Michigan’s Budding Romance With Modern Passenger Rail

If you have ever ridden an intercity passenger train or a local streetcar, a commuter train, light rail system, or even a subway, you may have noticed the intoxicating feeling generated from riding the rails – the simple pleasure of watching the world pass by as you roll across or under the landscape. Perhaps this feeling is strongest when traveling on an intercity passenger train, but it is there nevertheless. Recently, my wife and I rode the rails across Canada, from Windsor to Toronto to Winnipeg to Edmonton to Vancouver. The glory days of railroading may not be as they once were, but it is clear that all forms of rail travel are a vital cog in any successful multi-modal transportation network. It also had an unexpected effect, in that rail travel invites human interaction unlike any other form of transportation.

During this trip, each of our intercity trains was filled to capacity. In addition, we saw a handsome new railway station in Windsor, and witnessed multitudes of Canadians riding GO Transit commuter trains and historic streetcars in metropolitan Toronto. We observed and rode the rapidly growing SkyTrain network in metropolitan Vancouver. On our return trip, we saw heavy use of Sound Transit’s commuter rail lines in Seattle and rode it’s CityLink Light Rail system between downtown and Sea-Tac International Airport. Sadly, the only place of any size where we didn’t see passenger rail being used to its fullest potential was upon our return to Michigan.

That does not mean passenger rail transportation is not playing a role here. All three AMTRAK routes in our state (Bluewater, Pere Marquette, and Wolverine) have strong and supportive ridership; we are thankfully participating in high-speed improvements to the Chicago-Detroit corridor; the M-1 Light Rail project is under construction along Woodward Avenue in Detroit; and the People Mover system continues to ply its elevated route around downtown Detroit. Other passenger rail routes being discussed include intercity services linking Detroit, Lansing, and Grand Rapids; extending service to Traverse City, commuter service between Ann Arbor, Detroit Metro Airport, and downtown Detroit; and commuter rail service between Ann Arbor and Howell. But, to really make a difference, Michigan needs to stop talking and start acting, by applying additional planning efforts and funding sources towards all modes of passenger rail transportation. In Seattle, Toronto, and Vancouver, their professional sports stadiums were constructed abutting the commuter and intercity rail network. In addition, all three have rail links to their airports. Such foresighted transportation planning helps reduce traffic congestion on area road networks, reduces air pollution, and reduces overall dependency on automobiles, while it also increases the lifespan of the road system and interconnectivity between transport modes. Here in Michigan, we are so reliant on the automobile, that it is often our only option. Given Detroit’s moniker as “the Motor City,” that may seem like a logical conclusion, but

why can’t “motors” include those for locomotives too?

Beyond the transportation benefits of a multi-modal system that incorporates various forms of passenger rail, there is another advantage that became very clear during this trip – opportunity for human interaction. This certainly cannot happen when we drive solo, cocooned in our cars, and is a limited option for a small group of people in carpool and vanpool situations. However, when riding the rails, particularly for middle to longer distances, one has the chance to interact with their fellow passengers on a regular basis. With each and every trip there is the potential of meeting new people. Even as an avid bike commuter, I will admit that opportunities for conversations beyond brief greetings are limited, though it does happen more often than with cars. Meanwhile, during our Canadian cross-country trip, at every meal we were seated with different pairs of passengers. This gave us a perfect opportunity to meet our fellow travelers from all over the world, including other parts of the United States, Canada, India, Australia, England, Sudan, etc. Furthermore, in all forms of passenger rail, one has the opportunity to get up and move around from place to place which generates the potential to meet and connect with new people. In other words, passenger rail can be a social gathering place.

Will Michigan’s current romance with intercity passenger rail be a lasting relationship or will we revert to our old lonesome ways the next time gas prices drop or fuel efficiency improves? That’s the big question. But, one has hopeful optimism when they observe what’s taking place north of the border and in other cities around our country. For it’s not just Seattle where the romance with the rails has fully blossomed, but in many other American cities where you would have never imagined it 10-20-30 years ago. Burgeoning cities in the south and west like Denver, Salt Lake City, Phoenix, Albuquerque, Dallas, Sacramento, San Jose, Houston, Miami, Charlotte, Honolulu, and others have hopped on the train phenomenon. For Michigan to be/remain truly competitive, it must allow our budding romance with modern passenger rail transportation to fully flower. Otherwise, our state risks becoming sidetracked onto an abandoned spur as the world rolls past.

So, come on Michigan, in the immortal words of the O’Jays, let’s climb aboard the “Love Train” and thunder our way towards a more promising future.

– Rick Brown


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