Improving Train Travel

Jul 15, 2011

Here’s the problem with selling people on local mass transit: Everyone is in favor of it, and everyone thinks that everybody else should take it. Everybody, except for them, that is.

You understand, I really need to take my private car, because  uh, I might have an important stop to make. But when it comes to longer distances it’s different. People love trains.

Airline travel ceased being fun a long time ago, unless you like being groped by strangers before being packed in a sardine can. Driving gives you freedom, but not the freedom to read or surf the internet. Plus, it can be nerve-wracking and exhausting.

Compared to everything else, trains are relaxing and civilized. Yet for years, during the rise of the airliner and the expressway, we sort of forgot about train travel. Lines went out of service; some sections of track weren’t maintained.

Now, there’s a renewed interest in trains, so much so that the governor has made former Congressman Joe Schwarz his special advisor on rail, a job for which the emotional rewards are sometimes great and the salary is non-existent.

Michigan still has more than three thousand, five hundred miles of track. Schwarz told me that, by the way. Back when he was in the state senate, he was known for his expertise on higher education, but the insiders knew if you had a question about rail, Joe was the man.

Right now, Job One is improving the route from Detroit to Chicago.  Can you believe that six hundred thousand people may have traveled that route by rail in the last fiscal year?

If you’ve ever been hung up in a traffic jam on I-94 outside the city, you probably wished you were on a train instead.

And indeed, even more people might want to ride the rails to Chi-town, except for one problem: the hundred and thirty mile stretch from Dearborn to Kalamazoo.  This is track that the Norfolk and Southern Railway owns, but which badly needs upgrading.

Norfolk and Southern doesn’t use the track much, and so in many places has done the bare minimum.

That means that in some places trains can only go thirty miles an hour. For months, Schwarz has been trying to get Norfolk to upgrade the track, sell it to the state, or both. If those things happen, the state could lease it to Amtrak, and the passengers would get better and faster service.

“If we could get the deal done,” Schwarz told me ten days ago, “we could cut the travel time Detroit-Chicago to about four hours.”

That wouldn’t be much different than the time it takes most of us to get to the airport, get through security and fly, except cheaper and with a lot less hassle. For awhile, things were stalled.

But this week, he told me a deal has been struck: The line will be upgraded this year.  By next year, trains should be able to travel seventy-nine miles an hour, and faster in years to come.

So I bought tickets to take that trip in January, and test it. Frankly, when this is done, I hope Schwarz stays on the job.

After all, wouldn’t it be great to take a convenient train to New York or Montreal?