Train-ing days – commentary on the new 110 MPH service in Michigan

From the Arenac County Independent:

When I read that the U.S. Department of Transportation gave Amtrak the OK to start running trains at 110 mph between Kalamazoo and Indiana, two thoughts went through my head. The first was “Well, it’s about time,” and the second was “Why did we let our transportation system get so bad that 110 mph is impressive?”

At one time, this country had a transportation network that was the envy of the world. We built the still-impressive interstate highway system that revolutionized automobile travel, and have had a network of rails since the mid-1800s that spreads from coast to coast. Our major cities had public transit options that let even those without cars get around easily.

Somewhere along the line, however, we got complacent and stopped giving our infrastructure the attention it deserves, and now other major countries have passed us by in leaps and bounds. Now we have slow, outdated trains, roads and bridges that are perennially in need of funding, and public transit systems so poor in some cities that even the buses cannot be counted on.

A few months after visiting Japan in 2005, I spent a few days in Chicago, taking the train out there. I rode the Amtrak from Detroit, with its tiny, bare, and sad little station, making the 280-mile journey in about five hours. The Kalamazoo-Indiana corridor, at the time, could reach speeds of 90 mph, a major bragging point for the train operator.

Once in Chicago, I rode the elevated train line through the city. While certainly functional, the system was chronically underfunded for years, and it showed. The city’s train had expanded its routes over the years, but the older lines simply did not have much money to keep updated. On the way back to Detroit, the Amtrak train was stopped for a half hour, as a commercial train was using the same track ahead of us.

I bring this all up as a contrast to the trains I rode in Japan. Public transit is practically a must for that country, as most of the livable land is on the coastline and space is at a premium. The local trains that extend from city to city ran regularly and felt like they weren’t going to fly off the track at any given moment, unlike Chicago’s intercity train. And comparable routes, such as the intercity buses, trains, and subways in Osaka or Kyoto, were incredibly efficient and could be counted on to show up when the schedule said they were supposed to.

Then you have the shinkansen, or bullet trains, that run across the main Japanese island of Honshu into the westernmost island, Kyushu. Those traveled at 187 mph as a regular cruising speed, and are able to get to speeds over 275 mph on conventional rail lines. Even the oldest models, which operated from 1964 until 2008, were running at 137 mph — faster than the speeds our trains are capable of reaching. Considering we have so much more ground to cover, and the cost of airline fuel just keeps going up, this seems unacceptable to me.

France, Japan, Taiwan, and China are all selling superior locomotive transit technology around the globe. I know President Barack Obama has been big on the idea of equipping our rails with similar systems to help make it easier and cheaper for people to get around with ever-rising fuel costs, but he has been stymied by members of Congress.

For me, however, it seems like a no-brainer. Our current transit system needs a tune-up. Train ridership is way up from a few years ago. For all the money the federal government sinks into the military budget to help secure our interests overseas, I imagine some of that could be spared to help improve some things at home.

I realize it is rather unlikely any sort of high-speed rail system will find its way to Arenac County, but it would be one step closer to making our state more competitive in the world market, and more appealing to tourists. In the end, I believe that would benefit everyone.