When I read about the $11 billion construction project at the Springfield interchange on Route 95 and the hour it may add to my commute for the next 10 years, I started thinking about alternatives. So since the first of the year, I have been riding the Virginia Railway Express whenever possible.
How does it compare to commuting by car? Let me tell you.
First, being at work without a car can be a problem if you want to run an errand or go out to lunch. I generally bring food with me or eat what is available on my work premises. Occasionally, a colleague takes me out, but I do feel a little stuck because my office is not in walking distance of any eateries.
And the train is not cheap. My round-trip from Fredericksburg to King Street in Alexandria costs more than $10. If I could eliminate using my car, it might be a bargain, but because I have to take my car to the train station, I spend more to get to and from work using the train than I do if I drive all the way.
Then too, my commute takes a good bit longer by train. I have to get to the station, park and wait for the train. Many people often have to take a connecting bus or subway on the other end of their train commute too.
The train ride takes an hour longer each way. On the other hand, if the construction project really does add an hour each way to the highway commute for the next 10 years, I'd rather spend that hour on the train than in traffic.
So, I have to conclude reluctantly that going by train is more costly and inconvenient than driving. But it does have its benefits.
First, I get to look around. In the car, my world is other cars, the road, my gas gauge, my speedometer and my coffee cup.
When I take the train, I stand on the platform, and I notice the weather. Once on the train, I see creeks and for a stretch, the Potomac River, where crabmen and oystermen tend to their tackle. I notice helicopters gassing up at Quantico and the awesome power plant at Possum Point. I have learned to appreciate the network of bridges, overpasses and underpasses, ramps, embankments, retaining walls and stations that constitute our railway system.
The train also passes through the backyards of America, so I have the sense of seeing past the facades and into the spaces where people actually live. I expected to use my time on the train to work, read or sleep, but instead I find I like looking out the window -- and that practice changes my attitude for the whole day. It is not that I am more rested exactly, but that I have better perspective than I do when I have commuted by car.
Riding the train also is a communal experience. Not that most commuters talk -- indeed, most are intent on fencing off their own space and on not violating that of others. But a subtle sense of doing something together exists nevertheless, of getting with a larger program and feeling a certain comaraderie that is different from the indifferent, even hostile feeling on the highway. I enjoy seeing the same commuters and conductors day after day.
The train also makes me concentrate better on what I am doing at the moment so I don't get into that fragmented state that I sometimes equate with not "wasting time" -- when, for example, I eat my lunch as I drive, thus missing both experiences.
Even the delays -- such as when the train has to follow a freight train or make way for an Amtrak express -- seem less irksome than the delays I experience on the highway.
Perhaps you have seen, as I have, the bumper sticker that says, "I hate Route 95!" While I don't hate it, at best, I tolerate it. The train, on the other hand, I actually like. Somebody should print up bumper stickers that say, "I'd rather be riding the train." I'd buy one.
-- William A. Harrison III