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Published:September 10th, 2009 13:00 EST
High-Speed Trains and Low-Speed Stations

High-Speed Trains and Low-Speed Stations

By Geoff Dean

I love trains. I`ll put the confession up front. I love bullet trains and local trains and commuter trains. I love Japanese trains, European trains, and even, in their own way, Indian trains. I have lived in Japan for twenty years without a car and have never once felt disadvantaged. Bullet trains rush me across the country. Local trains pinpoint a location. Buses fan out from the local stations, taking me doorstep to doorstep. Smooth, comfortable, relatively inexpensive, and green. What could be better that traveling by train?

 My love for trains in general and those in Japan specifically caused me to make one monumental lapse in judgment. I decided to travel from New Orleans to Atlanta by Amtrak.

 The station in New Orleans was clean and relatively easy to access. The train was comfortable enough and on time, no less. I was lulled into a false sense of security.

 The first indication that I wasn`t in Kobe any more came as we traversed Mississippi. Somewhere in the middle of approximately nowhere the train stopped. There was no station and no explanation. Next, the lights all went out in the train. It was dusk and soon the train was covered in darkness. Two hours passed in motionless darkness and then suddenly the lights came on and the train took off again. No one ever came around to tell what had happened or apologize for the inconvenience.

 If this had been Japan, a)the train would not have stopped, b)if it had, the problem would have been diagnosed and fixed at lightning speed, c)there would have been endless apologies including a personal visit from and deeply apologetic bow from each member of the crew, and d)heads would have rolled to make sure that this never happened again.

 Mystery stop out of the way, the train rumbled past Alabama and into Atlanta station. Atlanta is a major city of the South and the train station is an Amtrak hub so as you might imagine, the station was in the middle of nowhere. Atlanta was not even visible in the distance. There were no taxis waiting outside the station, let alone buses to get us downtown. The five or so people who got off the train disappeared into waiting cars, leaving me alone in the cubicle of a station. The station master informed me that I would have to leave the station and when I did, immediately locked the doors, leaving outside, in the middle of the night, in front of an Atlanta-less Atlanta station. I managed to find a pay phone, call a cab, wait forty minutes for it to come and then take a forty minute ride to the downtown. And learn never to use Amtrak again.

 If this had been any station in Japan, no matter where, a)there would have been taxis and/or buses waiting to get people to final destinations, b)the station would have been most likely in the center of the town, c)the station master would have stayed up all night before kicking me out of the station, d)if there was no transportation source, the station master would have driven me himself (it happened to me twice), and e)well, you get the idea.

 What`s the point of having a station in Atlanta if it`s not in Atlanta and you can`t get to Atlanta from there? I don`t demand a Japanese-style system, one of the best in the world. India would do. Or Mexico. They have much better train systems in my experience. What`s the point of getting high-speed trains, something I would love to see and use, if the stations are such utter disasters?