Huffing and Puffing - The Great North American Sticky Bun Hunt - CycleBlaze

Huffing and Puffing

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ONE OF the delights of riding the grimmest parts of the Northern Tier is that train drivers appear as bored as you are. American trains go terribly, terribly slowly. They are long - a mile long, enough to mark on your map - and they are heavy. Each can have three locomotives pulling and another pushing.

But it's not weight alone that makes trains slow. America hasn't cared for its railways since the rise of the car. To Europeans, that is odd. Europeans never forgot the railway.

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It is too simple to say distances in North America are so large. If everyone travelled from coast to coast, that would favour planes. But a car can be driven only so far in an hour, a morning, a day or a week in America, in Europe or anywhere else. And most people travel no further than the next city.

Trains take longer than planes but go faster than cars. Or they should do, even if in America even the passenger trains don't. But a joy in long-distance train travel never left the European soul and is now growing rather than dying. A luxury train has started between Moscow and the French Mediterranean, for instance.

So why do even Amtrak passenger trains go so much more slowly than mediocre European trains?

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One answer is in what I found as we waited for our train at Rensselaer. It wasn't the primitive hut of the station. You can find that anywhere. It was the track. This main line from the capital to Chicago, America's third-largest city, is in a dreadful state.

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The rails are cracked and scarred. Bits had broken away. It can't be dangerous or the trains would no longer run. But it can't be the way to run a railroad, can it?

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I love trains. Many cyclists do. There is a harmony between us. Couldn't it be done better?

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