Media confirm passenger trains legit

April 5, 2013

We may have a first here: An American newspaper has tacitly acknowledged that passenger trains have become an accepted and even popular element in American culture.

And it’s the “tacit” part that makes it real. The story wasn’t about passenger trains at all. It was a sports-page story that casually referenced passenger trains while reporting a critical game between two hockey teams, the Chicago Wolves and the Milwaukee Admirals.

The story ran March 31 in the suburban Herald papers published by the Chicago Sun-Times. The lede sentence read: “The Chicago Wolves and Milwaukee Admirals exchanged goals for much of their intense Amtrak Rivalry game.”

“Amtrak rivalry.” Has that expression ever appeared in print before? The writer seems to have intended it to be a sort of bi-city analog to the venerable “subway series,” in which residents of a city with an MLB club in each league can ride the same rapid-transit system to both ball parks in the event both teams win their respective pennants and tangle in a World Series.

Milwaukee and Chicago are indeed just a 90-minute Amtrak ride apart, so it kind of makes sense to call the struggle between their two hockey teams an “Amtrak rivalry.”

But the fact is, until now that’s never happened because passenger trains weren’t familiar enough to most readers to be used in a casual reference. The Milwaukee Brewers and the Chicago White Sox have been slugging it out in each other’s ball parks for decades, but no sports writer has invoked Amtrak to characterize their relationship. Doing so would have required a footnote, which is not used in sports writing. The March 31 Herald reference signaled that the American popular mind has reached the next level in passenger-train consciousness.

Note that the reporter didn’t treat his catch-phrase as a novelty. His casual introduction of Amtrak was set up as a throwaway line, a rhetorical drive-by shooting. He expected his readers not just to understand the term but to relate to it.

And that IS a first. Passenger trains are now accepted so casually that you can use them to color a story about a totally different subject and the readers will get it.

And it happened in the sports pages, typically one of the more conservative departments in a metropolitan newspaper. A sportswriter not merely acknowledged that passenger trains have a growing role in modern life but demonstrated it by using them to portray himself—and, by implication, his readers—as hip.

That’s progress. The media may get their facts wrong, but they never miss a trend.

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