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Passenger Rail Isn’t Just for “Rail Buffs”

I just returned from an overnight train trip on Amtrak a couple of days ago, riding the Crescent from Meridian, Mississippi, into Penn Station, after completing the southbound trip a week earlier. It's a route I've traveled before, one of dozens of long-distance hauls I've made on Amtrak over the last 20 or so years. And while it may be wishful thinking, I felt like there was an improved mood on the train this time, among both crew and passengers. I heard several hopeful conversations in the dining car about the future of intercity rail travel in this country.

DSC_0026.jpgThe Amtrak Crescent connects New York, Atlanta and New Orleans. Photo by Sarah Goodyear.
The people having those conversations were as good a cross-section of America as you could hope to find anywhere in the nation: old and young, black and white, and, almost certainly -- although politics never came up explicitly -- liberal and conservative. They were traveling for business, for pleasure, for family obligation. There was no typical passenger on that train.

Which is the point Streetsblog Network member blog Trains for America made in a recent post about how passenger rail in this country needs better advocacy:

We, as advocates of good ground transportation, have been segregated into the slums of public policy with a bunch of pass-riding sentimental blowhards that reflect nothing of the people on the trains. Amtrak’s customer base includes students, business people (even in the middle of America), minorities, and women with their families.…I think an Internet community can more easily reach out to people of different age groups and backgrounds and include them in the national discussion. That is what Trains for America is about.

Riding the rails isn't simply a hobby for "train buffs" any more than riding a bike is merely recreation for "bike freaks." I'll be writing in a future post about how the small city of Meridian has leveraged its railroad infrastructure into a powerful tool for economic redevelopment precisely because its mayor recognizes that passenger trains provide efficient and pleasurable transportation. Rail needs more advocates like him, and like the folks at Trains for America.

Elsewhere around the network: Phoenix's Light Rail Blogger talks about DOT Secretary Ray LaHood's visit to see that city's light rail system; Hub and Spokes reports on Neal Peirce's vision for a regional approach to urban affairs; and Seattle Transit Blog shares some thoughts on the phenomenon of "transit heroes."