August 17, 2010
Trains have fascinated Abe Zumwalt for most of his life, so the Seattle, Washington, native leaped at the chance to learn more about them while participating in Knox College's study abroad program in France.
"I'm a chronic public transportation nerd, and I've read so much about the European rail system that I had to get my hands on it and experience it -- to fact-check, if you will," said Zumwalt, pictured above at a switch tower in Besançon.
A French and economics double-major who is returning to the Knox campus this fall for his senior year, he spent about five months in Besançon, a historic and picturesque city in eastern France where writer Victor Hugo was born.
Besançon, like France in general, is known for its safe and well-developed public transit system. Zumwalt spent much of his free time exploring Besançon and other European cities, always taking note of their modes of transportation.
"There's just a plethora of history and unbelievable amounts of culture," said Zumwalt, who hopes for a career in the transportation industry. "
"The most fascinating places I visited benefited from the most interesting and non-conventional transit systems, which directly influence how you experience the cityscapes around them," he said.
In Amsterdam, The Netherlands, he was impressed by the wide variety of transportation choices, which included an extensive tram system, bus-specific highways, and canal taxis. Multi-level automobile-style parking garages have been built to accommodate the thousands of bicycles that people ride in the city every day.
In Lisbon, Portugal, he rode on Victorian-era trolley cars through city streets, on funicular railways over steep terrain, and in a large elevator that's part of the public transportation system.
"You get on one of these elevators to go from neighborhood to neighborhood because the city is on all different levels," Zumwalt said. "You can fit, perhaps, 30 people in one."
In France, he rode along with the engineer in the cab of a train operated by SNCF, the French railway. He also toured a new high-speed rail line.
Those experiences fed Zumwalt's long-standing interest in transportation, especially passenger trains, and reinforced some of his views. For example, he believes now more than ever that frequent service is the key to success for rail service or any kind of public transportation.
Studying abroad proved to be transformative, he said, adding: "Most of my preconceptions were kind of burned away."
Some of the other highlights from his trip included:
* "Succumbing to the fact that French bakeries really are the best in the world."* Watching and listening to accordion players on the Paris Metro.
Transportation even played a role in Zumwalt's decision to attend Knox College, where he has served on the Student Senate, as a member of the sustainability committee, and as a Model United Nations delegate.
As a high school student, he already was familiar with the West Coast and the East Coast. Zumwalt wanted to attend a college somewhere in between so he could get to know other parts of the country, and easy access to Amtrak rail service "was a real plus for Knox."
When traveling between Galesburg and Seattle, Zumwalt prefers to take the Amtrak train. The two-day journey provides a buffer zone between his family life and his hectic college life, he said, and it lets him see parts of the country that otherwise would be "just fly-over territory."
Without the train trips, he added, "I would have no conception of the cathedral-like majesty of the Rockies, or exactly what they mean by ‘Big Sky' Montana."
Founded in 1837, Knox is a national liberal arts college in Galesburg, Illinois, with students from 45 states and 48 countries. Knox's "Old Main" is a National Historic Landmark and the only building remaining from the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates.