Where are our passenger trains?

16 Jul

Crescent train arrives in Laurel, MS

Crescent train arrives in Laurel, MS

Europe has a wonderful train system for passengers and freight.  It was also nearly completely destroyed during World War II.

The United States had a fledgling system that was built up until the highways took over in the 1940s, at which point it began declining.  Passenger train service for most communities ended sometime before I was born in the early 1960s.  I don’t remember seeing livestock transported via train since the mid 1960s.  In the 1970s, train tracks were being abandoned and ripped up, leaving vacant corridors through farms and towns across the nation.  Some of the routes have been taken over by Rails to Trails, providing hiking and biking paths.  Many lay overgrown and forgotten, locations remembered only when the blackberries that have swallowed the rail bed are ripe.

Today, our sole option for train travel in most areas is Amtrak, and that is IF service exists.  You can’t always get from here to there via train, and it certainly won’t be easy or convenient to get there.  Here in Mississippi, our major cities are Gulfport-Biloxi, Greater Pascagoula, Hattiesburg, Jackson and the Northwestern corner as a portion of the Greater Memphis area.  Most residents would also add Meridian, Columbus, and Tupelo to those “metropolitan” areas, as they are the largest cities in their regions.  That makes a short list of just eight areas in the state that are anything resembling “urban”.

Using Mississippi as an example, just try to get from one city to another via a train.  Most don’t have passenger service at all, including the Gulf Coast, which is also the big tourist destination of the state.  You can get to Jackson from Meridian or Hattiesburg…if you don’t mind a multiple day trip with a layover in New Orleans.

There are two trains in Mississippi, both of which are either departing New Orleans or terminating there.  One is the Crescent, which runs from New Orleans to New York.  It makes multiple stops in Mississippi: Picayune, Hattiesburg, Laurel, and Meridian.  The other one is the City of New Orleans, which runs from New Orleans to Chicago, stopping in McComb, Brookhaven, Hazlehurst, Jackson, Yazoo City, Greenwood and Memphis, TN.  That’s eleven stops, and includes four areas that we’ve identified as “urban”.

So let’s do some comparisons here.  England alone has just over 130,000 square miles.  Mississippi has just over 48,000 square miles.  We’ll be generous here, and we’ll triple the size of Mississippi’s train service to a total of 6 trains making 33 stops at 33 different stations which may or may not be “attended.”

Compare that to England, with 11 terminal stops.  I couldn’t count all of the stops or trains on the map.  It was a lot more than just 6 trains that passed by a station once a day, going one direction or the other.  The USA hasn’t had such poor train service since the days of the Wild West.

Okay, I’ll admit that Mississippi isn’t exactly a prosperous state.  We don’t have a lot of industry or tourism going on here, and most people can’t afford to travel much even if there was a good service to get somewhere they wanted to go.  So, we’ll turn to our southern neighbor, Mexico.

Mexico has roughly 738,000 square miles of territory.  It includes deserts, mountains, and rain forests as well as farms and ranches and urban areas.  They have three tourist trains and one commuter train for their passenger service.

Wow, we have train service better than Mexico?

I’m not sure we should get excited.  We also don’t need soldiers armed with machine guns on our trains in the USA to prevent robbing by bandits.  In fact, train robberies are not something that has occurred in recent history in the USA, and if it did occur, there would be ample press coverage of the event.  Americans don’t like seeing soldiers armed with machine guns in tourist areas.  It just makes us nervous.  We’re funny that way, considering our attachment to the right to own a gun.

We talk a lot about mass transit, about reducing our carbon footprint, and about energy efficiency.  We talk about reducing our dependency on oil.  I’m all for it.  But we need safe, efficient, economical, accessible alternatives.  Our country is vast, the distances often are equally long.  We have a stagnating economy and shrinking industrial and manufacturing base too.  But our government is not addressing these transportation issues.

Think about it.  We need jobs, not more welfare lines.  Mississippi may be the poorest state in the union, but all states are having trouble with their economy.  Imagine the jobs that would be created when rail lines are repaired and upgraded, when train stations are put in place, when cheap and efficient transportation is readily available for cargo and commuters alike, whether within the same state or to a distant port.  Imagine the gates being opened, allowing travelers to experience more of America, to visit the towns where their grandparents or great grandparents lived.  Imagine businessmen and women having the ability to easily visit small manufacturing facilities in rural communities without chartered planes or hours of driving.

And it’s not going to put trucking companies out of business either.  There will still be the same need for trucks as ever, especially since the bulk of their business is bulk customers, not the small company that needs to ship out one or two pallets of goods to each coast each week.  It’s not going to end the days of the road trip either–there are times and places where roads and cars are essential transportation.

It is going to create jobs of feeding workers and travelers near rail stations.  It’s going to create a need for taxis and buses to get them from the train to their destination.  It’s going to create a need for small trucks and couriers to transport goods to and from the rail station.  Manufacturing will have an increased need to supply parts and supplies for trains and rails, stations and offices, ticket sales and on-board meals too.  Mom and Pop businesses, whether selling local memorabilia or fast food from a cart will explode near the stations, further enriching local economies.  Accommodations, from cheap motels to fancy restaurants, will also have a central place to attract customers from.  Don’t think that corporations won’t look at the possibilities too, but in rural areas with a few trains a day, it will be the Mom & Pop businesses that can fill a niche and pay taxes.

Oh, and you too.  You’ll be able to get to Jackson for that special event or doctor’s appointment without having to drive  your car.  If we’re smart about it and push for it, we’ll even have all passenger trains allowing passengers to board their bicycles too, further reducing carbon footprints for those avid cyclists who also spend money on everything from more bicycle stuff to cold drinks on a hot day.  European travelers, accustomed to train travel, will find that spending their Euros in America to be even more attractive, as they enjoy a familiar mode of travel, renting their bicycles at the train station for their jaunts around small towns and cities, through the countryside or to a special attraction.

We can do it.  We should know how–we spent a great deal on repairing the European train system after World War II.  We can draw on European and Japanese expertise as we devise an All-American solution that is better, faster, cheaper, and greener than anything ever conceived before.  If we can be the first to the moon, surely we can manage to make a train trip simple and cheap on the USA.

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