There has always been a sense of romanticism surrounding trains and transcontinental travel. Starting in the late 1700s, trains were used to transport goods and eventually became a prime method for moving the masses from one point to another, opening up new ways of communication and connection between distant places.
Movies of the 20th century helped create and sustain this mystique. Films such as The Lady Vanishes (1938) and Murder on the Orient Express (1974) were wildly popular in their time and helped bolster the excitement surrounding railroads. Whether it’s a steam, coal, diesel or electric locomotive, there is something about the sight of a train in motion that speaks of adventure.
On the less glamorous side, following the Civil War and peaking during the Great Depression, vagrants popularly known as “hobos” began crossing the country in search of work by hopping freight cars. This practice became known as “riding the rails” and was famously experienced and documented by Jack Kerouac, becoming a symbol of the Beat Generation.
This year in the United States, Amtrak is celebrating 40 years of service. To commemorate this anniversary event, a special exhibit train is traveling around the country to highlight the company’s rich history and help preserve the past while moving into the future.
Over the years, the reliance on automobiles and airplanes in America has had a negative effect on rail travel. There has been a recent push to further develop the U.S. rail system to the point where it rivals the vast high-speed networks of Europe and Asia, a grand undertaking some oppose in these tough economic times. But as anyone who has ever taken a long train ride across the country knows, relaxing and enjoying the view as cities pass by is magical. There is nothing quite like riding the rails and it would be a shame for our country to lose this potentially epic experience.
Brian Sylvester is a guest blogger on WallSpin, and an artist on Zatista.