Before coming to college, I practically grew up taking trains wherever I needed to go: my grandmother’s house, a day trip, or even a field trip with the school. However, much to my dismay, I can’t do the same here, in Crawfordsville, without waking up at 6 in the morning or walking down Washington Street at 10 at night. What Crawfordsville – and, quite frankly, the rest of the Midwest – needs is a decent rail connection to everywhere you need. I’m not even talking about shiny high-speed rails – though the flatlands of the Midwest sure are ideal for those kinds of routes, particularly to and from Chicagoland. What we need is a system that can get us from point A to point B without needing a car – a reliable commuter rail system.
100 years ago, Indiana sported a reliable statewide system that transported Hoosiers between various towns and cities, including between Crawfordsville and Indianapolis. The Wabash sports teams were able to get to sporting events that happened in Indianapolis by rail and back reliably. Yet, coming back to the present day, I have yet to hear our students traveling to Purdue, IUPUI, or any of the Chicago area universities, and no train stops in the towns where we have institutions we play.
I know from experience that greater access and reliability will bring on greater use. If trains travel at regular intervals, and arrive at convenient times in stations, I’m sure we will have greater use, in particular for morning and evening commutes to and from work. Eastern European train systems – and even city-wide transportation systems – were built around getting people to and from work/school, and have survived for that very reason. Though factories are by no means accessible by train in America, colleges and universities are; students travel between them all the time, and they are generally the ones who need to do the most saving, so there’s a huge opportunity in student-centered travel.
This is the main reason I believe not having a pre-pandemic Thursday night Amtrak line running from Crawfordsville to Lafayette and back was a massive loss for Amtrak. The now-defunct Neon Cactus was literally across the bridge from the train station in Lafayette, and many pledges would have had an easier time driving their upperclassmen to and from the train station on Green Street instead of all the way to West Lafayette. The same goes for using the Monon line to take students to and from Wabash-DePauw games, and having the Cardinal line stop in Oxford, Ohio, so that students can take the train to and from Miami University.
Meanwhile, in Europe, France is cutting most of its national plane routes in favor of its TGV system. In America, you need a plane to get between Chicago and Indianapolis, even though it’s a 4-hour drive, because the train takes 6 hours to get between the two cities.
Speaking of which, more cities need more stations, and intra-city trains, for an easier commute and for decongesting traffic. Imagine parking in a park-and-ride on the outskirts of the city, and then taking the train downtown, avoiding the bumper-to-bumper traffic on the turnpike. Or imagine having a shuttle from the airport to downtown, where you can switch to other trains or the city bus/streetcar system.
Another thing I find annoying with American rail is that nearly all trains stop in all stations. If America would section trains into inter-city (fast, across state lines), regional (connecting major hubs in the state and neighboring states), and local (commuter), this will enable people to get from A to B much more easily. Granted, there will be a huge need to coordinate train arrivals, but that will also add even more jobs to Amtrak, and make connections much more seamless. For instance, people can take a local train from Crawfordsville to either Indianapolis or Lafayette; from there, they can take an inter-city train to New Orleans, a regional train to Pensacola, Florida, and then a commuter train to Panama City Beach for Spring Break.
However, this will also increase traffic on the lines that already struggle to have all trains moving. Yet, with the speed of the freight trains in America (compared to the sluggish Eastern European freighters), I can tell that doubling the lines, and potentially electrifying them, as well as having junction flag stops with multiple platforms wherever there is high train traffic (see Bucharest Carpati or Constanta Pallas), the train traffic will become a non-problem.
Another benefit of commuter rail is the potential for amenities in stations that passengers can use while waiting for the train. This will enable small businesses to thrive and have a regular clientele, adapted to the commuters’ taste. From booths that sell street food to actual cafes, stores, and even a visitor’s bureau for tourists who love traveling by rail, this is an amazing opportunity to develop local economies, and have them no longer have to rely on restaurant chains and single factories.
In the end, having commuter rail between institutions will enable students to visit their friends more easily, save gas and insurance money, avoid DUIs and speeding tickets, work on the move, and also justify why they were 30 minutes late to class more easily. With Amtrak Joe leading the nation, and Mayor Pete at the helm of the Department of Transportation, I am hoping that their high-speed rail plans go through, and then use the very same lines to add some commuter rail that will better connect America and keep our youth safe and our workers less stressed on their commutes and with more money in their pockets.