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Envying the U.K.’s public transportation

Paddington Station, London. Just look how clean it is.

I added up the number of hours of travel required to get from Acorn Abbey in the Blue Ridge foothills of North America to Stornaway on the isle of Lewis and Harris in the Outer Hebrides. It comes to about 28 hours. Of those hours, 25 hours were on a plane, several trains, a bus, and a ferry. Only three hours was by car — getting from the abbey to the Raleigh-Durham airport for the flight to London Heathrow. Can you guess which part of that long trip was the most unpleasant?

Purely by accident on this trip, the ferry was the most unpleasant. That was because storms and gale-force winds off the North Atlantic were blowing into the sea channel between the islands and the Scottish mainland. The ferry, which was not small, reared and bucked through scary wave after scary wave, with seawater crashing against the windows way up on the passengers’ observation deck. Everyone tightly held onto their seats, and there was a great and contagious chorus of gagging and throwing up, which would have been funny but for the exhausting work of keeping one’s eyes on the sea, one’s grip on one’s seat, and one’s lunch down. But, had the weather off the North Atlantic been more placid that day, then the ferry would have been a lark, and the worst part of this 28-hour trip would have been the drive to Raleigh over America’s rude highways.

Even the 6.5-hour flight, on a Boeing wide-body 777 operated jointly by British Airways and American Airlines, was not that bad. Those two airlines have figured out that the best way to keep passengers entertained on long flights is to keep bringing free food and drink.

While the U.S. continues to pave itself over with ever-meaner highways, the U.K. remains a nation of trains. Yes, the trains tend to be crowded. Passengers more than doubled between 1997 and 2014. The U.K. is investing billions to expand and upgrade the rail network. The rail system is a true network, with carefully constructed schedules that usually give you just enough time to change trains when your destination is off the main routes. The British people are brilliant at boarding trains quickly, so station stops are short. Often you meet interesting people. I had planned to sleep on the train from Oxford to Edinburgh, but I ended up having a long conversation with a retired gentleman from York who gave me a good perspective on how people feel about Brexit and the state of the world. Unsurprisingly, most of his questions about the U.S. were about guns and Trump, two facets of American life that Europeans have a very hard time understanding.

The U.K. trains are nicely tied in with the Internet. You can buy tickets with your smart phone. While you’re on the train, the Trainline app will use GPS to show you what train you’re on and what stations you’re approaching.

Where the trains don’t go, the buses will get you. Even on the remote western side of Lewis and Harris, the buses out of Stornaway dropped us off a short walk from our Airbnb accommodations.

In the U.S., it’s just a given that conservatives hate trains and love to kill them off. George Will once said, “the real reason for progressives’ passion for trains is their goal of diminishing Americans’ individualism in order to make them more amenable to collectivism.” Liberals’ love for trains is often attribued to “Euro-envy.” I enthusiastically plead guilty.

Note: I’ve had a number of things to attend to and haven’t yet had a chance to work up my photos and video from this trip. I hope to get that done within the next week or so.


  1. Henry wrote:

    Hi David
    Recently Vicky & I travelled a few countries in the former Iron Curtain ring – All of them had state of the art subway & surface transportation as well as Ferries and larger boats, even a few river crossing craft, similar to what was used in the Americas a few years ago to carry a car or two or several passengers directly across to “get to the other side.” Of course I brought that to the attention of many people I know here in California, their reply was its too costly. Bunk! I’d ride a train in a second over flying.

    Tuesday, September 3, 2019 at 2:04 pm | Permalink
  2. daltoni wrote:

    Hi Henry: I admire your willingness to travel in those parts of the world! A major problem with Americans is that they are ignorant and insular. They know next to nothing about the rest of the world. I often fantasize about giving young people a passport and some travel vouchers as a reward for graduating from high school so that all could see a bit of the world. The Republican Party would shrivel and die and go burn in hell. America would become civilized. The planet would have a chance.

    Tuesday, September 3, 2019 at 9:33 pm | Permalink

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