Lately, I have been spending a good deal of time in Penn Station and have wondered – not for the first time – whether 65% of the people waiting for trains there appear to be seriously mentally distressed because they arrived that way, or because they have stepped into an alternative universe of heat, bewilderment, pain and ambient evil. You may be aware that many US rail stations are grand expressions of generous respect to their users, full of stately perpendiculars, handy benches and lots of gold leaf – high-ceilinged temples to mass transit and the communal hopes of a bygone age. Penn Station is there for balance: to remind you that this Depression will not produce a New Deal, and that many members of the general public are surplus to requirements; and to hint that your train will travel at the speed of lazy treacle on a cold day, will shudder along rails that even Railtrack would call poorly-maintained, and will give priority to freight, cars, pedestrians and any animal above the size of a healthy adult woodchuck.(Penn Station, for what it's worth, was once a majestic railway station in New York; though some time in the 1960s, it was demolished and rebuilt as a depressing warren of subterranean tunnels that makes Heathrow Terminal 2 look like a cathedral by comparison; thus making an all-too-convenient metaphor for the icaresque fall from grace of passenger rail in car-centric America.)
Yet I continue to love American (and Canadian) trains. I am trying to rebrand my debilitating and expensive fear of flying as Steampunk Travel and – at a certain level – I find I am convincing at least myself that rail transportation is a good and lovely, as well as an ecological, option. US trains are roomy, their passengers have no expectations and therefore often eschew UK passengers' lapses into frenzied disappointment and rage when they are delayed, misled, or ignored. Plus, US trains are still rich in the iconic elements that I, lover of black and white movies that I am, find intoxicating. They are monumental: they still roll majestically into stations with their bells ringing like harbingers of strange mortality, they still hoot across the countryside in the manner of wistful mechanical whales, the conductors still wear little round blue conductor's hats and the Red Caps still wear red caps – although sometimes they're baseball caps
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