First published in February 2018, the original subject line was “Trains are our tomorrow: vital connections that shape our lives, our communities, and our common future.”
Three years ago this month, I heard about a train crash on Metro-North’s Harlem line, north of New York City, a commuter train line that often chugs beside the highway at the same speed as the cars. “Injuries,” said one report. “Multiple fatalities,” said another.
I sat in front of the television while flipping through the news on my phone, unable to focus on anything else.
“Will you stop riding the train?” someone asked.
I pictured the train carriages with their ugly vinyl seats, the restrooms that are often dirty, the grouchy and reputedly overpaid conductors. There was nothing beautiful about those mental images. But I found myself holding back tears.
I pride myself on not over-reacting to tragedy. When Americans said they didn’t want to fly after the Lockerbie bombing in 1988, I scoffed. The day after the IRA bomb killed several people at Victoria Station in 1991, I made it to an event in London at which we did the correct British thing: we kept calm and carried on.
But the Harlem line is my line. It’s my lifeline, in fact, and for the twenty years since I moved from London to New England, it has shaped the life I lead. I depend on it, grouse about it, and have been for the past six years heading a campaign to bring passenger rail service to Great Barrington, Massachusetts, a tiny town in the Berkshire Hills, and the surrounding Berkshire County.
I thought of the conductors and how they sit and chat in the rows at the front of the train, near the engineer. Once they were teasing one of the men about his husband in a warm and friendly way—the good old boys getting their heads around the idea of gay marriage. They always tell me “Change at Southeast,” even though they must know that I know about that cross-platform transfer. One of them is especially careful to alert people about the change (to an electric train). He puts on a Donald Duck voice for children, and sometimes for adults.
I’m not a daily commuter like many of the people who were on that fated 5:44pm train. But even the train I take from Wassaic, a full two hours north of New York, has regular commuting passengers. I once got a very early morning train and a man was complaining to the conductor about something or other. I chimed in to support him, saying, “I ride this train all the time.” After the conductor moved on, several people turned to say thank you and added, questioningly, “But we don’t know you.” It was a commuting community.
I cried the evening of the crash, for the people on the train and because I wanted suddenly to go home and couldn’t because the line was closed for an investigation. It was foolish. I was at home in New York, safe and sound. But the thread that connects me with Great Barrington was broken.
I remembered my early days in Great Barrington. I could drive less than an hour in my shabby Ford sedan and hop on a train. New York wasn’t London, but it was a city. It was the world. One day when I was feeling especially trapped, I took my small children into New York (fifty cents each, round trip). We went to the zoo in Central Park and ate hamburgers and went goo-goo-eyed at Grand Central Terminal. I made them stand with me for a moment on the street, holding their hands while I squeezed my eyes shut and just felt the heartbeat of the city.
Train lines bring our worlds together. They can connect rural and urban America in a way that is profoundly important to the future of our country. That’s why I dedicate so much time to the Train Campaign: to make new connections for many thousands of people, who could in years to come make their homes in the Berkshires or in the lovely towns en route, and also feel at home in the city, connected with the world, the big wide world that offers us opportunities to grow, learn, and love.
Will I stop riding the train? Never. And I’ll do everything possible to see that northwestern Connecticut and the Berkshires have train service again.
Next week, I’ll be attending the first gathering of Rebooting New England, a project developed by Robert Yaro of the Design School at Penn. Right now, we are calling on everyone who believes in the importance of passenger rail to send email comments to the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) about their Draft Rail Plan.
You can comment at our blog, donate (tax-deductible for US citizens), or write to me directly. We’re also planning to expand the Berkshire Encyclopedia of Sustainability to include much more on infrastructure, economic development, and rural-urban connections.
Karen Christensen is an American entrepreneur, environmentalist, and founder of the Train Campaign. She is the owner and CEO of Berkshire Publishing Group and a member of the National Committee on United States-China Relations. She grew up in the Silicon Valley, started her career in London, and has lived in Great Barrington since 1995.