To Be Absolutely Frank

Trains, Planes and Zeppelins

Modern transportation is sadly out of gas.

By 8.15.02

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Owing to the discovery of a defective part, Amtrak this week took most of its Acela express trains out of service, thus closing off the only competitive alternative to air travel for busy commuters along the BOS-NY-WASH corridor.

Reading that news made me recall what it was like to ride a truly fast train: the AVE (Spain's version of the French TGV), which runs between Madrid and Seville. At the AVE's top speed of 185 mph, I felt I was flying, an impression enhanced by the cars' aerodynamic design. I've never been on an Acela, but with a maximum speed of 135 mph on Amtrak's antiquated tracks, the effect can't be nearly as thrilling.

No, this is not another column about America's failure to match Europe's snazzy public transportation. I know that Amtrak is in the financial hole, and upgrading tracks to let Acela show its stuff would cost "billions of dollars, akin to the amounts spent on highways." Politicians may love high-speed rail projects for their glamour, not to mention the economic benefits to constituents, but taxpayers shouldn't have to pay billions to spare a few thousand professionals dead time on the tarmac and occasional traffic jams to and from LaGuardia.

What American trains most grievously lack isn't speed, but elegance and romance. This wasn't always the case. Remember Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint dallying and eluding the bad guys in North by Northwest (1959)? Their encounter might have lacked a certain spark had it taken place, not at a formally set table in a dining car, but over microwaved hamburgers in an Amcafe.

Movies are not real life, of course, and never have been. For all I know, train travel lost its luster well before 1959, and Hitchcock's portrayal of it is tinged with nostalgia. Yet surely the image refers to something contemporary viewers would have recognized; whereas my experience of trains since the late '70s has as much to do with Eva Marie Saint as it has with the Space Shuttle. Nor are things significantly better in Europe than in the States.

I know there's no point in hoping for a new Golden Age of rail -- technology and globalization have changed the pace of life forever, or for at least as long as I'll be around -- but as long as I'm wishing for the impossible, my first choice would be for a type of conveyance that I've never even boarded. I refer to the great German airships of the '20s and '30s, exemplified by the Graf Zeppelin and the ill-fated Hindenburg.

Newsreel images of the Hindenburg in flames, and the horrified voice of radio reporter Herbert Morrison describing the 1937 explosion ("Oh, the humanity!"), are so famous that few realize the death toll was 35 -- a terrible loss, yet hardly enough (you might have thought) to damn an entire mode of transportation. Had the Hindenburg been fueled not with hydrogen but with non-flammable helium, as its designers had originally intended, it never would have blown up.

Yet even if some determined entrepreneur had managed to rehabilitate the image of the airship, historians conclude that it could never have competed with the jet engine. After all, the state-of-the-art Hindenburg's top speed was only 86 mph.

I wonder, though. What about ocean liners? Though jets have replaced them for practical purposes, there's still a vast industry based on vacation cruises. Why couldn't airships enjoy a similar second life serving tourism?

Imagine the possibilities: gliding over the châteaux of the Loire Valley, or the pyramids of Guatemala, or Niagara Falls. Imagine traveling from New York to Los Angeles and watching the Republic roll past, slowly and from close enough by that you can see the layout of small towns and spot animals in the wild.

Go ahead and laugh. It's just the helium.

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About the Author

Francis X. Rocca ia an American writer in Rome, Italy.