On Transportation Infrastructure, or, Can’t This D**n Train Go Any Faster???

I am writing from aboard the Amtrak on the way from Ann Arbor to Chicago. This particular line, the Wolverine, originates in Pontiac, MI and continues through places like Detroit (the busiest US/Canada crossing), Dearborn, Kalamazoo, and then to Chicago. Along the way the line will go through some of the largest commercial, industrial, and educational towns in America. Lots of great scenery, too.

That’s the good news.

The not-so-good news is that the train itself is outdated and maddeningly slow. We were just told by the conductor that what takes four hours by car will most likely take five or six on the train today because the track is in such poor condition (a bidding war between the track’s current owner and the federal government over the eventual sale price of the tracks only exacerbates the problem).

I am blogging about my trip not as much to complain about my own journey, but to illustrate that we have lost our way in this country when it comes to connecting our cities and providing vital, job creating infrastructure. In the Upper Midwest region, one desperate for jobs, we aren’t taking advantage of obvious growth opportunities that warrant an investment in infrastructure (a new bridge span between Detroit and Windsor, Canada; high-speed rail along Montreal/Toronto/Detroit/Chicago; public transit in Detroit, etc.). Our important core cities are, for the most part, about 20 years behind in updating vital roads, bridges, parks, and the like, too.

You know, there was a day in this country in the not so distant past that this would have embarrassed us as a nation. Forty-two years ago yesterday we landed a man on the moon, a huge source of pride for Americans and a salute to our innovative capabilities as a people. We beat the Russians! Spillover from the space program birthed technological advancements that aided our cities for decades to come. Yet today, we sit by and idly watch as the Japanese build trains that travel 5X faster than our own and many European and Asian countries roll out innovations in urban transportation on a regular basis.  We seemingly lack the will, or perhaps the focus, to win anymore.

Great cities need strong bones. Great regions need strong cities. And, yes, great countries still need to dream.

  • Neil J. Lehto

    Passenger rail transportation might once have been divided into interstate, interurban and urban systems. Each served where passenger demand was generated by (1) the needs of commerce and (2) monopoly. The died because of diminished need and competitive alternatives. Technology continues to reduced the need for face-to-face commercial enterprise and the monopolists capitulated long ago even as the shortcomings of the competitive alternatives have not yet been overcome. Nostalgia doesn’t sell or buy tickets.

  • We’ve been on the wrong path (wrong track?) since Henry Ford and his cronies started buying up inter-urban lines and streetcar companies to turn the cars and and rolling stock into scrap to get people to turn to the almighty automobile.

    It seems that trains and subways (where available) are more popular than cars only in places (Like New York or some major cities in the Northeast corridor) where owning or operating a car is a bigger pain in the neck than taking the train or subway. New York has a shortage of parking and monumental insurance costs and I’ve been told that Boston and Newark are only slightly easier places to use cars. Since the advent of the automobile and commercial aircraft, trains have had a hard time finding a marketable and profitable niche as long as there were affordable airfares and cheap gas. Perhaps the fuel markets will carve a new niche out for trains that didn’t exist before as Americans look for something cheaper than airfare and faster than a car. The train may fill this void but only when the prospective passenger is forced to park his or her car and forgo a convenient plane ride due to fuel costs pricing the trip beyond their means. Even in this case, Americans will still demand that the trains that they turn to be much faster, more comfortable and more available than anything we currently have available.

    In the current state of affairs over the national budget, I don’t think money will be flowing from Washington to develop a train system that requires a national subsidy to run. Been there, done that, don’t want it again. It will probably be left up to private industry to do this which will happen only if a profitable market for the project develops.
    Just my two cents. Your mileage may vary.

  • Pontiac is correct. Changed. Thanks for reading.

  • Rich

    The Wolverine does not begin in Port Huron, but Pontiac. The Blue Water begins in Port Huron, but does not serve Detroit and Ann Arbor.

    And it can’t be a bidding war if only one party is bidding (Amtrak) and one party is selling (the freight railroad). That’s just a tough negotiation over a sale price.

    But you’re right in spirit about the current state of most passenger rail in the U.S. and our lack of willingness – or at least, by the utter insanity of today’s Republican Party – do to big time projects. The President is ready and willing to act; he’s being prevented from doing so by the vocal dominance of a very small faction of Americans.