way of life. Trains and freedom simply cannot coexist.

Now the conspiracy is headed the other way and we are being forced by taxes, tolls and fees out of our cars and back onto the trains. And while they are reliable, quiet and efficient I don’t like it. It’s a distasteful compromise that hurts my red-white-and-blue heart. Instead of surrendering liberty for safety, I have been forced to surrender life’s many possibilities for cost and convenience. And even if I never go anywhere but home, I mourn the loss of all those possibilities I will never use.

19 Replies to “Strictures of Steel”

  1. Tyson Cragg

    I have close relatives that live near the Weihle-Reston stop on the Silver Line. We visit there frequently and usually take the train into DC, despite driving being faster, and with a family of four, arguably not much more expensive. For us, it’s more the novelty of taking the Metro, since we live in a city where transit means buses only.

    Interesting commentary on the Japanese and their philosophy/culture on order and structure. I have never visited there, but it’s on my list of places to visit.

  2. sheady

    When I first moved to Chicago proper for university, I was excited about using the cta to get around and metra to go home to the burbs every once in a while. It did not take long for me to realize how limited you are if you try to rely on those systems. Now I live in car friendly areas so I don’t need to use the cta.

  3. bullnuke

    Odd that you’d come up with this post today, Thomas, as last week my wife and I experienced the joys of the WMATA metro system in DC. It gets a person fairly close to the desired point (though sometimes requires transfer from rail to bus and vice versa) with several “potential close friends” packed in tightly around you during the trip. “Potential close friends” that have a varying sense of personal hygiene needs and behavior, mind you. Even with the crazy beltway traffic I much preferred driving around DC for the freedom and privacy. The lack of parking puts folks there (and me during the downtown portion of my visit as well) into the loving arms of the metro system.

  4. stingray65

    Nationally, more people now work at home than commute via mass-transit. Ridership trends are down in every metro-area in the country except NYC, as the hub and spoke design of most transit systems fit fewer and fewer commuting patterns. Extortionist union wages and benefits for transit workers and transit construction mean that almost all systems run in the red, and/or are badly maintained and offer increasingly unreliable service. Self-driving cars will kill off mass-transit completely, as your car will drive you to work, then go out to earn income as an Uber car or drive itself home to park in your garage free-of-charge until your require a ride home at 5.

    • mopar4wd

      Self driving cars won’t kill transit if the populations in urban areas keep growing. There is some basic space issues. Transit is much more effective at moving lots of people then even computer controlled cars. NYC is an example of this transit grew despite UBER as there just was too many cars on the road. Seattle by the way also saw an increase in ridership.

  5. ScottS

    We are all being slowly but surely assimilated. I make every effort to avoid driving into DC and I appreciate that I can park for free near my home and get off the Metro at Reagan National. I can get a solid hour or more work done on the ride and not feel stressed out at the end. Driving on I-95 and many other urban interstates is becoming more and more regimented with traffic typically at a crawl, and those of greater economic means take the toll lanes. There is little space or freedom left in the urban commute, the cost of the drive and parking space are beyond the financial tolerance of the middle class. The weekend congestion isn’t much better as the restless masses flee their urban cells if only for a couple of days.

    Motorcycles offer relief to the brave and adventerous as they are allowed on the pay lanes without penalty and parking them is significantly cheaper.

  6. rambo furum

    Public transportation is great in that delays cannot be blamed on the general surrounding populace. A great misanthropy develops from sitting in automotive traffic unless one is of no agency whatsoever.

  7. safe as milk

    i’ve been commuting by train/subway my whole life. that’s probably the reason why i prefer it to car commuting. the new comply isolation headphone tips that i bought after reading jack’s review help reduce the noise. i find being a strap-hanger much less stressful than driving. plus, i can read or play solitaire on my phone. to each his/her own…

  8. -Nate

    Interesting thread .

    My Sister lives in Silver Springs and takes the train into D.C. daily for work, she says it’s miserable to drive there .

    I grew up riding Boston’s far flung trains, subways and buses, I still ride the bus occasionally, mostly when on vacation but sometimes just to sight see, like driving down back alleys, riding the bus affords a *very* different view point to America’s neighborhoods .

    Trains gave Americans the freedom to travel Way Out West once upon a time, times change .


    • Disinterested-Observer

      I’ve taken my kids on the light rail a couple of times just for the fun of it. You definitely get a little different perspective on the landscape. It’s neat and the area it runs through is nice enough that you don’t have to worry about the C.H.U.D.S. coming after you.

  9. George Denzinger

    When I lived in Atlanta, I used to use the MARTA train to commute to my job. It wasn’t too bad as long as you were riding during “regular” working hours. If you got outside of those hours, you got the weirdos, drunks, etc., I lived on the south side of town and worked in Buckhead (north of downtown), the train ride from the airport station to my work stop was usually pretty uneventful and a LOT faster than driving through the city. It was a 45 minute train ride every time, which was nice and cheap, too. I could read the morning paper, sleep, listen to music, etc. Since several of the stops were near shopping areas in the city, I could stop on the way home and pick things up (but not groceries), or catch a meal with co-workers. It was very nice, really.

    One time, my daughter got ill at school. I got a call from the school as they couldn’t keep her there with a temperature. There’s little worse than having to get somewhere quickly on the train, you are hampered by the schedule. It took about 1.25 hours (total time) to get to the school, where if I’d been able to drive, I would have been there in under an hour. Of course, that’s assuming that Atlanta traffic was light that day.

    But, I definitely understand your feeling of being locked in…

    • ltrftc

      Does sitting in a traffic jam that’s not moving generate the same feeling of being locked in?

      I train to work by choice and leave me car at home (the LS3 isn’t at its best sitting in bumper to bumper). My tip is find a good podcast or audiobook to listen on the train, it’s a good way to find your own space.

      • George Denzinger

        I grew up in a small town in Northeast Ohio, a traffic jam was four cars at a stoplight. When I moved to Cleveland, the first few times I waited in a left turn lane through four cycles, I thought I would lose my mind. I got used to it eventually, but being stuck in traffic miles from an exit or a way to get off the interstate, was absolutely terrible.

        I actually enjoyed my commute on the MARTA trains; once I got to the station at the stop before the airport, it was a short ride home. I arrived calm and ready for a nice evening. It’s been over 20 years since I had that commute and even my shorter commutes here in Western Michigan irritate the crap out of me.

  10. -Nate

    Los Angeles in the teens had a wonderful electric railway / subway system created specifically to provide people a way to get out into the suburbs and live, BUY a house and so on .

    If you look at the really old Red Car maps the trains went North East out of L.A. to _Rvierside_ and other farming communities and after dark ran freight cars to cheaply and rapidly transport ag and dairy products from those far flung farms when there was little passenger traffic .

    I knew folks who used to tell me about loading up the entire family on Saturday or Sunday and take the Red Car from downtown L.A. to Eagle Rock just to go grocery shopping in the 1920’s through WWII, they always had a nice time .

    Then of course, GM & General Tire teamed up to kill it in ?1961?, planning to sell a zillion automobiles more or less by force, ignoring the fact that those who wanted vehicles were already lined up to buy them……

    Anyway back to more recent times .

    L.A. began slowly building its light rail system back in the ?1980’s? (I forget it was a while ago) and one of the first lines opened was the L.A. to Long Beach line, not so affectionately called “The Ghetto Blue” by those who used it and lived along it because each line has a separate color (blue) and this line ran directly through the very worst part of L.A. so those poor folks who didn’t earn enough to buy a $500 beater car (this was back before you had to have insurance) could get to and from work .

    So, I of course _had_ to take my wife and then very young Son to ride it as soon as it opened, just to see how it’d all work out ~

    To say it was *interesting* would be a serious understatement .

    I’m hoping we’ll get some good stories about the bums, drunks, gang bangers, racists and general assholes who inhabit public transportation, maybe it, like the never addressed “Road Rage” thread should be a separate article .

    • Thomas Kreutzer Post author

      Back in my Merchant Marine days, the ships I rode sometimes got into Long Beach and I rode the blue line a couple of times. I was still just a hick from the sticks then and even though I was amazed by how clean and efficient those new trains were I still noticed a heavy police presence when we went through certain neighborhoods.

      As I recall, these trains ran as street cars at some point and, at others, along a separate high-speed rail bed. I like the high speed parts, but street cars have always struck me as being near useless. The have the same issue I have with buses in that they are subject to traffic. Very annoying.

      I want to say that I paid special attention to what I was thinking and feeling on my ride in today and I think I may be moving away from an outright dislike for the metro to simple ambivalence. The morning commute is usually wide open and there are seats for everyone. I pick up the free paper at the entrance tot he metro and it lasts me until I get one stop away from my destination. The ride home is usually more crowded and has been a lot sweatier at times.

      I still don’t get a sense of freedom once I clock out, but I am getting some much needed exercise on my walk to and from the station and am saving some money as well.All things considered, that’s probably good enough.

      • -Nate

        As with so many aspects of life, attitude is everything .

        One had to experience the grimy 1930’s Boston subways in the early 1960’s to know how bad public transportation can be .

        I know many here are derisive of my riding the ‘Hound and buses when I travel but I like to sightsee and traveling close to the ground always immerses one in the local culture .

        Life should be a daily adventure ~ that’s what keeps it interesting =8-) .


      • Mopar4wd

        Street cars have some advantages if they can split from the traffic at least part of the route. Same with buses. In CT we have a busway that’s isolated from surface streets and highways. It works pretty well. You can make all the jokes you want about it but it’s weird getting on transit in Europe compared to here. My experience is in Amsterdam, where it’s amazing how close you can get to most destinations with a combination of Metro and streetcar (with one ticket).


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