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Nine Kilometers Out of Basel

The Journal of Prevarication
By Jim Cook
Official State Liar of Arizona

I wish we could get this country back on track. That’s a political statement only if you want it to be. I’m really talking about steel tracks, the kind that carry trains.

That idea doesn’t have the urgency that it did when gasoline prices were above four bucks a gallon, but they’ll no doubt be back up there. 

The older I get, the more often I meet myself coming back. Someone in Surprise–the mayor, I think–has suggested a rail transit system connecting downtown Phoenix to Wickenburg, and the towns in between, using the existing tracks of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad.

This would make much more efficient use of fuel, since the number of people commuting from Wickenburg to work in the Phoenix area is roughly equal to the number of people commuting from the metro area to work in Wickenburg.

I made the same proposal about thirty years ago in an article I wrote for the Sunday magazine of The Arizona Republic. As a child, I rode passenger trains from Wickenburg to Phoenix, and Peoria to Phoenix, when the trains were pulled by steam engines. In the 1970s, my imaginary railroad went as far as Mesa on the Southern Pacific tracks.  

My article was roundly ignored, as I expected it to be. At that time, gasoline cost less than 70 cents a gallon.

Governor Janet Napolitano has suggested a light rail system between Phoenix and Tucson. That would make sense, too, if the state and nation were not in the worst financial hole in the memory of all but the oldest of us. Interstate 10 is crowded, dangerous and boring.

Since I live in Wickenburg, I haven’t paid much attention to the light-rail system that will begin running in Phoenix in December. I know that the system will go hither and yon from north central Phoenix (it used to be northwest of Phoenix) to Tempe and Mesa.

I remember riding on the old Phoenix streetcars. They stopped running in 1948, as Phoenix began its post-war sprawl outward from downtown. Like passenger trains, trollies fell victim to the automobile. 

More recently, like five weeks ago, Miss Ellie and I got trapped on a streetcar in Basel, Switzerland. It’s easier than you think, if you haven’t ridden a streetcar lately. 

In two weeks in Europe–traveling the Rhine River by boat, yet–we saw more passenger trains than I saw during the ten years I lived in Flagstaff, on the main line of the Santa Fe Railroad. That was back in the days when people still rode passenger trains like the Super Chief and El Capitan.

Those trains went away in the 1960s, leaving us with Amtrak, or Amtrap as we call it around here . It was not a sudden decision–autos had been cutting into railroad passenger traffic since the 1920s. 

One by one, major railroads eliminated passenger trains and carried only freight, which didn’t complain when the train was late. Many of the railroads followed the passenger trains into oblivion.

I’m glad I live in Wickenburg, where we hear a few long freight trains go through every day, blowing their air horns and rattling their couplers. The electric trains in Europe are almost silent. You hear a high whine, and they’re past and gone. Their freight trains are short, and numerous. 

To catch a passenger train, we have to go to Flagstaff or Maricopa, where an Amtrak train will show up later, never sooner. Amtrak’s slogan is, “Life is a journey, not a destination.” Amtrak is heavily subsidized by the feds, which is not politically popular, but I think fuel prices might make it profitable someday. 

(There’s a historical irony about going to Maricopa to catch a train. When Southern Pacific built its line across Arizona 1877-81, it skipped the village of Phoenix, which made sense at the time. The Maricopa & Phoenix Railroad opened in 1886 to serve the capital city, and did so until 1927, when SP built a line through Phoenix. 

(Until a few years ago, you could catch an Amtrak train at Union Station in downtown Phoenix. Then Southern Pacific [now Union Pacific] reverted to its original main line. The tracks through Phoenix are used only for local freight.)

Any European town of any size has a railroad station, or two. Most cities have light-rail trolley systems to get you to the station. 

Our cruise ship dropped us near Basel early on a Saturday morning. We took a cab to the Raddison, stashed our luggage and took Trolley Number 10 to one of the two railroad depots in Basel.

We had eight minutes to catch a train to Lucerne. No problem. It took about an hour to reach Lucerne, speeding through the Swiss countryside, little towns and small cities.  

The Lucerne depot is right acros the street from Lake Lucerne. We boarded a tour boat that also serves as a ferry to the towns around the lake. We had a fine lunch in the restaurant on the boat. The gorgeous lake is lower in elevation than Wickenburg, but the Alps rise around it rather precipitously.

Back at the Lucerne depot, we asked a conductor if his train went to Basel. Yes, he said, but it wouldn’t leave for about 15 minutes. We were barely in our seats when the train pulled out.

As we neared Basel, the conductor announced that because the train had left Lucerne late, we were running 45 minutes behind schedule. You could have fooled us. Passengers who had to make connections with the sleek IRC “bullet trains”  to Paris and Amsterdam would make it in time, but the IRC train for Hamburg had already left. Why did this remind me of Amtrak?

I have to say that we were pretty smug, doing all this cool stuff and getting away with that kind of timing.

Trolley Number 10We caught Trolley Number 10–we were old hands at this by now–and headed back to the Raddison. 

The trolley stopped in front of the Raddison, but we couldn’t get the doors to our car open. It was an articulated trolley, and there was no way to communicate with the motorman.

I figured the line circled downtown Basel, and I told Miss Ellie we’d just ride it around in a circle. Maybe someone else would get on our car, and we could figure out how the doors worked.

“Oh, good,” she said. “A free tour.” 

Number 10 did not circle downtown. It wandered through residential areas, industrial areas, and out into the countryside. I know now that Number 10 goes into France for a ways, then goes back into Switzerland.

We came to a settlement where trolleys appeared to converge at a turn-around. By now, Ellie had figured out that we had to push a little green button to open the doors.

We got off and approached another trolley Number 10 pointed the other direction. Ellie approached the woman driving it. I let her do the talking, because the only Swiss word I know is “franc.”

The driver said in English, “Why don’t you come with me?”

We did. We had traveled a ways when I saw a sign that said, “Basel 9 km.”

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