MACOMB -- Amtrak will have airline-style e-tickets in the near future, Amtrak Board Chairman Tom Carper said on March 25. The change is requiring a complete revamp of its computer system.
Carper, who lives in Macomb and is a former mayor, was in the audience for a fascinating, illustrated talk at Western Illinois University by James McCommons, author of Waiting on a Train, the Embattled Future of Passenger Rail Service.
The book was named a Library Journal Best Book of 2009. McCommons, a professor at Northern Michigan University, spent a year riding trains and investigating the future of passenger rail.
His interest was sparked after the California Zepher, an Amtrak train he rode to Seattle, was 12 hours late, he said.
He made nine train trips for a total of 26,000 miles to research the book in 2007. "I've had wonderful and bad experiences on Amtrak," he said.
Riding the train was a good social experience, he said, since he met and talked with many people. But it was often inconvenient, infrequent, slow, late, expensive, with "spotty customer service," he said.
He recounted the history of rail in the US. "Everybody had their favorite train," he said, mentioning the Rock Island Rocket, the Super Chief and others. Rail was built in the 19th century with federal subsidies in the form of land grants, but has been privately owned, the "alternative to nationalization." Union Station in Chicago once hosted 300 trains daily.
But the interstate highway system and air travel, developed with heavy federal subsidies, led to the demise of trains which became unprofitable, he said. The decline began in the 1920s. By the 1970s, Penn Central went bankrupt, "the event of the era," leading to the development of Conrail for freight and Amtrak for passengers.
Amtrak was expected to become profitable, to appease fiscal conservatives in the Nixon administration, he said. But the profits never developed, and Amtrak has been starved for funds. It's still running some of the equipment inherited in the 1970s from the government-brokered deal.
"It's a skeletal system," McCommons said. "It's stuck in survival mode."
There are a handful of long distance trains, and more corridor trains traveling 100 to 500 miles, he said. "We don't have a rail culture in this country."
Yet the future of the nation's transportation system may lie with Amtrak. Expected increases in the US population and the demand for transportation mean that Amtrak development will be much cheaper and greener than expansion of the highway or airline systems, he said.
Corridor trains, especially, can efficiently replace autos and air travel, and deliver passengers to city centers, he said.
But they will be successful only if they run frequently and are dependable. Speed is not as important as frequency, he said.
Carper agreed, and said that as the Amtrak route from Chicago to Quincy has increased in frequency, ridership has risen.
Corridor trains receive state support, and some states have invested in better train cars. California, Washington and Maine have been leaders. The Downeaster in Maine has free wi-fi, McCommons said. All trains in Europe have that.
States and cities also determine the condition of the terminals, he said, with some very nice, others not so nice.
Intermodal transportation, where trains connect with other forms of transportation, is needed to make trains desirable, so people can easily transfer to a bus or plane or rent a car. Every day people arrive in Miami from Europe and ask about the train to Disney World. There isn't one, he said, though Florida now is considering high speed rail.
The Obama administration just designated $8 billion for high speed rail, with an additional $13 billion in stimulus funds for the states. They wanted $57 billion, he said, showing pent-up demand. Illinois got $1.1 billion.
Hybrid engines, electrification, necessary for high speeds, biofuels, automatic control systems, all are possible if the funding is available, he said. The technology already exists. Some people have suggested 2 cents from the federal motor fuel tax to go to trains.
"We're not going to get rid of the car, but if trains are convenient," people will use them, he said.
-- Elaine Hopkins