Hold on to that train of thought

I’ve been thinking about trains. You know what trains are: Those things that run on tracks that you can’t catch anywhere around here. Those things.

And I’ve been thinking about them because when Kathy and I were in Portugal recently, we took a lot of trains. Well, actually, a total of four.

I have taken trains in this country, although not in the last couple of years, and the comparison … kids, there isn’t any comparison. In Portugal, trains are just so cool to take, and they run on time and they are clean, and the one from Lisbon to Lagos scares the heck out of you because they post, on a screen in each car, the outside temperature and the speed of the train, which often reached 196 miles an hour, which is … YIKES.

That was the first train we took: Lisbon to Lagos (not the one in Nigeria; can’t get there by train, which is OK with me because if I had a list of places I never want to go, Nigeria would be on it). Stupidly, though, I forgot to tell the ticket agent that I was flipping old, so I didn’t get my Old Cat Discount, but I caught on after that.

Anyway, it was still cheap: The two of us got to Lagos, about 300 miles, for less than $60, and that was full fare.

In Portugal, you have to change trains, sometimes a lot. For the Lisbon-Lagos trip, we caught the train at the Apolonia station (hello, Miguel Corleone, and if you don’t get the reference, you are not as steeped in “Godfather” lore as you should be) and rode for about 30 minutes before we had to change trains. But it was no big deal. It’s sort of clear where the train is going to be, and your ticket tells you the train number, the car number and your seat number. And the big board of arrivals and departures tells you the track number.

And they only sometimes fool you with the track number, but usually only by one, so if the board says Track 2, the train might actually bop in on Track 3, and unless you put your faith in the train number, you could end up looking pretty silly standing there as YOUR train pulls out without you.

I figured that out pretty quickly when one train came in on a different track but with the right train number, and we made it.

So two trains to Lagos, then a bus to Salema, and here is the cool story about that: We got off the train in Lagos, and knew we had to walk about a half mile to the bus station, but couldn’t figure out which way to go, and I was wandering around looking for some clue when I came back to find Kathy being talked to by a very small, elderly woman who couldn’t speak but a few words of English, but enough so that Kathy figured out she wanted us to follow her to the bus station.

So I figured, well, she’s taking the bus, too, to somewhere, and we all started walking, and she started talking much more Portuguese than I could follow, and then she handed me her packages to carry and crossing a canal I figured out that her father had been a boat captain and I tried to discuss that with her until she demanded that I stop talking because she hated my voice and wanted the “senora,” Kathy, to talk instead, which was pretty uncool.

Anyway, she got us to the bus station, took us right up to the ticket counter, took back her packages, turned around and left the station, obviously not interested in talking a bus, so I have no idea why she latched onto us and guided us, but it was interesting, if weird, and I don’t even know her name, and the ticket agent had no idea what I was talking about when I tried to explain what I just explained to you. Mystery woman.

But … trains. Or public transportation in general in Portugal:

The bus from the airport into Lisbon? Easy and cheap.

The train to Lagos and the bus to Salema? Easy and cheap.

The three trains from Lagos to Evora? Easy (once you realized they might be fooling you with the track number) and cheaper because I remembered I was really flipping old, so discounted by half, eh?

Train from Evora to Lisbon? Easy and cheap.

Oh: And they ABSOLUTELY run on time. If a train is to leave at 2:02, it leaves at 2:02. Not one single train that we took left a second late. Fantastic.

Here, I have taken the train from Boston to New York with the ultimate destination of Bay Head, N.J., and it sure isn’t cheap, even for old schnooks like me. It’s a nice ride on the Boston Express bus from Nashua to South Station, yeah, and once you catch the train, the train is OK and maybe even left on time, I don’t remember, but once you get to New York? Penn Station is a mess, and when you find your train and it leaves, well, you either have to change in Newark or some dorky little burg in New Jersey, the name of which I forget, and then when you get to Bay Head, you need a ride if that isn’t your ultimate destination.

See, what I found in Portugal is that you can get just about anywhere on public transportation – train, bus, trolley.

But here?

What do we have against public transportation? Decades ago, you could get from Keene to Boston on trains. Today? Bus is the best you can do, and while Boston Express is fine and clean and quick, even to Logan Airport, you need to drive to get to it.

We took taxis twice in Portugal, but not because we had to. When we got back to Lisbon, it just seemed easier to cab it to the airport – and it was cheap, man, cheap – because we were tired. But we could have bused it.

Trains, buses, trollies. Hey, no subways? I guess not. Rome had subways. I liked subways in Rome. I liked subways – metros, if you will – in Montreal.

Nah, I don’t expect a subway between Lyndeborough and Boston Express in Nashua, but a train? Or a bus?

C’mon, man. When it comes to public transportation, we’re more Lagos, Nigeria, than Lagos, Portugal, and that’s pathetic. (I was going to say “sad,” but that word’s been co-opted and used … pathetically.)

Mike Cleveland is former editor of The Cabinet.

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