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Disputation Car

Kevin Baker’s article on American rail travel [“21st Century Limited,” Folio, July] covered much of the same territory I did in my recent book, Train. But Baker came to opposite conclusions about California’s high-speed rail project, which he lambastes as a waste of money. Critics have been saying the same thing about Amtrak for decades, yet it still provides reliable, low-cost transportation for people across the country. In the same fashion, high-speed rail does not have a prayer of paying for itself in strict terms of dollars and cents. But it will be environmentally friendly, visually pleasing, and popular. It will also be a civilized place for Americans to talk to one another on their journeys. These are the same merits Baker eloquently attributed to Amtrak.

Tom Zoellner
Los Angeles

Kevin Baker is far too pessimistic about the future of trains in America.

The Obama Administration’s rail program has invested in thirty-three states, and construction is under way or complete in fourteen. And although Baker explicitly criticizes President Obama for not focusing enough on Amtrak, the majority of these rail projects are conventional, benefiting existing Amtrak services from Maine to Washington State.

Baker also declines to note that the revised 2012 business plan for the California High Speed Rail Project cited costs $23 billion lower than what had been previously predicted. Baker used a higher figure without noting that the number had later been revised. Finally, he overstated the amount of federal funding for the project; only $3.9 billion was finally awarded.

The result is a failure to recognize the progress that has been made in the past decade. Amtrak has set ten ridership records in the past eleven years. More states than ever are committed to developing and supporting intercity rail service, acting as laboratories to test funding models. With the California State Legislature set to dedicate a quarter of cap-and-trade revenue to the 220-mile-per-hour train, the United States is well on its way to getting its first truly high-speed rail line.

My organization works hard to educate policymakers and act as the voice of the passenger, both in D.C. and across the nation; we know America’s future is riding on it.

Sean Jeans-Gail
Vice President, National Association of Railroad Passengers
Washington, D.C.

Kevin Baker responds:

Sean Jeans-Gail’s organization has fought the good fight for rail passenger for decades, and Tom Zoellner’s splendid new book was a source for this writer, and a very thoughtful defense of rail travel in general. Nonetheless, I believe they’re mistaken about California’s high-speed rail plan, which I argue is a contractor-sabotaged boondoggle whose total cost may well exceed our estimates. But I sincerely hope I’m wrong and they’re right. Americans need good rail networks, and we need them now.

A trip in an Amtrak sleeper is indeed splendid, until you have to pay for it. Years ago, my wife and I acquired an Amtrak MasterCard, began using it to pay all our bills, and have enjoyed many long train trips entirely on miles, which turn out to be much more valuable than their air-travel counterparts. It would take 50,000 United Airlines points to earn two round-trip tickets from New York to Chicago that would otherwise cost $632. On Amtrak, it takes only 40,000 points to earn a New York–Chicago round-trip, with a private compartment for two and all meals included — a value of $1,369. You get to see the country, arrive downtown, and not suffer the TSA.

Dan Baum
Boulder, Colo.

Baker uses the terms “rail enthusiast” and “foamer” extensively, and somewhat interchangeably. “Rail enthusiast” is primarily a British term. Most American train lovers call themselves “railfans.” The term “foamer” is a bit more complex. It might have been amusing to your readers to include its origin. A foamer is a guy who foams at the mouth at the thought of a steam engine. It is true that professional railroaders use the term as one of derision for all railfans; they just don’t get us. Working for the railroad to most of them is simply a job. However, we have discovered that a small number of Amtrak employees are actually foamers, too. They need to maintain a low profile, because it is not cool to love trains if you work for the railroad.

Frank Heppner
Chairman, Board of Directors, Friends of the Kingston Station
Wakefield, R.I.

Having spent a cumulative five months on board Amtrak sleepers since 1987, I could well be labeled a “foamer.” But Baker does Amtrak crew members a disservice by suggesting that they commonly mock or deride loyal and appreciative customers like me, using “foamer” as a pejorative. It’s an attitude I have never sensed on board.

George Baetjer
Lake Oswego, Ore.


Captions to photographs accompanying “21st Century Limited” contained three errors. The caption on page 43 correctly identifies the train in the photograph as the California Zephyr but incorrectly states that the Zephyr passes through Tomah, Wisconsin. The Zephyr does not pass through Wisconsin; the Empire Builder does. The caption to the photograph on page 46 incorrectly states that passengers are boarding the Empire Builder in Wisconsin. They are boarding in Winona, Minnesota. The caption on page 49 incorrectly describes the accompanying photograph as “commuters at a station in Wilmington, Delaware, along the Silver Star line.” The photograph shows the Commuter Rail station in Wilmington, Massachusetts.

“Armed and Dangerous” [William Pfaff, Revision, August] incorrectly states that Barack Obama is the first president since WWII not to have served in the military. He is the second, after Bill Clinton.

In Frederick Kaufman’s “The Man Who Stole the Nile” [Letter from Gambella, July], the following sentence is in error: “Last year, Al Amoudi, whom most Ethiopians call the Sheikh, exported a million tons of rice, about seventy pounds for every Saudi citizen.” The sentence should read, “Last year, Al Amoudi, whom most Ethiopians call the Sheikh, planned to export a million tons of rice, about seventy pounds for every Saudi citizen.”

We regret the errors.

Harper’s Magazine welcomes reader response. Please address mail to Letters, Harper’s Magazine, 666 Broadway, New York, N.Y. 10012, or email us at [email protected]. Short letters are more likely to be published, and all letters are subject to editing. Volume precludes individual acknowledgment.

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September 2014

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