Twenty years after I saw her, I still remember the young woman across the aisle from me on a train through a snowstorm in Pennsylvania. She was half visible in the overhead lamp, wearing a college sweatshirt and holding an open book on her lap. Whatever she was reading was making her cry softly. I couldn't see the title and I was too shy to ask, but the sight of her wiping away tears -- emotionally transported into one world as she was physically transported in another -- made me feel my individuality dissolving.
Snowflakes struck the dark windows without a sound, but unseen wheels hummed, and outside realities could be subsumed for a while in this linear realm of motion and warmth, five hours from Pittsburgh and nowhere in particular. We were standing perfectly still, yet moving over parallel lines of steel, and she seemed like a ghost in the dim light. I can't ride on a train at night without remembering her, wishing I had talked to her, strangely grateful that she remained a cipher.
Railroads anywhere, but especially in America, have the power to invoke odd spells like this, a feeling that might be called Train Sublime: the tidal sway of the carriages, the chanting of the wheels striking the fishplates (to me it sounds like dear-boy, dear-boy, dear-boy), the glancing presence of strangers on their own journeys and wrapped in private ruminations. These secret pleasures of a railroad summon forth a vision of a sweet pastness, a lost national togetherness. The train is a time traveler itself, the lost American vehicle of our ancestors, or perhaps our past selves.
We live in a society that was made by the railroads in ways we never think about anymore: our imported food, the beat of our music, our huge corporations and their methods of stock financing, our strong labor unions, our abstract notion of time and our sense of everyday connection with people who may live far out of sight but are made neighbors through mechanical means. Under the skin of modernity lies a skeleton of railroad tracks.
But in the light of the modern world, trains are not nostalgic playthings -- not by any measurement. They serve unromantic needs and hard economies.
On an average weekday morning, approximately 100 million people across the world are boarding trains: from Paddington station in London, from the magnificent Victoria Terminus in Mumbai, from the tawdry and run-down Tirana Railway Station in Albania, the Baltazar Fidelis platform on the Jundial line outside Sao Paulo, the flying saucer of Beijing's sparkling new South Station, tiny one-room depots or lonely platforms scattered in the countryside all over Laos, Belgium, South Africa and Japan and eighty-six other nations, to say nothing of the 13 trillion tons per kilometer of cargo they haul each year. Global commerce would instantaneously crash without them.
And passenger trains are still alive and breathing even in America, though we have sacrificed most of them in favor of the long-haul plane ride and interstate car travel. A quasi-federal agency called Amtrak has kept overland trains in a state of reliable mediocrity since 1971, and it was on the creaky old Pennsylvanian when I first spotted the woman in the snowstorm. At least two dozen major cities have working commuter rail tentacles out to their suburbs -- about 3 percent of Americans use them to get to work, mainly in the Northeast. I am one of those 100 million who ride the train as a matter of routine. And I do it from the famously car-happy city of Los Angeles.
My trip to my workplace takes a reliable forty-seven minutes, and I don't do it as an act of rebellion against the oil companies or as an ideological protest against my car. I do it because it is relatively cheap and it saves me from the freeway. And while I usually tote a book, I more often stare out the window at one of the truly ancient vistas of California: a corridor lined with pipe-fitting yards, crinkled tin warehouses, oil pumpjacks and homeless encampments.
Anyone who rides an American train can see that old industrial hardpan where the money is made without pretense and which was often -- especially in the West -- the first line slashed on the map before any major population showed up. And in this case, it's the tracks of the old Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe that came through in 1885 to steal some orange-hauling business from the Southern Pacific. This right-of-way is now leased by Metrolink, a perfectly decent commuter rail line that runs to three counties and is shockingly underused. When I tell people I take the train to work, I often get a confused look. Is that even possible? And then a look of envy. You can read. You can do work. You can listen to your iPod.
All of those things, yes. But the clacking motion of the train, the way it shudders as if being pulled by a spinnaker sail -- its uncanny, unlikely grace -- often compels me to watch the old light-industrial panorama spool past, and I feel transported into a lulling sense of mystery, a sense of past and present merging into a single continuum. This is a private feeling, but on the train one is almost never alone.
From "Train: Riding the Rails That Created the Modern World -- From the Trans-Siberian to the Southwest Chief, by Tom Zoellner. Copyright © 2014 by Tom Zoellner. Published by Viking Penguin, a member of Penguin group (USA), LLC.