Editorial: Investing in rail makes sense as demand soars

From the Detroit Free Press:

A balanced national transportation system requires high-speed rail lines that connect the nation’s major cities. With gas prices soaring, people are driving less and looking for less stressful alternatives to congested freeways and airports. The federal government must continue to help metropolitan areas build and maintain transit systems — including trains — that reduce congestion, get people to jobs, improve air quality and conserve energy.

The Obama administration is investing in urban regions, including Detroit-Chicago, with sufficient population density to make train travel practical and efficient. The administration has wisely spent more than $2.5 billion for Midwest Regional High Speed Rail Service projects that will connect Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis, Milwaukee, Minneapolis and other Midwest metros.

Projects all over the country are moving forward. Federal Railroad Administrator Joseph Szabo brought more good news this month to metro Detroit, where he helped kick off the construction of the $28.2-million Dearborn train station, funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

Szabo told the Free Press editorial page that he expects nearly 80% of the Detroit-Chicago line to run at sustained speeds of 110 m.p.h. by 2015, reducing one-way travel time by nearly two hours. So far, the Federal Railroad Administration has approved 110-m.p.h. speeds on only 80 miles of track in southwest Michigan and northern Indiana. The next step is boosting speeds on 135 miles of track between Kalamazoo and Dearborn that the state is buying from Norfolk Southern for $140 million.

Amtrak has worked for more than a decade to raise top speeds between Detroit and Chicago. When high-speed rail service covers the entire 280-mile corridor, travel time by train will drop to 3 hours and 45 minutes.

Train travel is most practical for trips within 500 miles, as commute times and costs compare favorably with air or car travel. Train ridership has reached record levels in Michigan and other states. Ridership on the Chicago-St. Louis line, for example, has more than doubled in five years.

“It’s happening with service that is not yet stellar,” Szabo said, adding that with improved reliability and speed “ridership is just going to explode.” For that to happen, though, customer service and reliability must get better. Fast trains won’t help much if they don’t leave the station on time.

Anyone who travels by train between Detroit and Chicago knows that trains are habitually late. Rest rooms are not always clean — nor are railroad staff always courteous. If these basic problems aren’t fixed, travelers with options will continue to bypass trains.

Szabo said on-time performance must reach 95% or better. On-time performance should improve markedly with track improvements, less interference with freight carriers, and better equipment. New state-of-the-art coaches and cafes will start appearing in late 2014, along with high-speed locomotives and attractive intermodal train stations.

A new passenger intermodal rail station in Dearborn is one piece of the puzzle. With gas prices on the rise, that’s good news for Americans who want — and need — a more balanced transportation system that’s reliable, convenient and comfortable.

Source: http://www.freep.com/article/20120417/OPINION01/204170316/Editorial-Investing-in-rail-makes-sense