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Onboard the Orient Express

Tenth in a series from Europe…

OE 1[Paris] – I understand perfectly what Proust meant when he referred to ‘‘the most intoxicating of romance novels, the railway timetable.’’

And what more exotic destination than Istanbul or, better yet, Constantinople. From the 1880’s until the 1970’s you could head for the exotic city that straddles Europe and Asia onboard a train, perhaps the most famous train of all, the Orient Express.

From its earliest days until after World War II the Orient Express was a gleaming luxury train, all cut glass and mahogany. For a few weeks this summer the Orient Express, at least four cars and one of the original locomotives, is back on rails in Paris. Because I love trains and figuring this might be my one chance to actually be onboard the train that sparked a thousand stories I trotted down to the World Arab Institute in Paris one recent rainy day to have a look. It was stunning.

In an age when travel has been reduced to walking around in your socks in an airport security line and jockeying for half the arm rest in a packed Boeing 737, the beautifully restored lounge, sleeper and restaurant cars of the Orient Express offer a envious reminder of what luxury travel once looked like.

A hundred or so curious history and train buffs stood with me in a pouring rain to get a glimpse inside. The exhibit and a fascinating OE 2companion display of Orient Express artifacts and curiosities, including some spectacular travel posters of the era, has proven to be one of the hit shows of the summer in Paris. The gorgeous blue and cream colored rail cars and the shiny black locomotive are displayed in the vast courtyard of the Arab Institute just steps from the Seine in downtown Paris. The exhibit is the brainchild of former French Culture Minister Jack Lang, who now heads the Institut du Monde Arabe, and the French national railway system that owns the name of the fabled train.

As CNN reported in one “compartment identical to the one in scenes from the 1963 Bond film From Russia with Love, the movie is projected onto a screen. With wall panels in precious wood and door handles in gilded brass, each compartment had a matching washbasin and a built-in toiletries cabinet.” To visit the train in Paris is to imagine that it has stopped on a 1930’s journey from London to Istanbul and all the passengers have stepped off to stretch their legs leaving behind newspapers, passports, cigarettes, books and, of course, drinks.

Writing in the most recent issue of Harper’s, Kevin Baker reminds us that once-upon-a-time the 20th Century Limited, a great U.S. passenger train, “rivaled Europe’s Orient Express in extravagance. At five o’clock every evening, porters used to roll a red carpet to the train across the platform of Grand Central Terminal’s Track 34. The women passengers were given bouquets of flowers and bottles of perfume; the men, carnations for their buttonholes. The train had its own barbershop, post office, manicurists and masseuses, secretaries, typists, and stenographers. In 1938, its beautiful blue-gray-and-aluminum-edged cars and its “streamline” locomotives — finned, bullet-nosed, Art Deco masterpieces of fluted steel — took just sixteen hours to reach Chicago, faster than any train running today.

“The 20th Century Limited became a cultural icon,” Baker wrote. “It was a luxury train, but middle-class people rode it, too. In the heyday of American train travel after World War II, they also rode the Broadway Limited, the Super Chief from Chicago to Los Angeles, and the California Zephyr, which were nearly as celebrated and beloved.”

OE 3By 1970 all those great trains and all that travel pleasure had vanished and now, even as high-speed intercity train travel is expanding in most of the world, the United States can’t – or won’t – summon the political will to build a world-class rail passenger system. Heck, I’d settle for restoring Amtrak service between Salt Lake City and Portland.

As I stood in the bar car of the Orient Express recently it was impossible not to think of Agatha Christie’s most popular novel – Murder on the Orient Express – or smile at the memory of James Bond romancing Tatiana Romanova in an Orient Express sleeper car in the film From Russia With Love. It was also impossible not to think of a very dry martini and whether that handsome woman over there wasn’t a Countess.

When the original Orient Express eventually extended its run from Istanbul to Baghdad and ultimately all the way to Egypt, you could make the entire trip in early 20th Century luxury. The restaurant car, the Train Bleu, offered extraordinary food and the railroad featured its own French wine label. The visionary Belgian businessman George Nagelmackers – yes, that was his name – who “invented” the Orient Express came to the United States in the 1870’s to study train travel here. Although rebuffed when he suggested to American railroad sleeping car inventor George Pullman that they jointly develop luxury trains in Europe, Nagelmackers came home and built his own wagon-lits – sleeping cars – and adopted one of Pullman’s innovations, the sleeping car attendant, as one of the features on his trains. The rest, they say, is history and romance and, sadly, only memory now in an exhibit.

I have to be careful how I say it since I haven’t exactly traveled on the Orient Express, but I can say I have been onboard the Orient Express and, like the real journey a hundred years ago, the memories are very pleasant. On second thought, make mine a double.

La Dolce Vita by Rail…

NTVSecond in a series from Europe…

[Near Radda in Chianti] – Probably the best way to really enjoy and appreciate the Tuscan countryside is on foot, trekking from one charming hill town to the next. Or you might ride a bicycle, but considering the very narrow, twisting roads here that could be hair raising. Most folks opt for a car or, for the very brave, a motorcycle. Any mode of transportation could work in the Italian countryside, but you first must get here and there is a good chance – unlike the United States – that you will arrive by rail.

Italy is many things: an agricultural and wine mecca and a center of history, culture, fashion and design. Italy is also a country hampered by a truly inefficient political system that produces a new prime minister about as often as Chianti produces a stellar vintage. Next to the Italian political process our own dysfunctional Congress looks like a well-oil machine. Most Americans would say we could teach the Italians something about the importance of hard work. The Italians might say Americans could learn something from them about la dolce vita – the sweet life.

Italians can also teach us something about trains.

In 2012 a new, private high speed rail operator began service to many of Italy’s largest cities. The sleek Chianti red trains operate on an open access system that provides the private rail company – NTV or Italo – with access to state-owned high speed corridors. I rode the very comfortable train this weekend from Rome’s sleek and stylish new Tiburtina train station to downtown Florence. Once we cleared the Rome suburbs we flew along at 250 km per hour (about a 155 miles per hour) on a trip that lasted hardly long enough – an hour and 20 minutes. You could drive from Rome to Florence if you were crazy enough and maybe – depending on traffic – make it in three or so hours. Flying seems unthinkable. Considering the speed, comfort, convenience and cost the train is really the only way to go.

While the rest of the world plunges ahead to make new investment in a new generation of high speed rail, back in the USA we can’t find a way to link even the most obvious destinations – San Francisco and Los Angeles, Seattle and Portland, Chicago and St. Louis, Atlanta and Charlotte. The mere mention of investment in high speed rail is likely to set off a Tea Party-like rant against wasteful government spending. Governors in Wisconsin and Florida put the hex on projects in those states and California – if ever there were a state that needed high speed rail it is California – continues to battle over costs and routes and the Los Angeles Times reports this week that more lawsuits around the initial $9 billion project are all but certain.

Meanwhile, China – no kidding – has floated the idea of constructing a high speed line from China to the United States that would include a tunnel beneath the Bering Strait. At first blush that seems like an outrageous idea, but the Chinese have invested billions and billions in their own fast train system and they have begun to corner the market, like many other markets, on high speed design, engineering and finance. New analysis in Australia, a country without high speed rail, says a system there would not only be heavily utilized, but would be good for the environment.

Britain, Japan, Spain and France are all moving steadily ahead to improve their rail systems – high speed and more conventional rail – while the United States, virtually alone in the world in this regard, continues to spend its often inadequate infrastructure dollars on more pavement. Opponents of rail often cite the “vast public subsidies” needed to build and maintain a modern rail system as their chief argument against making passenger rail transportation a national priority. It’s a silly argument since governments at every level spend lavishly on roads, bridges, freeways and airports. The U.S. air transportation system simply wouldn’t exist without the truly vast public investment made, usually with little controversy, in airports in any city of any size in the country.

I was in Winslow, Arizona a while back, a place that once was a stop on the route of the Super Chief, the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad’s deluxe train that, as recently as the 1960’s, ran from Chicago to Los Angeles. The railroad boasted that the Chief was a “deluxe hotel on wheels.” Now days one Amtrak train a day stops ever so briefly in Winslow. On a starry night I sat outside the grand old La Posada railroad hotel in Winslow watching the BNSF freight trains roll past and on into the night. An Australian visitor took a seat nearby and we shortly struck up a conversation about trains. With true wonder he finally posed the question that must seem incomprehensible to a visitor to the United States. “Why,” he asked, “did you Americans do away with virtually all of your passenger trains?”

Slightly embarrassed I could only shake my head. Why indeed.



Air Worst

vintage airlinePerhaps you are as confused as I am about the recent mixed messages from the federal government about cell phone use on airplanes. (I know, you’re shocked that our government is sending mixed messages.)

Let’s just say this: I know what the policy should be – no cell phone calls on airplanes. None. Zilch.

With so very much glamor involved these days in hauling your body on to a Canadair regional jet – the planes with tiny overhead bins and a restroom right sized for the Munchkins from Oz – or spreading out in the sleek Airbus 310 with its expansive five inches of leg room (or less when the jerk in the row ahead of you insists on putting his seat all the way back) why risk diminishing the sophistication of modern air travel with something as crass as a public phone call originating from 11B?

If you have any doubt about how cell phones in the air might work just check out the boarding area for your next flight. The worst airport boarding area I know – west of Mogadishu – is the “E” concourse at Salt Lake City’s airport. My frequent air travel companion has dubbed the area “the Gulag,” as in the place were Stalin sent political prisoners to live out their days in mind-numbing discomfort, devoid of even a remnant of human dignity. If you hit the schedule just right in Salt Lake you might find a seat in this air travel prison camp, but if you do chances are that you’ll be next to the kind of chatty fellow I found myself involuntarily listening in on recently.

I now know that this total stranger, thanks to his very public cell phone call, was “headin’ for Billings.” I wasn’t really trying to listen in, but I couldn’t avoid hearing the weather report from every vantage point of his journey, I noted his reaction to the forecast for southern Montana – “damn cold, damn cold” – and listened with rapt interest as he speculated on college football bowl games and the fate of Obamacare. Then he called his wife. I’m delighted to report that the problem with their credit card has been cleared up. Someone in the family, also happy to report, with a serious medical condition has taken a turn for the better.

I’m not sure why the guy had to actually go to Billings, he seemed to have all the bases covered with a few cell phone calls from the E gate waiting area.

I’m old enough to remember when air travel actually did have the patina of glamor, when people wore their best clothes to make a flight and real food, as in the illustration, was available as part of the trip. My first flight was on Frontier Airlines – the old Frontier, not the current Frontier – in a Convair 580, a twin-engine 48-passenger prop plane that, as I recall, had big comfortable seats. It’s been downhill ever since. Actually, I date the real demise of decent air travel to an abysmal airline once owned by the weird billionaire Howard Hughes.

Hughes Airwest was really Hughes Air Worst. The airline went out of business in 1980 and somewhere they are still looking for checked bags. One running joke had it that Air Worst offered a tri-weekly flight to Lewiston, Idaho. The punchline: the plane goes up one week and tries to come back the next.

Others, including former American Airlines CEO Robert Crandall, date the decline in air travel quality and comfort to the deregulation of the industry in the late-1970’s. In 2008, admittedly a particularly bad time for airlines, Crandall said: “The consequences (of deregulation) have been very adverse. Our airlines, once world leaders, are now laggards in every category, including fleet age, service quality and international reputation. Fewer and fewer flights are on time. Airport congestion has become a staple of late-night comedy shows. An even higher percentage of bags are lost or misplaced. Last-minute seats are harder and harder to find. Passenger complaints have skyrocketed. Airline service, by any standard, has become unacceptable.”

Of course since Crandall made those comments his old airline has merged with US Airways to create “the world’s largest airline.” I hope never to fly with them.

The U.S. airline business is a trillion dollar industry that is vital to the country’s and the world’s economy. Air travel is safe, can be – if you’re careful booking your ticket – a relative bargain, and for much business and leisure travel it is really the only game in town. It is also uncomfortable, often unpleasant and almost always a hassle. It’s hard to think of a consumer-oriented business anywhere where the creature comfort of the consumer is given so little attention. For that reason alone – keep the cell phones off, but also think for a moment about a different kind of travel experience.

In virtually every other developed nation in the world there are serious competitors to airlines. They are called trains. The United States is so far behind the rest of the world in the development and implementation of a national passenger train system that we might as well be Argentina, a country like the U.S. that once had a working national rail system, largely funded by British investment, that has now mostly been dismantled.

In his lively and engaging recent book One Summer – America, 1927 author Bill Bryson recounts the kind of rail system the nation once had and should strive to have again. “The most extraordinary feature of rail travel was how much choice there was…a customer in 1927 could buy a ticket on twenty thousand scheduled services from any of 1,085 operating companies.”

Actually sleeping on a train in 1927 wasn’t all that glamorous, Bryson acknowledges. It was often noisy with plenty of bumps, but then again try sleeping on an airplane these days. “To keep customers distracted, and to generate extra income in a crowded market, nearly all trains put a great deal of emphasis on their food,” Bryson says. “On Union Pacific trains, for breakfast alone the discerning guest could choose among nearly forty dishes – sirloin or porterhouse steak, veal cutlet, mutton chop, wheat cakes, boiled salt mackerel, half a spring chicken, creamed potatoes, cornbread, bacon, ham, link or patty sausage, and eggs any style – and the rest of the meals of the day were just as commodious.” You’re lucky to get a tiny packet of pretzels on a flight today. Most airlines now insist on cash only and if you are lucky enough to be on a flight where you can buy a snack good luck navigating enough room to eat it on the tiny tray table. Remember that guy in the row ahead. His seat will be all the way back.

There are a multitude of reasons that contributed to the demise of a national passenger rail network, including the fact that, like airlines these days, railroads in the 1930’s and 1940’s were in awful financial shape. But the nation’s fixation with cars and planes, and the massive subsidies we lavish on both, also helped drive the passenger train off the tracks. The next time you hear a politician say we can’t afford to subsidize rail transport ask him what we’re doing with cars and airplanes? Who builds the runways and freeways? We have subsidized the modes of transportation we value and generally left passenger rail off the list. Nearly everywhere else in the world from Beijing to Berlin it’s a different story.

If you could go from Seattle to Portland or San Francisco to L.A. or Chicago to St. Louis as fast and comfortably as a French businessman goes from the heart of Paris to downtown London you’d never think of flying. And most trains, I should note, have quiet cars where the cell phones are always turned off.

I admit to getting a bit nostalgic at Christmas time, so it may be fair to write off my longing for time when travel was more comfortable, more elegant and more interesting to a certain yearning for the days when men wore hats and suits on intercity trains. Today you’ll more commonly find stocking caps and flip flops. Rather than the Pan-Am Clipper they seem dressed for a trip to the landfill, and not to worry – given the ubiquitous cell phone – you, dear traveler, will almost certainly hear about their trip.

And, of course, I’ll keep flying – what choice do I have – but, please I have no need for a weather update from Billings either in the boarding area or on board. I have a personal device for that. Which I will use. Quietly. Off in the corner.


Seamus Heaney, 1939 – 2013

A-Seamus-Heaney-9Traveling in Ireland for the first time a few years ago I was struck by the fact that everyone – everywhere – seemed to have a book under their arm or clutched in hand. Everyone it seemed was lost in words, heads in books. Crossing the Shannon on a car ferry the truck driver next to our rental car had a big volume propped up on the steering wheel. He had obviously taken in the lovely scenery before. Now his lovely book had his full attention, if only for a few minutes.

One wonders why Ireland, a country with 4.5 million people, has produced so many of history’s greatest men – yes, mostly men – of letters. Shaw and Joyce, Behan, Beckett and Oscar Wilde. Now another of the greatest – the poet and Nobel Laureate Shamus Heaney – the greatest Irish poet since the great William Butler Yeats is gone.

I’ll leave the pondering of the Irish literary tradition for another day and instead praise Shamus Heaney who was both deep and accessible. You don’t often find the words “best selling” in the same sentence with “poet.” Heaney was the best selling poet in the English language, but also an acclaimed translator and essayist.

Heaney famously advised in his Nobel acceptance speech to “Walk on air against your better judgement.” In one collection in 1984 he offered good advice to writers and readers. “The main thing is to write for the joy of it. Cultivate a work-lust that imagines its haven like your hands at night, dreaming the sun in the sunspot of a breast. You are fasted now, light-headed, dangerous. Take off from here. And don’t be so earnest.”

I wish that when I struggled to read and comprehend Beowulf in school that Heaney’s translation, by most accounts the best ever in English, had been available. The man was more than his poetry, as if that weren’t enough.

As the Irish Times reported today, “Taoiseach Enda Kenny has said the death of Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney has brought a ‘great sorrow to Ireland’ and only the poet himself could describe the depth of his loss to the nation.” The BBC, giving proper notice to an Irishman, noted in its coverage that Heaney’s international literary impact, like that of Yeats, only grew as his body of work expanded.

“Born in Northern Ireland, he was a Catholic and nationalist who chose to live in the South,” the BBC said. “‘Be advised, my passport’s green / No glass of ours was ever raised / To toast the Queen,’ [Heaney] once wrote.”

“He came under pressure to take sides during the 25 years of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, and faced criticism for his perceived ambivalence to republican violence, but he never allowed himself to be co-opted as a spokesman for violent extremism.

“His writing addressed the conflict, however, often seeking to put it in a wider historical context. The poet also penned elegies to friends and acquaintances who died in the violence.

“Describing his reticence to become a ‘spokesman’ for the Troubles, Heaney once said he had ‘an early warning system telling me to get back inside my own head.'”

Here’s how Heaney ended his Nobel acceptance speech in 1995, an ode to the power of words – and poetry – to explain and shape the human condition.

“The form of the poem, in other words, is crucial to poetry’s power to do the thing which always is and always will be to poetry’s credit: the power to persuade that vulnerable part of our consciousness of its rightness in spite of the evidence of wrongness all around it, the power to remind us that we are hunters and gatherers of values, that our very solitudes and distresses are creditable, in so far as they, too, are an earnest of our veritable human being.”

The late Idaho Supreme Court justice and poet Byron Johnson once said that the country could use more poets and fewer politicians. The passing of Seamus Heaney reminds us of just how accurate that statement remains.



Preserving Irish History

Walking the charming and crowded streets of Dublin today you must summon up all of your imagination to visualize that the streets and buildings around the General Post Office in the heart of the city were, less than 100 years ago, the scene of bloody street fighting between Irishmen and Englishmen.

Most Americans, myself included, have only the haziest knowledge of The Rising, the surprise Easter Monday attack launched by Irish republicans in 1916 against British rule in Ireland. The uprising ultimately failed, most of the leaders who had enlisted aide from Germany – England was at war with Germany in 1916 – were killed or executed, but the events of April 1916 set the stage for much that followed, including the Anglo-Irish War of 1919-1921 and the sectarian “troubles” that have bedeviled the Irish Republic and British Northern Ireland ever since.

The two great Irish leaders of the 20th Century, Eamon DeValera and Michael Collins, came of age during the Easter Rising and their fascinating and occasionally chilling legacy still helps define Irish politics in the 21st Century.

Now, thanks to the Irish penchant for preserving history, the extensive, and until recently secret, archive of The Rising is open and available online through the magic of digital records.

The Irish Bureau of Military History, founded in 1947 to record the memories of virtually all the survivors of the events prior to 1921 (when the Irish Civil War began), has made the fascinating record available. The collection is just one recent example of the importance of preserving this type of material and making it available in the interest of understanding from whence we came.

As the Irish Times reported, “The scale of the project was vast. A team of military archivists has transferred the huge collection of 1,773 witness statements containing 36,000 pages of name- and word-searchable documents; rare photographs; and voice recordings onto the website.”

Ironically, given the tortured history of British rule in Ireland, one of the great online resources about The Easter Rising is housed on the BBC’s website. But, now due to a forward looking work of Irish Defence Minister Oscar Traynor – the longest-serving Irish Defence Minister – who established the collection, the Irish have access to the rich, first-hand history of one of the pivotal events in modern Irish history. The Irish archive is a model for how modern technology can make the records of history, and indeed history itself, as close as a computer screen.

The great Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw wrote “the heart of an Irishman is nothing but his imagination.” True perhaps, but the documents help, as well.



I Thought the Guy Was a Kenyan

The problem with some people is that when they aren’t drunk, they’re sober.”

– William Butler Yeats

When Barack Obama stood before a crowd estimated at 50,000 last night in Dublin, he introduced himself to the adoring Irish crowd as: “Barack Obama, of the Moneygall O’Bamas. I am here to find the apostrophe that we lost along the way. Tá áthas orm bheith in Éirinn.”

Obama has proven again, as John McCain’s campaign attempted, unsuccessfully, to use against him in 2008, that he is the “biggest celebrity in the world.” True enough, but the Irish have long proven they love the American president, whomever he happens to be.

Just behind the main entrance to the building that houses the Irish Dial, is a lovely room festooned with photos of the American presidents who have visited Ireland. John Kennedy, of course, and Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton and now the distant son of Moneygall.

I love Ireland – the people, the landscape, the literature, the history, well some of the history, anyway. But most of all, as I have enjoyed the coverage of Obama and Michelle sipping a Guinness in a pub in Moneygall, I like the notion that everyone has some of the Irish in them.

It can’t hurt the president’s standing with Irish-American and Catholic voters that he was welcomed like a rock star – the Kenyan Bono? – in the old sod. While the stout sipping photo op got most of the play, the best photo I saw was of Obama hoisting high a darling, red haired Irish lass of maybe three or four. She displayed classic smiling Irish eyes as the black/white/Irish/Indonesian/Kenyan/Christian/Muslim president beamed back at her.

These pictures, the lost apostrophe in Obama and the obvious respect and affection an American president commands in a country hard pressed to recover from its disastrous real estate implosion and still hardened by religious troubles, must be hard to swallow for the birther crowd. Some folks – Jerome Corsi for instance – have made an industry of advancing the line that Obama just “isn’t one of us.”

Trouble is, for most of the world, Obama is one of them. Just ask the crowd in Dublin or that adorable Irish redhead. Here’s a bet: you’ll see those pictures again; during the campaign, in a commercial.

The Irish Times summed up the president’s visit, coming as it did on the heels of the visit of the Queen of England, with this: “Obama’s eloquence, self-deprecating humour, and patent empathy turned what otherwise might have been seen as pro forma diplomatic expressions of goodwill and shameless stroking of the national ego, into something heartwarming and inspiring.”

Any self-respecting, world-wide celebrity should hope for such reviews.


Railing Against Rail

trainThe Politics of Trains

I’m going to admit my obvious bias right up front: I love trains. I love travel by train. I collect visits to train stations. I am enamoured with the rails.

I’ve ridden the overnight Red Star from St. Petersburg (Leningrad in those days) to Moscow. I’ve taken the train from London’s Victorian-era Kings Cross Station to Edinburgh. I vividly remember a warm day in Italy and the leisurely train ride from Milan to Florence and on to Lucca. I once flew to Los Angels purely for the pleasure of riding what may be Amtrak’s best train, the Coast Starlight, from LA to Seattle. I shared a cigar break on the platform in Eugene with the sleeping car attendant. In New York, I go to Grand Central Station just to watch the people and have a drink at the famous Oyster Bar.

One of my earliest memories – I must have been about four years old – is of an overnight train trip with my brother and mom and dad. We had a double sleeper compartment and, while I would have liked the upper berth, my older brother got it. Still, when dad took my Buster Browns and sat them in the passage outside the compartment and informed me that the sleeping car porter would shine them and return before breakfast, I thought this is what the good life must look like.

As a junior high schooler growing up in the old railroad town of Rock Springs, Wyoming, I loved to go downtown – the Union Pacific mainline actually divides the heart of Rock Springs – and watch trains, particularly passenger trains, whistle through. In the late 1960’s American long distance train travel was in its last gasp, but the wonderful City of Portland still ran through Rock Springs and the romantic sounding Portland Rose made the daily run from Denver to the Rose City.

Now intercity passenger trains in the United States are about as scarce as the American manufacturing sector. The once great network of trains that existed to carry the mail and people has essentially shrunk to a few routes between major cities. Amtrak limps along with regular threats to its budget and often second-class service. The rest of the world is leaving us in the dust.

Spain has now become the world’s leader in high speed rail. King Juan Carlos opened the new Madrid – Valencia line over the weekend. The 219-mile trip will take 90 minutes.

China – big surprise – is investing billions in its intercity trains and has entered into agreements with GE to manufacture equipment. The Chinese have a plan in place to link, by high speed rail, China with Laos, Thailand and Singapore. In the USA, we can merely watch as the strategic Chinese leadership comes to dominate the world market for rail equipment and then uses that dominance to economically rule all of southeast Asia, in part, thanks to a modern, high speed rail system.

The universally hated Obama stimulus package contained $8 billion for high speed rail construction, but newly elected Republican governors in Wisconsin and Ohio have refused the money that had been set aside for new routes in those states. Even as congressional Republicans, as well as some Democrats, are talking about reducing the commitment to rail, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has re-directed the Wisconsin and Ohio money to developing rail systems in Florida, California and a few other states. Conservative media voices are almost unanimous in opposition to this type of rail development and the safe betting is that even maintaining existing rail funding in the new Congress will set off a major fight.

The administration has sold high speed rail development a a jobs initiative than as a long-term transportation investment. And, while it is difficult to argue with the jobs that rail construction will create – Wisconsin is already facing job losses from the Spanish company that had set up shop in Milwaukee to build equipment – the real issue here is a long-term transportation strategy for the country.

Here’s a question for American policymakers: why is the rest of the world investing in this technology, even at a time of severe fiscal constraint, while we can’t arrive at any consensus about rail?

I think the answer rests in a different way of thinking in Europe and Asia about transportation. For economic and environmental reasons, countries like Spain, France, China and India are de-emphasizing the automobile and seeking other strategies. While the rest of the world is getting on with the work of finding new ways to get along entirely, or almost entirely, without a car, the U.S. can’t even come together on a strategy to streamline big city to big city transportation.

This may present a pivotal moment, ironically not unlike the moment in the 1950’s when Dwight Eisenhower committed the United States to a comprehensive interstate highway system. That decision, unfolding over years of planning and construction, transformed the country, uniting the nation with a modern surface transportation system. For good and bad – mostly good – we are living with that big highway legacy today. Secretary LaHood, a Republican and respected former Illinois Congressman, makes a compelling case that a new, national high speed rail network is this generation’s legacy transportation and infrastructure project. But, given our lack of ability to create a national vision about almost anything, can we possibly seize the moment?

Gov-elect Scott Walker in Wisconsin based some of his opposition to high speed rail on the on-going costs to the state of maintaining the system that was to connect Milwaukee with Madison and eventually Minneapolis. That is a legitimate long-term planning issue, but no different than the cost every state now incurs to maintain Ike’s interstates. The point is that 60 some years ago, the country made a strategic, long-term investment in transportation and, of course, the interstate highway system was incredibly costly. The federal share alone, not to mention on-going maintenance was close to $120 billion, but that cost pales in comparison to the jobs created, the people moved and the commerce facilitated. What will we do for transportation in 2050? China and Spain may be sending us a clue if we are smart enough to listen.

One of the great train stations in the world is the Gare de Lyon in Paris, the terminus of the French high speed trains that connect the heart of Paris with France’s second largest city, Lyon, and the great port city of Marseille. A high speed rail trip on the sleek and comfortable TGV from Lyon to Paris takes about 2 hours, intercity to intercity the 250 miles is covered in comfort and safety. Trust me, arriving at the Gare de Lyon, home to the fabulous Le Train Bleu restaurant, and grabbing a cab at the station beats the heck out of battling the crowds and traffic at Charles de Gaulle airport in the outskirts of Paris. When I made the trip a few years ago, the Paris bound passengers were a mixture of day trippers, business people and tourists. There were as many laptops and cell phones as backpacks and cameras. It was a first-class trip at a fraction of the time and cost to fly or drive.

I’m nostalgic about that first rail trip from Alliance, Nebraska to Omaha more than 50 years ago, but fond memories aside, I can’t escape the thought that Americans would come to value quality intercity train service if our policymakers could get their heads around the idea that we really can go back to the future.

The Troubles

Bloody SundaySunday, Bloody Sunday

It has been said that the 20th Century was the most violent century since man started walking upright. From the Boer War to the Balkans, two world wars, revolution in Russia, “insurgency” from Algeria to Malaysia, from Vietnam to Angola. A bloody century and all of it more or less completely tragic.

That context, perhaps, is what made last week’s official apology of the new British Prime Minister, David Cameron, so unusual and, one can hope, so important. Cameron, still in the honeymoon of his recent election, took to the floor of the Commons to react to the years-in-the-making official inquiry into the bloody Sunday of January 30, 1972 in Londonderry (or Derry), Northern Ireland.

Some British troops, ironically from the heroic and decorated Parachute Regiment, completely lost their heads on that Sunday and fired into a civil rights protest crowd. Eventually fourteen died and Ireland north and south started to bleed. Before “the troubles” sputtered out many years later – thanks in no small part to American help from George Mitchell and Bill Clinton – thousands more had died and violence by the gun and bomb had, in some ways, become a substitute for politics in Ireland.

Cameron’s comments all these years later about Bloody Sunday have reverberated across Ireland and Britain; indeed around the world. Here is part of what the young prime minister, not much more than a toddler when it happened, had to say:

“Mr. Speaker, I am deeply patriotic. I never want to believe anything bad about our country. I never want to call into question the behavior of our soldiers and our army who I believe to be the finest in the world.

“But the conclusions of this report are absolutely clear. There is no doubt. There is nothing equivocal. There are no ambiguities. What happened on Bloody Sunday was both unjustified and unjustifiable. It was wrong.”

The press and political reaction to Cameron’s words – and as much his tone – has been rather remarkable.

John Burns, writing from London for the Times, compared the words of reconciliation to what happened in South Africa upon the election of Nelson Mandela. Bono, whose U2 song Bloody Sunday helped bring the outrage – an a call for peace – to world attention, said with his speech Cameron had gone from “prime minister to statesman.” He called the speech “one of the most extraordinary days in the mottled history of the island of Ireland..”

One of the best things I’ve read about Cameron’s words and what they mean came from the pen of the fine Irish writer Colum McCann. His book Let the Great World Spin won the National Book Award for fiction last year. Writing at the Daily Beast, McCann noted that Cameron’s apology came one day before Bloomsday, the one day in the Dublin life of James Joyce’s character Leopold Bloom celebrated in Ulysses.

McCann, with an Irishman’s ear for the telling phrase, wrote: “Let’s take the apology. Let’s celebrate it. A wound was acknowledged. A further grief was stared into oblivion. It is, in its way, its own piece of literature. It was almost as if Anna Akhmatova had stepped in alongside the questioning (Leopold) Bloom to say—as she does in one of her poems—“You’re many years late, how glad I am to see you.”

How much good can be done to say “we were wrong?” How much healing can come from “I’m sorry…I apologize?”

In the long, bloody history of the last century, we have much – in our nation and in every nation – to regret and to acknowledge as wrong. Doing it requires so little, but it can mean so much. Maybe it is the start to understanding…and peace.

Hard Times in Ireland

st. patrickRotten Economy, Sex Scandals…At Least There’s Yeats and Whiskey

St. Patrick’s Day has always been a bigger production in places like Boston, Chicago and Butte than in Dublin, Cork and Dingle. Good thing. There isn’t a lot to celebrate this St. Patty’s Day on the ol’ sod. The Celtic Tiger has become the sick kitten of the EU. Unemployment has soared, bankruptcy has flourished and real estate has tanked. No potato blight yet, thank goodness.

Additionally, the Irish Catholic Church is reeling from yet another clergy sex abuse scandal. The Irish Times called this week for the resignation of the Cardinal who, it is said, should have reported the 20-plus year old incidents to the authorities, well, 20 years ago. Predictably, Cardinal Sean Brady said he would not resign unless asked to do so by the Pope. Meanwhile, the Pope is expected any day to speak out on the Irish scandal, while he fends off questions about the growing sex abuse scandal that occurred during his time in Germany. Did you follow that?

Meanwhile, in the midst of a crisis over the Euro and the continuing fallout over the collapse of the Irish real estate bubble, an Irish writer, Ann Marie Hourihane, makes the case that ol’ St. Pat himself has fallen on hard times.

The old boy, she writes, “invested heavily in property during the boom, buying houses and apartments not only in Ireland but also in Wales, Brittany and even Scotland…(and) recently St. Patrick has had trouble sleeping. The crozier is in hock. It is an ignominious position for a saint who has worked so hard for, and been worked so hard by, his country.

“It’s not that St Patrick objects to us being poor – again. He loved us most during the centuries in which we were destitute, badly fed and flirting with cannibalism. As far as any patron saint who takes the long view is concerned, things have just about returned to normal.”

There you have it.

Even Guinness – remember, “It’s Good For You” – is facing new competition in, of all places, Britain where a cross between lager and bitter – black lager – grows in popularity. Talk about a scandal.

Nonetheless, amid the gloom, I’ll celebrate all things Irish today with a dram of Jameson (or Powers or Red Breast) and think particularly of the great Irish writers – Yeats, Wilde, Joyce, Beckett, Heaney, Shaw and one recent worthy, John Banfield. Thank God for the Irish writers.

I’ll also remember, apropos to the times perhaps, this great line from the great Yeats: “Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him through temporary periods of joy.”

Well said and so very Irish. On March 17th, we can all, at the very least, wish to be Irish. Happy St. Patrick’s Day.