Finding and Losing Train Culture

My family and I are in the process of moving to a small town in northwest Ohio called Fostoria. We are here for practical reasons—it is the town closest to where I work that has a good Catholic school. That said, I have found the people, on the whole, to be quite charming and welcoming. They are in a bit of a tough spot, the town having seen a decline in finances and population in recent decades, but many of them clearly are determined to maintain and improve their community.

One circumstance I’m getting used to is the train traffic. It seems like there are train tracks everywhere you go in Fostoria. At first a Philistine such as me finds them a terrible nuisance. One can end up late for a meeting, or simply frustrated and impatient, because one has been stuck in the car for 5 or 10 minutes waiting for a train to go by. Then there was the recent train tragedy in Quebec, a sign, surely, that trains pose real dangers to people and should be planned for and built with an emphasis on what’s good for the people who live around them, as well as those who use them. And, of course, trains make noise. Lots of noise. Including in the middle of the night.

Surprisingly, I’ve already gotten used to the noise. What’s more, it doesn’t take much investigation to see what used to be the up-side of a train town. Fostoria’s downtown is not in terrific shape—too many closed stores. But it not only has at least one terrific restaurant, it also has a beautiful old building that used to be a genuine opera house.

As many people are aware, the United States used to be filled with small and medium-sized towns that had their own opera houses. My 45-minute commute takes me from one small town with an opera house, through another (Findlay) and into a village (Ada) that at one time hosted its own opera house. Of course, this does not mean that the good farmers and mechanics of America’s heartland used to make nightly pilgrimages to watch the local production of La Traviata. I doubt Verdi’s operas were often performed in Ada or Fostoria. But many of his arias were.

For all the talk of how isolated small towns used to be, it seems clear to me that a larger percentage of people more regularly availed themselves of more opportunities to experience genuine performing arts in the era of the train than do so today in the era of the automobile and, of course, the television. Great and famous singers of the day would stop off at places like Fostoria and Ada to give performances on their way to larger venues like Chicago. The performance might have been in the middle of the day, and it might have been shorter and less grand than in Chicago, but high art was performed as well as low and middle art in these trackside houses. The locals often came from miles around, but didn’t have to make the long, expensive, and time-consuming trip to the big city to enjoy genuine public entertainment—be it Shakespeare, Verdi, or a Vaudeville Show—with their neighbors.

The opera houses were not for out-of-town or traveling entertainment only. They also were used for local community meetings, dances, and other activities. They were integrated parts of the town (often upstairs from a hardware store or other merchant) that served to integrate the community.

And train culture itself helped integrate communities into the larger, state and national society in a way that left local autonomy intact. The nice thing about trains is that they bring people and things to your community and take them from your community to the wider world without erasing your actual community. Trains come in at one or two points, and leave by those same points, on a more or less regular, but distinctly limited schedule. Even the train suburbs of our cities, when they existed, had an actual character of their own that is not duplicated by suburbs on the beltway (just compare Philadelphia—a tough town with vibrant suburbs, to Los Angeles, an extremely pleasant collection of communities in the early twentieth century that has been transformed into a literal concrete jungle).

Transportation by train is a distinct event, or series of events, rather than the constant flow that automobile traffic tends to be. Of course, change was a constant on and near the frontier as people passed through on their way West. But the train had a more direct, concentrated, and so geographically limited impact than our current web of “free”ways. This is not to say that roads don’t both integrate and exclude communities. When Eisenhower insisted on that massive public works and nationalization program that became our freeway system, his engineers made a number of towns into large cities by putting them on the main freeway route—and destroyed many more by bypassing them.

Technology is not destiny, of course. European countries have shown that trains can be part of a dehumanizing mass culture where personal space and independent action are so scarce as to hardly be missed. And American railroads were built more than anything from government subsidies extracted by massive graft and often were used for destructive purposes. It is sad, nonetheless, to contemplate what was lost when the federal government decided to pour trillions of dollars into paving America. One wonders whether some, at least, of our train culture might have survived if train graft had not been followed by road graft.

As with most forms of industry, we have taken the natural desire to insulate ourselves from what is loud and potentially dangerous to an unfortunate extreme that allows other, more widespread dangers (such as automobile accidents, the debilitating effects of too much driving, and the destruction of real, compact communities) to escape our notice even as they effect our lives.

Such considerations are not irrelevant today, as our national government pursues its new graft-centered transportation model. The massive subsidies being thrown at car companies, big and small, promising to solve the world’s problems with electricity confront numerous unadvertised problems—from the diversion of needed monies to special interests, to the huge, inevitable costs of building a new infrastructure once (if) electric cars become mass produced consumers of electricity, to the currently outsourced problems of toxic battery waste. Even if electric cars are the wave of the future, an approach that allows people and their communities to adapt and integrate the new technology would seem culturally as well as economically and environmentally imperative. Our “practical” national government wants to change the world through the latest technology. But, while technology is not destiny, forcing new technology on people comes at the expense of a way, not just of transporting things, but of living our lives together. A little less pride in government programs and a little more care for actual people and their ways of life, might help keep our culture from being damaged more than it already has.

This column first appeared July 27, 2013 on the Imaginative Conservative website and is reprinted with permission.

Bruce Frohnen


Bruce Frohnen is Professor of Law at the Ohio Northern University College of Law. He is also a senior fellow at the Russell Kirk Center and author of many books including The New Communitarians and the Crisis of Modern Liberalism, and the editor of Rethinking Rights (with Ken Grasso), and The American Republic: Primary Source. His most recent book (with the late George Carey) is Constitutional Morality and the Rise of Quasi-Law (Harvard, 2016).

  • P

    “European countries have shown that trains can be part of a dehumanizing mass culture where personal space and independent action are so scarce as to hardly be missed.”

    That’s a puzzling remark. I have lived in Europe for 23 of the 25 years since I graduated university (master’s degree was in England), and I marvel at the idea that ‘trains can be part of a dehumanizing mass culture’. It’s the car that ‘dehumanizes.’ Everyone in his little box of personal space, so cut off from the reality of the other driver that rudeness and even violence against other drivers is not unheard of in the US.

    I don’t drive anymore by choice. I take public transport and I love taking the train over long-distance busses (coaches) when I travel outside the city. I find nothing ‘dehumanizing’ about public transport and the trains. Quite the contrary: on a bus or tram or train one has to be polite and to a degree, sociable because one is in regular contact with a whole range of humanity. You have to ask if a seat is free; you say ‘good morning’ to the other people in the compartment when you enter and you say ‘good bye’ when you get off the train. While you are on the train, you by no means put your feet up on the seats out of consideration for other people who will sit on those seats later. You ask the other passengers how they feel about opening or closing the window. If someone has trouble putting a bag on the overhead rack, naturally you get up and help the person – you’re going to be sharing company with that person for hours, maybe even a whole day, so starting off polite and considerate is a good idea. Conversations are easy to start up and can be lively and interesting (I once listened to a young religious sister standing out in the corridor having an earnest, but completely pleasant conversation with some young men most people would avoid as hooligans: she was answering their questions about the faith and urging them back to Mass attendance, and they were listening with respect). You can also completely respect the wish of another person to read or nap as that individual prefers; everyone has to respect the private space of the other person’s seat and luggage space. Problems arise: the compartment door won’t close; the heat won’t go on or turn off; someone is unsure of his or her stop; an elderly or handicapped person needs help getting off the bus, tram or train – and the people sharing the journey pitch in to help or track down someone who can fix the situation or answer the question.

    How is all of this civilized interaction with complete strangers – who become fellow travellers for the length of the journy – somehow ‘dehumanizing’? It seems rather to bring out the humanity in people in ways that are by no means demanded of them when they are isolted in their cars.

    Public transport – at least in Poland, where I live – is a constant test and demonstration of what the society considers polite and respectful behavior. That means that there still IS a sense of ‘what is correct and not correct’, contrary to the American idea of everyone going his individualistic way, utterly disregarding all the other individualists around him. It means that when a pregnant woman gets on the bus or tram, someone gets up and offers her a seat. Ditto the elderly, infirm, handicapped, temporarily handicapped and religious sisters. If you are young and able and you don’t get up and give a seat, at the very least you’ll hear pointed mutterings about your ‘lack of culture’ or you’ll even be tapped on the shoulder and as much as told to get up and give a seat to one more in need. Women with baby carriages and strollers are routinely helped on and off the busses and trams by whoever – male or female – is standing by. It does the heart good to see young people leap off the tram or bus even when it’s not their stop, in their eagerness to help (and be seen helping) some young mother struggling with a baby carriage.

    I find none of this at all dehumanizing. No: it is the ‘individualizing’ trend of the ‘automobile culture’ that is dehumanizing. It is the public nature of travelling together on trams, trains and busses; the necessity of having and enforcing by mutual expectation and agreement certain norms of politeness and help; the necessity of being TOGETHER that humanizes public life when much of the country travels together rather than isolated in their little boxes.

    There is romance to public transportation and to train travel. And that romance has everything to do with the fact that you will meet with and be with a wide variety of people – you will be face-to-face with ‘humanity’ and your own humanity will be shown for what it is, good or bad. Think of all the stories written about events on a train (or a wagon train) or other mode of shared transportation: you couldn’t write those in an automobile culture that focuses on the individual.

    As for personal space, Europeans don’t find it in their cars as Americans do. But they do find it in their homes: there is thus a far greater emphasis on the family and close friends in Europe than in the US. When Europeans want to be alone in their personal space, that means being at home with family – all the more when you consider that the majority of Europeans don’t live in McMansions but in small houses and apartments, so it is by no means the norm for every child to be isolated in his or her own personal room with his or her own personal entertainment system, etc. People live together at home, and being together with family and close friends is what ‘personal space’ means: the place where my most intimate relationships take place; not the place where I’m totally alone. Travelling together enhances – as well as tests – personal relationships (think of the ‘wagon train’ stories of the old west), a value rather higher than ‘individualism’ (though ‘relationship’ is a hard sell to Americans, I know).

    As for ‘independent action’ being so scarce as to be hardly missed, I am nonplussed. Yes, in a train I cannot see some interesting building and shout to the driver, ‘Turn left! I want to go over and have a look at that,’ as I could if I were in a car. Granted. But transportation is not the only realm for independent action. I can act independently in so many ways that I have no sense at all of ‘missing’ independent action that I had in the US. I’m just baffled by the idea that people who live in cultures where trains are regular modes of transportation for the masses somehow lack scope for independent action. I’d like some evidence of that. What we do have – and what the US is sorely lacking – is a sense that there are cultural norms for behavior, for politeness, and that every day, every time you travel to and fro, you will be expected to live up to those norms. It’s part of what holds cultures together: having a sense of shared norms of what is correct and polite and what is not.

    It is a great relief for an American to live in Europe, because even though I’m a foreigner, I have learned ‘what is polite and what is not polite’ and I never have to worry that every single encounter of every single day I will run into another individualist who is offended because I somehow crossed some invisible line of what THEY consider to be their PERSONAL idea of ‘how people are supposed to behave.’ If ‘mass culture’ means CULTURE – ‘shared standards of interpersonal behavior and politeness’ – I’m all for it. If it means, ‘whatever the media tells us is moral and Hollywood tell us is cool and Madison Avenue tells us we must buy’ — America can have it.

    • That Was Then

      Exactly! Car culture has a much more dehumanizing effect than train travel. Ironically, if it wasn’t for trains, America would not have been settled so quickly and easily.

  • Bruce Frohnen

    I would disagree with none of your particular points about the superiority of trains over authomobiles. In fact, I would embrace them. My only point was that transportation is not destiny. That is, even a better form of transportation (and I think trains far superior to cars–note my mentioning of Philadelphia and Los Angeles–and my clear preference for what Philadelphia did in building train suburbs) can be part of a culture that is inhumane. In stating that trains can be part of a culture that is dehumanizing I meant only that one can still have a dehumanizing, even dying, culture while also having trains. I have not the personal experience necessary to comment on the current state of the culture in Poland, but secularization in Western Europe has created culture that are, in varying degrees, toxic.

    • Michael Paterson-Seymour

      I loved the old French railway system. Built to ensure the rapid mobilisation of reservists, there were 30,000 kilometres of it, with branch lines serving almost every village.

      No one expected it to make a profit, any more than they expected the frontier fortresses to make a profit. The taxpayer did not subsidize the railways; passengers and freight reduced the defence budget.

      Alas, many of the branch lines were closed in the 1970s.

  • Adam__Baum

    Unlike, I suppose just about every other poster here, I have actually qualified as a conductor, which is more involved than most people realize. (On a train, the conductor, not the engineer, is actually the chief administrative officer of the train. Old hands will tell you the engineer’s job is to “pull up, back up and shut up”.)

    This article is an imposition of a meme of largely specious and errant observations, from an author who usually does better. You can sit in your car, oblivious to your fellow motorists, or you can take a seat in your coach (carriage) and ignore your fellow passengers, in fact today, due to the existence of electronic distractions, PASSENGERS can “zone out” completely.

    Worse, this is not a particularly novel argument, either. Closet collectivists see massses of people put in a single conveyance, subject to external direction and loss of control and see that as Pavlovian conditioning for the diktats of the administrative superstate. Hence the affection of the left for government “high speed rail”, which is an attempt to rebuild the robust passenger service that was destroyed as much by the inane decrees of the Interstate Commerce Commission and the development of air travel as the Interstate Highway System.

    In addition, the author makes factual errors. It might be true TODAY, that “transportation by train is a distinct event, or series of events, rather than the constant flow that automobile traffic tends to be, but that was not the case decades ago, where there was a more or less continuous flow of traffic in an out of stations in many towns, much like what is still experienced in places like New York through Washington (the so-called Northeast Corridor)

    As for danger, the recent even in Quebec is largely an anomoly, reportable for that very reason, unlike the tens of thousands of incidents with over the road trucks that occur each year. As for the noice, you migh indeed hear a horn blowing in the night, but anybody who has ever lived next to an intertate highway knows the familiar roar that is 24/7/365. As for being late, well try travelling an Interstate clogged with trucks due to weather or some accident.

  • msmischief

    The opera thing is more than we used to have a lot more opera singers. Instead of top-line singers getting broadcast, we got a lot of middle-line singers singing in opera houses all over.

    Modern culture tends to be winner-takes-all

  • hombre111

    If we had deliberately designed a way to use up our limited resources as rapidly as possible, along with destroying the environment to boot, we would do what we are doing. It begins with suburbia, and the long commute, with individuals in their individual cars. An astonishing waste of fuel, without having to rub elbows with our fellow human being. And Mr. Frohnen says the little town is experiencing a decline in finances and population, with empty stores downtown. Any chance there are Walmarts and other big box stores lurking nearby?

    • Adam__Baum

      “had deliberately designed a way to use up our limited resources as rapidly as possible”.
      Good grief, you are a cartoon.
      We don’t have limited resources, Rev. Malthus, just limited minds.
      Besides if you were so concerned with these things, you’d unplug the computer.

      • TheodoreSeeber

        Actually, in the last 5 years, with the mobility craze taking effect, even large desktop computers are consuming less and less power. You don’t NEED a 450 W power supply to run an Intel Atom. And of course, since mobility is important, that laptop practically sips electricity in comparison to even an old 8088 luggable.

        • Adam Baum

          Less, not none. As an aside, there are those that believe mobile devices impose different environmental issues, especially given their relatively short service lives and greater infrastructure needs.

  • CharlesOConnell

    From Roseville CA, the Union Pacific maintenance hub:

    Fostoria OH was the location of an allegedly valid Marian apparition to Sr. Mildred Mary Neuzil, attested by the late Archbishop Paul Leibold, though not officially declared worthy of belief, and affirmatively commented on by Cardinal Raymond Burke.

    Our Lady of America

  • TheodoreSeeber

    A huge part of enjoying “the performing arts” is being able to afford them.

    Internet- $30/month for unlimited service
    Cable TV with DVR- $100/month for hundreds of hours of entertainment (with commercial support, of course, got to advertise!), and you can pause when you need to go to the restroom.
    My local theater scene: $25/seat for a 2 hour production. Which means $75 for even just my little family to go see a play with amateur actors, and since it is live, no pause.

    It’s sad, but it is no longer affordable.