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Shaping the American landscape TEXT AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY ANDREW CROSS

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Few things beat driving in America: the sense of freedom; empty, open roads; vaulting skies and an endless horizon. Roadside diners, anonymous motels, journeys measured in days rather than miles. For me it is the details that provide much of the pleasure. The interior smell of a brand new air-conditioned rental car, take-away coffee in Styrofoam cups, FM stations playing 70s rock, over-sweet donuts, the electronic ding....ding....ding that sounds each time you open the car door. These incidentals accompany the vast landscape seen passing slowly through the windscreen, a landscape of no particular beginning or end. Narrated only by the musing of your thoughts, the experience is unavoidably romantic: it's like being in your very own movie.

I adore driving in America and I don't mean around Los Angeles or cities of the East Coast - I mean the 3 million and more square miles that lie between the Canadian and Mexican borders. A few years ago I finally got to drive from the East to West Coast in one go. Choosing the route can be difficult. During the weeks leading up to the trip my American friends were eager to know if it would be the northern or the southern route? For me it was easy: through the middle! Not all roads lead to Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon. So how is a route chosen? Why visit, for example, Paris, Kentucky; Dalhart, Texas; and Siberia, California? And why on other trips should I want to drive all the way to Missoula, Montana or North Platte, Nebraska? Simple - because these places have train yards. Yes, I'm what Americans would call 'a rail fan'.

Before the road movie, America had the Western, but when not on the silver screen it was through train windows that Americans witnessed their landscape. The same wide-open plains, buttes and small towns of the Western provided a backdrop to luxurious long-distance train travel. However, by the 1960s, when the golden age of the movies was being eclipsed by tv, the golden age of rail travel was under attack from the combined efforts of the aeroplane and the automobile.

So, is there a contradiction between a love of driving and a desire to see trains? Certainly not in America. The yards mentioned above, and many more, are accessible only by car and the trains in question carry freight. It may not be easy to get around by train as a passenger, but in North America freight trains are not only big, they are frequent. And, despite a general decline during the 1960s and 70s, since the 80s American railroads have been very big business. Forty per cent of all freight shipments in the US go by rail. In 1997 this amounted to 1.3 trillion ton-miles, a 50 per cent increase since 1980. The rail network remains a linchpin of the American economy, without government subsidy. The network stands at 105,770 miles including five trans-continental main lines.

Railroads still pervade the physical and economic landscapes of North America in the way they have done since the first trans-continental line was completed in 1869. Days and nights are regularly punctuated by the sound of a train's horn. The highways that are driven down today are frequently interrupted by the criss-crossing of trains. While the economy may have moved to the outskirts, the geometry of many cities remains configured around a line which passes exactly through the centre of town.

The impact of railroads upon the cultural and economic landscape of the late-nineteenth-century was as rapid as it was profound. In fact they could be said to have defined the American landscape we know today. It was the railroads that developed the mid-West, fulfilling Thomas Jefferson's earlier ambition to create patchwork agricultural communities across the land. It was railroads that established the economic blocs of an industrial north-east and agricultural south and west.

The train depot dictated the geometry of towns. Unlike Europe, where railways were built to link existing population and economic centres, most railway building in the USA (especially west of the Mississippi) came before the people. In Europe, where there were higher levels of capital available, trains were hidden within heavy civil engineering in an attempt to disguise an apparent invasion on the existing landscape. In the USA the railroads are much more exposed and accessible - one could say more at 'road level'.

Today, railways in America remain indelibly romantic - distant places connected by a continuous drawing in steel - but they are not nostalgic. Trains were invented not to carry people but to carry goods; in the largest manufacturing economy in the world that principle still holds true. The points of interest they generate are varied and widely dispersed. For me, they are reasons to get into a car and drive through parts of a landscape that I would otherwise never see.

Andrew Cross is director of The Landscape Foundation, 11 Northburgh St, London EC1V 0AH, tel: 0171 490 4877, fax: 0171 336 0563. His photographs can be seen at the Tomato Building, 29-35 Lexington St, London W1 until 1 July

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