Driving down the road listening to the radio, I heard a female voice sing a rueful tune about plane travel. Based on her almost constant touring, the singer-songwriter ran down a long list of air travel woes, starting with "If your flight leaves at 10 a.m., be at the airport by 5:30." She bemoaned the food, sitting on the runway for half a day, and the regimentation of "Do as you're told and don't ask questions." She joked that people traveling in first class are at least anaesthetized from the process by free booze.

Anyone who travels by plane would probably laugh along with the lyrics, most of which describe air travel long before Sept. 11, 2001: Dinky seats, crummy food, being forced to sit still for the duration, and the general air of regimentation that has surrounded air travel ever since it became mass transit as opposed to an elite option for people traveling extremely long distances.

My first plane trip was in 1951 when I was six years old and my last was in October 1998. My first trip was Houston to Portland; the last was Portland to Manzanillo, Mexico and back. In between, my husband and I took a six-month around the world trip by air and afterward, in spite of flying on some of the best airlines in the world (and some of the funkiest), my romance with air travel had definitely waned. That doesn't mean I'll never take a plane again - there are still plenty of places I'd like to visit that would be logistically difficult to get to without plane travel.

In the meantime, before traveling to Italy, Finland or Oaxaca, I've been taking the train to conferences in California and New Mexico and across country to visit in-laws in New Jersey. In my opinion, trains are to planes as a Macintosh is to a PC. Trains satisfy in terms of service, food, friendliness (of both passengers and staff) and aesthetics - as long as you have the time it takes to use this commodious mode.

The difference begins right at the train station, which in most American cities is still a beautiful public building incorporating architecture and materials of lasting quality. The typical wooden benches are beautiful, hard but long enough to stretch out on if you need to - whereas the typical airport seating is gray, molded plastic single seating. (Portland International is the one American exception that I know of.)

The Amtrak staff who greet you look you in the eye and treat you like a guest instead of a potential criminal suspect (a behavior at airports long pre-dating Sept. 11). Whether ticket agents or baggage clerks, they seem to have all the time in the world for you, and in some ways they do. They're not handling 40 flights a day and competing with another outfit that's doing the same (and both going bankrupt in spite of massive federal subsidies).

You're probably thinking, "But Amtrak is close to bankruptcy, too, isn't it?" Yup, but upon examination, there are some key differences. The feds not only provide massive bailouts to airlines, but also provide air traffic controllers and ongoing subsidies to airports. Except on the eastern seaboard, Amtrak must use rail owned by freight lines and has little control over their use. Amtrak delays are typically caused by freight derailments and track maintenance scheduled at the freight line's convenience, not Amtrak's.

Amtrak was pulling away from red ink under experienced rail leadership, but George W. Bush decided to replace Amtrak's chief with a guy who knows next to nothing about transportation, let alone trains. My cynical side wonders if Bush would prefer there were no American passenger trains left. After all, trains use far less fossil fuel per passenger mile than planes, buses, or private autos, and until last month, Mr. Bush didn't seem to realize conservation might be a worthwhile habit.

But, I digress. Trains supply a vital service to some of the less settled parts of the country, where plane travel is prohibitively expensive. Without the train, families in eastern Montana, the Dakotas and western Minnesota would be hard pressed to visit extended family. Infrequent flights, multiple connections, and plain old cost will keep them stuck in their mostly red state hometowns - an irony for sure.

Those folks and people like me have something in common. For different reasons, we've become a fiercely loyal minority much like Macintosh computer users. Plane flights, like PCs, may be ubiquitous, but the people who use them don't know what they're missing.

Victoria Stoppiello is a freelance writer from Ilwaco, where she's discovered she can travel from her door clear across country by public transportation using Pacific Transit and Amtrak.

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