I Think I See the Problem

My rural Colorado County may lose its only regularly scheduled passenger train. But there’s actually a more troubling issue.

I noticed an item in my Facebook news feed linking to a story in Mass Transit magazine about the 220 U.S. cities that will lose train service if President Trump eliminates federal funding for Amtrak’s national rail network, as he has proposed.

This isn’t an area of expertise for me, or even of particular interest. But as a big-city boy recently and gleefully transplanted to rural Grand County, Colorado, I was curious to see if the California Zephyr was going to be shut down here. Pretty much every day since 1983, the train has rolled into my little town, Granby, as well as nearby Fraser and Winter Park. The horn that announces its arrival drives my still-skittish city dog insane — I imagine him thinking, “What kind of critter is that?” — but the Zephyr adds real charm to the place. It’s also a tangible link to this Rocky Mountain county’s colorful railroad history, and I was struck by the idea that our only year-round passenger train might soon stop rolling.

Sure enough, the local stops are on the bubble. So I posted the Mass Transit link to a chatty local Facebook group of which I’m a member with the following innocuous note: “Attention Grand County friends: The California Zephyr service to Granby and Winter Park-Fraser is among the proposed route eliminations. If you care about the train service and the local businesses that depend on it, speak up!”

People did. A spirited discussion followed, and by “spirited” I mean the Facebook equivalent of a cage fight. To use a train metaphor, things went off the rails quickly, and in a way that perfectly illustrates the yawning gap between the two seemingly irreconcilable factions in this country — a divide the November presidential election laid bare.

It started simply enough with a comment from a free-market-small-government aficionado: “This is why nice people don’t run for federal office,” wrote the first responder. “Hard decisions have to be made. Amtrak needs to be able to function without federal subsidies.”

That’s all it took, and we were off!

“I hope that means all the oil companies that use massive government subsidies, too,” came an early retort.

Thus began an extended war of words that ultimately included a brief-but-ponderous lecture on macroeconomics, sarcastic references to “those pesky tourists or skiers (who) spend money in town,” the characterization of one participant’s “deranged perception” and of another’s position as “truly ignorant,” and at least one diatribe about Amtrak’s service as proof of its need to “just die.” Someone posted a link to a story called “Trains From Hell,” about Amtrak passengers who once were delayed 24 hours by snow drifts and a truck crash.

The phrase “narrow minded” surfaced from time to time, and the term “delusional” was weaponized more than once. Someone was labeled a “troll.” There was even a passing reference to a Granby train crash scene in the film version of Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged,” bringing a philosophical dimension to what began as a simple post about how we might lose local train service. My favorite toe-to-toe sarcasm smackdown was this exchange:

“The government is not in any position to subsidize anything at this point.”

“Except military spending, the oil and gas industry, and pharmaceutical companies? But ya the train needs to go.”

Which of the following two comments do you find more condescending? Was it the brawler who sneered “Boy, you people will blame Trump for everything”? (You people? Really?) Or was it the insufferable know-it-all who advised: “Do your research before you attempt to pick a fight with someone who has spent the last decade reading and writing about what’s actually going on.”

People, people, people. Let’s start with a switch to decaf. After that, let’s consider talking to one another, rather than at one another. It reminds me of that great moment in “Pulp Fiction” when Uma Thurman asks John Travolta: “In conversation, do you listen, or do you wait to talk?”

I think I see the problem: Too many of us are just waiting to talk. And if we stay that way, friends, we’ve got a far bigger problem than whether or not the local train will disappear.

(For more information about Martin J. Smith, his novels and nonfiction books, or to sign up for his newsletter, visit www.martinjsmith.com.)