Train Conceit

September 2004 051.jpg
A view of the “Quiet Car” after everyone has detrained.

The last several weeks I have begun to ride the train to and from Seattle, now that we are (nearly) moved-in to the Lakewood house.

If I get up at crack-o-dawn (5:10 am), I can beat the traffic and be at work in about 50 minutes. Similarly, if I wait until after 7 pm, I can get home in as little as 46 minutes (it might be time for a blog on speeding). The problem is, I don’t really want to work from 6:20 am until 7 pm at night, every day. What is the point of moving to this side of the water if I’m only going to work longer hours, and see my family no more than I did before?

Some would argue that at this point in my career, especially considering the experience I had being laid off, that I should invest long hours as a way to regain my technological skills and to improve my chances for promotions and raises. I’m of two minds about that.

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The Sounder in the early morning mist.

But in any case, I do very much like riding the train. It isn’t particularly quiet … unlike European trains, the cars rattle and squeak almost constantly, every switch or irregularity in the track is communicated in no uncertain terms.

I do, however, patronize the ‘Quiet Coach’ … a special southernmost passenger car where conversation is taboo and phones & pagers are to be turned off. I usually stake out a table so that I can use my laptop comfortably (as, in fact, I am doing now). The scenery ranges widely between junkyard- industrial and rural-picturesque, with Mount Rainier looming to the southwest throughout much of the journey. There are two levels in the center part of each coach … so far I haven’t yet sat in the upper deck, but I plan to do so today, if only to broaden my horizons. I think I’ll wait until the hordesfolk detrain in Kent and Auburn before I venture into the unknown upper regions.

As a full-circuit Sounder rider, I look down my nose at the penny-ante Tukwila commuters, here today, gone tomorrow. Their pathetic 15-minute commute doesn’t really make them worthy of the train, but we let them ride anyway, if only for their tax dollars. A true Sounder veteran is able and willing to commit to the full hour between Tacoma and Seattle … he doesn’t put his hand to the plow only for a few measly stops, like those folks from Kent, Auburn, Sumner and even Puyallup.

September 2004 052.jpg
The afternoon sun gleams off the sleek contours of this mighty train, arrived in Tacoma.

It is hard to imagine, but I may even prefer the train to the ferry. There is a certain charm to the fact that I have only a 20-minute drive at the other end of this train-ride, unlike the 90+ minutes of bus- and car-ride that I formerly faced at the conclusion of my Bainbridge Island ferry ride. And of course I have a deep-seated genetic predilection for trains, inherited from my father. My Dad used to schedule entire family vacations around the train schedules of Europe, so that we visited ‘historic’ train stations with remarkable regularity. He had the ability to time his rate of travel so that any time a highway crossed a train-line, there would be an engine chugging along beneath us just as we crossed. His passion for trains continues unabated … there are those who believe that this whole ‘Refuge’ retreat center thing is just an elaborate front for a gargantuan model railroad (to be constructed in the basement). My Dad might tell you that the dreams are not necessarily incompatible.

Today was a banner day for another reason; today they actually asked me for my ticket or pass. I’ve been riding a number of weeks, but I have never (until today) seen a conductor, let alone been asked for my ticket.

One of the perquisites my employer offers is an annual FlexPass. This covers the cost of a bus ride or a train ride up to $4.00 each way, which, coincidentally, is the cost of a one-way Sounder ticket. I can ride pretty much any bus or train in King County, as well as any of the Express buses that connect between Tacoma and Seattle, for free. It is nice to never have to worry about paying … I wonder if it would be a better model for cities and states to offer public transport free of charge to anyone who has any kind of a job. I can understand the desire to assign the cost of the service to those who actually use it … but I wonder if those who don’t use public transport wouldn’t be glad to pay a little extra if only it would reduce the congestion on the roadways. And of course there is the whole question of how much it costs to collect the money and to maintain the machines that sell tickets and validate passes.

An interesting feature of the train ride is the regular appearance of a uniformed guard, who makes a circuit of the entire train at least twice during each trip. There seems to be at least one guard at each station, as well as a guard assigned to each train. Several days ago I brought my camera onto the train and snapped a few pictures of the train as it prepared for departure in the early morning mist. I neglected to turn off my flash, and within two minutes I was interviewed by a security officer as to my reason or intention for taking the pictures. It is a strange world we live in, post 9/11. I must say, I was impressed by the speed and efficiency with which they identified and confronted me. Somewhat sheepishly I admitted that I took the pictures for this weblog, wondering if he would know what a blog was. The officer was courteous and did not seem disposed to search my bag or otherwise harass me — he seemed to accept my explanation. Perhaps I am only one of many people who write about their commuting experience.

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The hallowed heights of the Sounder car.

Well, it turns out that there are tables on the upper deck as well, a fact that I had not realized, viewing from below. There is a certain satisfaction in riding an extra eight feet above the track … the vista is much more expansive. I feel a little like Lucy van Pelt, of Peanuts, riding in her imaginary coach, waving at all the people, as she enjoys her fantasy Queendom. Except I’m not quite as sure of myself as is Lucy … I’m too embarrassed to wave at the golfers on the course we just passed.

I can’t believe how much I was missing, riding downstairs all these weeks on the claustrophobic, lowly first floor of the train car. Sure, we of the upper deck have no bathrooms; we leave such mundane concerns to the peasants below. Even the train stations are transformed as I look down with lofty disdain. The tiny passengers disembark beneath my feet as they scurry off to their ant-like cars, pursuing their insignificant insect lives.

Or maybe I’m getting a little carried away. After all, all too soon I will be forced to descend from my majestic chariot and do some scurrying of my own. Ah, well, it was good to be on top of the world, even if only for a few sweet moments.

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