America’s front porches on rails

Posted by Malcolm Kenton
on Monday, March 02, 2015

Passenger trains offer a safe, efficient, accessible, environmentally sound means of travel that also creates jobs, sparks economic activity and fosters walkable development patterns. But is it these qualities that people think about when they decide to take a train trip, particularly a long-distance one? And is it these factors that motivate people to advocate for the expansion and improvement of America’s passenger train network?

In a recent column for the blog Next City, Danya Sherman, a Master’s degree candidate in Urban Planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, articulates an aspect of passenger trains’ value that is often neglected in policy discussions, but speaks to the less tangible qualities that inspire people’s love of train travel. Before enrolling at MIT, Sherman was the Director of Public Programs, Education and Community Engagement for Friends of the High Line, New York City’s famous elevated industrial spur turned park, where she was involved in designing many of its elements. By their design, she explains, the dining and lounge cars of long-distance trains facilitate social interaction and contemplation of the landscape in a way that inspires creative thinking. I had a chance to chat with Sherman over the phone about her Master’s thesis on the environmental psychology of passenger trains.

Q: What first attracted you to train travel? Had you done much long-distance train travel before the trip you write about in your Next City piece?

In the California Zephyr's Sightseer Lounge car, hugging the Colorado River eastbound between Glenwood Springs and Granby, CO, in Oct. 2014. Photo by Malcolm Kenton.
Danya Sherman: I had only done one long-distance train trip before starting my thesis research. The impetus for the thesis project was taking the California Zephyr in December 2013. I was really struck by the unique qualities on the train that I talk about in my article. Having had the experience with the High Line of trying to spark experiences in public spaces, it seemed to me that the train was doing that without really trying. I’m looking into what the space itself has to do with how people experience it. 

I’m analyzing this in more depth, but anecdotally, I think some of the things I observed are due to the train car being designed at a human scale. The height, width and feeling about it is that it’s for individuals and groups, designed for socializing. It’s really important for public spaces to do that, but it’s something their designers don’t think about much. Also, you’re kind of stuck there with strangers, giving you a weird sense that you can connect with them without it affecting your outside life. The quality of being stuck for an extended period of time helps to increase interaction. It also helps that everyone has something in common automatically because they’re traveling the same way and looking at same thing.

Q: What made you decide to pursue this as a Master’s thesis topic?

DS: It seems like an understudied subject. Passenger trains in the US are undervalued and understudied in general. Even at MIT, where we have a huge transportation engineering department, none of the engineering students I talked to knew much about passenger rail. If they did, it was more internationally focused. People have either forgotten about trains as a possibility or have gotten fed up with the political gridlock around it. People are starting to think about the sociability and creative aspect of it more.

Q: Why do you think passenger train advocates tend to downplay the benefits of trains as a third space and a means of promoting social cohesion, and focus instead on other arguments for trains?

DS: I’ve been thinking about the fact that it’s sort of connected. You can see it as a cultural thing; that it’s seen in modern Western culture as a weakness to focus on the qualitative aspects of enjoying life instead of measurable things like economic development. It’s difficult to make a case for something without hard numbers. If [enjoying life] were more of a value in the US, we would have more social spaces. It’s also political. There’s a strong view that passenger rail advocates are positioning themselves as combating the arguments against rail development, and advocating for their sociability won’t really counter those arguments or appeal to Congress.

Many people [I met on the Zephyr] are on the train for financial reasons, and they were the least romantic about train travel. It’s interesting to think about whether there is a class position or type of psyche that is more likely to be engaged with an emotional connection to trains. 

Taking in the sights of Glenwood Canyon aboard the eastbound California Zephyr in October 2014. Photo by Malcolm Kenton.
Q: What kind of argument would you like to see being made for the expansion and improvement of America’s long-distance passenger train network? What sort of messaging should passenger advocates be using?

DS: I’ve been able to get a lot of my friends interested in taking the train just by talking about the aspects of it. It’s something people know about but need a nudge to actually do. I would focus on describing or presenting images of what you see when you take the train. Amtrak does that, but advocacy groups could do it as well. Seeing the micro-landscapes of America is really fascinating. Another idea is to present profiles of the kinds of people you could meet on the train. And emphasize the ability to reflect and be productive on your own — to be by yourself and focused in a unique way.

Q: What’s your next step, once your thesis is done? Do you plan to publish it? Do you want to keep writing about and working on this issue?

DS: I would like to publish it, but haven’t thought about how to do it. I’m interested in connecting with others who are advocating for passenger rail, and I’d love my thesis to be helpful to them. The presence of the Millennial Trains Project and Amtrak’s Writers’ Residency, along with anecdotal interest amongst people my age in train travel, shows that there is a wide base of connection with the idea [of the train travel experience]. It’s an issue that gets to the heart of a lot of things America struggles with politically and socially. Train advocates should get together and brainstorm how to re-energize their efforts. It’s such a shame that Amtrak has to fight every year for funding, especially for the long-distance trains that people love so much.

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