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Why Trains are Better than Cars
In Sweden, I saw the kind of train and rail system we would probably have here in Indiana had we not dismantled it in order to sell cars and build Interstate highways. It's a choice with a far-reaching impact, one that often keeps me home rather than traveling around the state.
For 12 days, I didn’t drive a car. For 12 days I didn’t sit behind the wheel battling fatigue, struggling to keep my bleary eyes on the lane in front of me. For 12 days I didn’t loop the same city block five or six times looking for one (just one) parking space. For 12 days, I didn’t frantically sprint back to said parking space in order to dump more money into the meter before my time ran out. For 12 days I discovered that life without a car is distinctly simple. Physically demanding? Yes. Free of headaches and inconveniences? No, not at all. But compared to the financially and emotionally taxing nature of life with a car, the hassles that come with a car-free life are mild by comparison.
I’ve been “car free” a few times here in the States. Our four-day vacation in Boston stands out. Thanks to the “T” subway system, a solid network of bus routes, and a regional train system feeding into western Massachusetts, our family was able to navigate everywhere from The Old North Church to Walden Pond without having to fork over money to a cab driver or a rental company. And Washington, D.C.’s Metro offered us the same sort of freedom as well—although I much preferred the younger version of the Capital’s subway to dilapidated counterpart.
That Indiana Transit Life
But here in Indiana, where I have lived all my life, public transportation remains a fantasy. It’s true that trips to Indy, or Bloomington, or Lafayette, or Terre Haute can all happen in or around an hour. It’s true that in several of those places I can park affordably. But I still have to make the drive. I still have to plan my trip around my energy levels and my sleep schedule. I have to monitor my eating and my drinking, and I have plan for the fatigue I’m going to feel regardless. I have to share the road with other drivers who have had too much to drink, whose eyes are on their Facebook feeds rather than the road, and if it’s not the humans threating to do me in, then it’s the state’s abundance of skittish deer.
As a contingency to all of those threats, I must dole what amounts to an additional car payment in the form of insurance premiums. When it’s all said and done, I’m shelling out almost a 25% of my monthly income in personal transportation—my car. I have other options…sure. I can hang onto my car after I’ve paid for it and thus enjoy both the absent car payment and cheaper insurance, taxes, and fees. But the longer I play that game, the more likely I’ll be paying a tow truck the cost of my groceries so that I can then pay a garage the cost of a mortgage to fix whatever breaks. The “freedom” that life behind the wheel gives you mostly a hassle and a burden window-dressed in illusion.
Because there no alternatives in Indiana, I embrace the car game. I lease new vehicles all the time. I live in a sprawling, car friendly neighborhood next to a small car friendly town.*
*People in my hometown—Greencastle, Indiana—gripe all the time about “limited parking,” but that argument is delusional. A small college town of 10,000 people, you can easily park anywhere from 100 feet to two blocks from any destination. Across the world, that kind of proximity sounds like a dream. But in Greencastle—where people demand parking places located six paces from their destination—it’s apparently a massive headache.
The Indiana that Could Be
But, also because it’s Indiana, I spend less time traveling around state as well. When I was younger, I did my share of day-trips and long drives. I even enjoyed them. I don’t any longer. Would I go to Indianapolis if I knew that the train would drop me off downtown, sparing me the aggravation of finding somewhere to park? Yep. Would I spend nights in Indy watching my favorite bands play if I knew the train would haul my tired, boozy ass home? You bet. Would I go see my son, who lives in Bloomington, if I didn’t have to bother driving the winding nightmares that are U.S. 231 and Indiana’s Highway 46? Absolutely. Would I have traveled to see my daughter in Milwaukee more than one time if I could plop into a cozy train seat, watch some Netflix or read a book, an savor a long nap in between? No doubt. Would I consider tracking down a more lucrative gig in the city if I knew I didn’t have to make the grueling commute from the driver’s seat? Most certainly.
Like much of the United States, Indiana once had such an infrastructure. The famed Interurban rail system took travelers across the Hoosier state on the cheap. But, like much of the United States, Indiana abandoned—then dismantled—that rail system in favor of Interstate highways and fuel injection.
The interior of the Swedish SJ high speed trains we enjoyed during our stay. Photo Credits at Bottom.
Stockholm's train station. Photo by Donovan Wheeler
Trains Aren’t Perfect
I will admit, the first time I traveled from the airport at Copenhagen to my daughter’s study abroad locale in Växjö, I was missing the world I knew behind the wheel. Rather than buy a ticket with the Swedish train company, SJ (which would have taken us directly to Växjö), we bought one with the Danish outfit. They ceremonially kicked us off the train in the small town of Lund and announced, “end of the line.”
After getting conflicting bits of advice—from the Danish conductor who told us to take the bus to Hässleholm and the young girl in the convenience store who told us the train would take us the rest of the way—I stormed from one platform to the next letting anyone willing to listen know how much I already didn’t like Sweden. But once my daughter taught me how to plan a trip, and with whom to do my travel business, I quickly fell in love with my Swedish journeys.
Train life has other inconveniences, too. The busybody woman who spent the entire trip to Stockholm on her phone imperiously doing her business was irritating, but it wasn’t anything that a charged iPod and pair of headphones couldn’t fix.
Train travel requires that you schedule your day around departures and arrivals. But it also means no parking hassles and no struggles staying awake during the drive.
Photo by Donovan Wheeler
But Then Again, Trains Are Kind of Perfect
But I saw a lot more about train life which I found appealing. There was the family of four seated around a fold-out table playing cards together. There was the convenience of the on-board bathroom. There was coffee and food in the Bistro car. There was the chance to enjoy the view. The train allowed me to soak in the Swedish countryside. Just as I was convincing myself that rural Sweden didn’t look all the different from rural Indiana, I spotted a teenaged boy on a rolling set of cross-country skis, getting ready for the winter.
“Yep,” I reminded myself, “we are long, long way from home.”
Västtrafik X50. Photo Credits Below.
Cars Are Still a Thing
I’m not saying that the world should abandon automobiles. I’m not even saying that I am going to give up the one in my garage right now. I want to. But I can’t because it’s not feasible. I am saying that if I lived in a more populated area within walking distance of a few platforms, I would be on the train all the time.
Even in Växjö, our “home base” during our stay abroad, cars were part of the scene. But where we stayed, some two minutes north of the train station in the middle of the city’s commercial district, they were rare. On Friday morning, one of the city’s busiest periods, I counted the number of moving vehicles on one hand. And when they did roll through the district, they crawled at golf-cart speeds. The cobblestoned streets weren’t conducive to high speed traffic for one thing. They didn’t even look like “streets” in the traditional sense, anyway. Resembling the brick pedestrian paths you’d see on an American university campus, whenever a jet-black Audi crept through the throng of walkers and cyclists, the intrusion was palpable.
The same feeling struck me when I walked through Stockholm’s Gamla Stan and Göthenburg’s Haga district. And even though you could argue that what I’m describing has more to do with urban versus suburban life than it does a U.S. versus Europe comparison, I would politely disagree. While the French Quarter, Laclede’s Landing, and Boston’s Old Town did feel a hell of a lot different than crossing Indy’s 38th Street or strolling along Lakeshore Drive, America’s historic districts were still punctuated by their unhealthy concentration of vehicle traffic.
Of course, in sparsely populated areas, or in neighborhoods sitting more than a half-hour’s walk from a train station, the automobile reappears in force. Even in Växjö, when you zoom out during a Google Earth search, the row of houses in the surrounding residential districts sport at least one car in every driveway.
The best streets in Växjö were not very auto friendly.
Photo by Donovan Wheeler.
Just a Dream Away
Even though this relationship between our cars and our trains is often complicated, I still find that transportation is the one thing I miss the most about Sweden. If I were king of the United States, magic wand in hand, we’d have the option to take high speed trains to the Gulf Coast beaches for spring break. We’d spend a relaxing 30 minutes in downtown Indy enjoying a latte before riding home in a cozy seat sleeping off a long day at work. Where I live, that kind of world will have to remain a dream. But now that I finally had the chance to experience it in real life, it’s at least a dream I can visualize in accurate detail.
Wheeler proudly teaches AP Language to some bright and lovably obnoxious kids in a small college town. He also contributes to the craft beer website Indiana on Tap and writes for other publications. He started learning to play guitar last fall, but he remains terrible at it.