Theological Insights from a Modern Perspective

Okay, not the 1987 Steve Martin move (not one of his best anyway). This post is about transportation in America. Most of the world thinks that Americans have a love of the automobile because of our independent spirit, not so. Americans love the automobile because, unlike most of the other civilized nations (and many others) American mass transit sucks the big one.

America’s mass transit system is made to take you from point A to point B, but provides no way to get from where you are to point A, or to get you from point B to where you’re actually going. To do that you need a car (or truck, van, or SUV).

Planes are run by oligarchs who care about their customers like a cat cares for a mouse, it’s (we’re) simply a way to nourish their needs, nothing more. This has been proven, time and again, by how customers are treated when things go wrong. From passengers dragged kicking and screaming off of the plane because the airline has decided someone else deserves their seat more, to poor treatment of customers who are stranded, and the constant desire to squeeze more people into the same amount of room (I think on my last flight the gentleman behind me wasn’t really trying to do a prostate exam on me, just felt that way every time he got up). They really don’t seem to care – unless it makes the evening news and highlights their lack of concern. How else would you explain their attitudes when passengers suffer from mistakes not made by the passengers?

“No, we did not lose your luggage, it was just temporarily misrouted. People make mistakes, and the airport code for Huntingdon, WV looks so similar to Istanbul. Just as soon as the plane lands we’ll have it sent back, shouldn’t be more than 3-4 weeks…Hey! No reason to get rude…Yes, I understand you’ll be back home by then, but that’s not really our problem, is it?… No, we can’t send it to your home city, it has to go to its original destination, you’ll just have to find a way to get it from there to your home. May I suggest our baggage shipment service?”

“Yes, technically our plane was 4 hours late because it was waiting for a bag from Istanbul to arrive, and because of that you missed your connecting flight to East Saskatchewan. You should have allowed more time between flights…No, it really doesn’t matter that you used our booking service to arrange the entire trip. You’re just going to have to pay for another flight since you didn’t cancel within 48 hours, we have one going out in three days that has an opening.”

Okay, so a bit of an exaggeration, but not by much. A few years ago I was doing a lot of traveling between the US and England, on one return trip my connecting flight was delayed somewhere in Georgia…hours delayed. It was so far behind that it was minutes from the next flight up from Georgia. When I asked how long of a delay it would be I was told that my connector should be leaving Georgia within the hour. I was told that repeatedly for the next four hours. When my connector did finally arrive I was told that I had been bumped; my next flight? Well, it would be leaving Georgia within the hour. I finally boarded a flight 13 hours after my original departure. Had I been told the truth from the start I could have rented a car and driven home in only 5-1/2 hours. To boot, no meal allowance for having to wait 13 hours.

Trains in the US (passenger trains) are a government monopoly called Amtrak. Amtrak doesn’t own any of the tracks it runs on, as a consequence freight trains get priority on the rails, causing Amtrak many delays. I have yet to arrive on time for any trip. One trip between Philadephia and Pittsburgh was so bad that we arrived 4-1/2 hours late. Normally this is about a 7-1/2 trip (5 hour drive). Instead of arriving at 8pm, we didn’t pull into the station until well after midnight.

Other than delays, train trips are much nicer than planes. The attendants are friendly, food, while higher priced than fast food, is still less than sport venues (no $12 beers or $5 sodas). You can sit back and relax, plenty of leg room, walk to stretch the legs, and catch a view of something other than the storm clouds ahead. Sleeping (outside of sleeping cars) isn’t any different than catching a nap during a drive (assuming you’re not the driver).

The only other complaint I have with Amtrak is the lack of WiFi on all of its trains. This week I am traveling between Pittsburgh and Tucson (via Washington DC and New Orleans). The two trains from Pittsburgh to NOLA had excellent WiFi service, my current leg (NOLA to Tucson) has nothing. I am writing this using the WiFi hotspot service on my phone. Really? A dinky 8-hour trip from Pittsburgh to DC has WiFi, but a multi-day train from NOLA to Los Angeles has nothing???

Automobiles are what Americans are left with, and why we love these vehicles so much. Faster than trains, more comfortable than planes, able to take us from our starting point to our destination without having to transfer vehicles (unless your name is Griswald). Cost? Well, that depends and varies greatly: length of trip, hotel, dining out, and gas prices – can someone explain to me what gas at one station is $2.49 and across the street is $2.99? (Actually saw this from the train as we were going through somewhere in Mississippi). Still, Americans love traveling by car, tens of thousands making the trip across this great land every year. Last year I drove from Pittsburgh to Tucson, stopping at National and State parks, hitting tourist traps along the way, enjoying some of the best regional foods there are (little beats a Kansas City BBQ joint). In 2020 I have plans to make one of the most idyllic drives in America – Route 66 from Chicago to Santa Monica (before, of course, turning around to head back to Tucson).

Before you wonder too much:

  • No. I don’t live in Pittsburgh, it’s just the closest city any of you are likely to know.
  • No. I don’t live in Tucson, either, but my son does. Every year we get together to do some hiking and backpacking in the Southwest.

Hope that this has provided a little chuckle in you day. Maybe we’ll meet sometime on a plane, train, but most likely in a dinner somewhere on the road.

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