Smart Takes

Observation: On the occasional ugliness of train travel

Posting in Government

It costs a pretty penny to ride America's only high-speed rail on a regular basis. Why are the views so awful? A suggestion that could improve the commute and add a little profit, too.

Why are some railroad corridors so unsightly?

Each week, I take a morning Amtrak train from Philadelphia to New York to commute to SmartPlanet headquarters. And each week, I sit and stare out as the browns, grays and yellows of rusting sheds, graffiti-strewn fences and balding patches of grass blur by as I sit comfortably in my seat, tapping away on my laptop. The only break in this unending march of industrial refuse? That brief moment when the train shoots out over the Delaware River, putting in full view the famous "Trenton Makes, The World Takes" sign affixed to the next bridge over. Then, it's back to more factories, facilities and urban grit.

I suspect few think that a railroad corridor ought to look as pristine as a downtown business district, with its slate sidewalks and metallic thresholds and gum-free, glassy surfaces. And it certainly ought not look like a tony historic district full of small dogs and ladies who lunch. Industrial areas appear as they do for a reason, and there is indeed a certain kind of haunting beauty in them for some. But it is a wonder that we haven't done more to spruce up the most traveled tracks in America.

Surely there's business opportunity in beautifying the ride for a captive market. In an age where we are willing to plaster display advertisements on bathroom urinals and airplane tray tables in an effort to monetize every square inch, why not place large, premium advertisements along the tracks of an equally premium mode of transport? More than three million passengers ride Amtrak's only profitable offering, the high-speed Acela Express, each year. Sleeper car aside, there's a good chance that most of them have given up on the balky Wi-Fi and instead chosen to look out the window in frustration as the scenery flies by. Along the Northeast Corridor, it's hard to believe they like what they see. It's a sobering lesson in socioeconomics, yes. But it's hardly a deliberate one.

I'm not suggesting that advertisements are beautiful or even welcome, and I'm not suggesting that enterprising transport executives wallpaper over the great rural vistas that can make travel by rail so delightful, either. But when business passengers pay $300 or more each day for the solace and speed an express train affords, it seems only natural to give them something more appropriate to look at than urban decay. Billboards for Rolex watches, cashmere sweaters from Brunello Cucinelli and leather goods from Valextra may not be the first thing that comes to mind in terms of tools for urban revitalization, but surely they top piles of rusted-through oil drums and old, treadless tires. And unlike highway signs, there is no risk of anyone getting in an accident from the distraction.

In a commoditized industry like regional transport, it may be a hard sell to make an upgrade based on aesthetics alone, especially when commuters are focused on finding the fastest trips between two points. But I suspect railroads would be more keen on the idea if it helped pay for the lengthening list of infrastructure improvements that, in a down economy, state governments quickly find impossible to support. (Truss bridge maintenance, sadly, does not easily stir the spirits of the electorate.)

Consumers never clamor for more advertisements; that much is true. And there are miles of train tracks that cut through forests whose serenity should never be tarnished. But if a few well-placed advertisements help speed up the morning commute, or allow the Wi-Fi to be more robust, perhaps it's an unobtrusive effort that can be proven worthwhile.

And if the distraction isn't welcome? Well, there's always another e-mail to respond to.

Share this

Andrew Nusca

Editor Emeritus

Andrew Nusca is editor of SmartPlanet and an associate editor for ZDNet. Previously, he worked at Money, Men's Vogue and Popular Mechanics magazines. He holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and New York University. He is based in New York but resides in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure