why late trains don't matter (they're art) | train 1
Today I'm doing something I've never done before. The California Zephyr is one of the longest train routes in North America, and I'm about to ride it. All 2, 438 miles of it—from Chicago's Union Station to the edge of San Francisco. The route traces through Chicago, Omaha, Denver, Salt Lake City, and Reno before arriving in California, and it became famous for its views of the Rocky Mountains and the American West. Apparently for the car attendants too, who at the height of train travel post-WWII played the role of perky young stewardesses, offering smiles and full-service attention, from coffee to babysitting the kids while you were in the lounge. Today it's obviously changed a bit, but you can still ride as a first class passenger in a sleeper Superliner, which includes amenities like the morning paper, fresh towels and sheets, and priority all-you-can-eat reservations in the Dining Car. As an antique experience that I've never had, it felt perfect for a short vacation, offering something novel while providing a chance to be by myself and write and pray and think. The trip officially takes 50 hours--mine leaves on 2pm Tuesday in Chicago, travels for two overnights, and arrives in San Francisco at 4:05pm. Although nobody really believes that's when it'll get in. Amtrak trains have the distinction of having "on-time" being a bonus. I think if it's up to 3 hours late, Amtrak practically considers that on time. Past that you can start to complain a little, although it's not like you're gonna just get out and walk. A few weeks ago, this very train route made the news for having a train that was stopped by snow and showed up over 18 hours late. Ouch.
And while coming in the following day might be cause enough for some attention, what's funny to me is how uneventful the poor timing is normally. Nobody cares. Part of this is that they are simply meeting expectation--there's nothing new here. But media ecology's approach to technological progress in society probably has the best explanation. People don't think of trains as transportation. They're art.
That's because newer technologies (i.e. I'm leavin' on a jet plane) have supplanted the train as the primary means of cross-country movement in the U.S. And newer technologies often don't replace previous technologies as much as modify their role in our cultural perceptions. For Marshall McLuhan, this means that some older technologies remain in place as--but as art! His most famous observation on this:
The machine turned nature into an art form. For the first time man began to regard Nature as a source of aesthetic and spiritual values. They began to marvel that earlier ages had been so unaware of the world of Nature as Art.
Think National Parks as vacation destinations. This is a result of the assembly line.
And that's why people don't care if trains are late. I'm riding the train because it a novelty item, and I learned about it reading blogs that are devoted to people who do just that. Newer technologies have modified our perceptions.
ps - can't wait to see what this is like. More if I can from the train, but chances are pretty low I'll have good access as I'd be depending on what flashes of Spring 3G I can catch from the train car.