Amtrak’s proposed expansion is probably the best opportunity to bring passenger rail service to Eau Claire in a very long time. It’s far from certain, though.
President Joe Biden is a passionate supporter of rail travel. Unlike a lot of people who back mass transit in theory but not practice, Biden long used railways to shuttle between Washington, D.C., and his Delaware home. He seems to have found a partner to back his goals in Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg.
It has been quite some time since the White House’s occupant used railways with the frequency of Biden. Recent decades have seen the rails used as props for campaigns, if presidents even thought that much of them. But there is always a gulf between presidential ambition and political reality.
Biden touted the expansion as a way to address both infrastructure and employment. Some of the promises seem pretty easy to keep if the plan moves ahead. Mass transit is an acknowledged way to cut greenhouse emissions from transportation. It’s also easy to see how it could offer new opportunities to cities that get new passenger stops.
We’re more dubious about other claims. It’s difficult to see it “slashing commute times,” as Biden claimed, for most people. While that may be true on the east coast, it wouldn’t be as likely in the Midwest. And, given the difference between the number of travelers by air and even the most optimistic rail projections, we’re skeptical of his claim that it would reduce bottlenecks at airports.
Getting Americans to embrace railways again means accomplishing one of two things. Either the trains themselves need to get significantly faster, or the traveling public needs to be willing to slow down. Both are significant challenges.
Other nations with widely-used passenger rail service often put their focus on high speed trains. That has not been the approach in the United States. The Acela Express on the east coast stands out as one of the only times such an approach has been used successfully in our country. It hits speeds of 150 mph, similar to Japan’s high-speed railways, but has a very limited service area.
Such speeds are probably needed for Americans to embrace rail. The distances involved in cross-country travel are considerably more than in most nations that rely on rail. Germany is a large nation by European standards, but it’s something like the area of Montana or New Mexico. Asking most Americans to take a slower train cross-country is probably a nonstarter unless air travel costs spike considerably.
The proposed expansion would add about 30 new routes and add more trips to routes that already are in place. In 2019 Amtrak served about 32 million. Projections suggest the expansion could push that figure past 50 million. That’s a considerable gain, but remains a drop in the bucket compared to the more than 900 million people who flew U.S. airlines in 2019.
There are plenty of arguments in favor of rail. Advocates can make compelling cases. The challenge we see is that Americans have heard those arguments before, and they haven’t responded. Absent the ability to match the convenience of a car or the speed of an airplane, the demand for train travel simply isn’t there.
That doesn’t mean the proposals aren’t worth listening to or considering. The idea of a link between Madison and Minneapolis that runs through Eau Claire is intriguing. If the travel time to Minneapolis is similar to the drive time, as some have suggested it would be, it could prove to be a solid option for people who want to make the trip to catch a game or have a weekend getaway.
But there are still a lot of challenges. There have been plenty of proposals before that claimed to have the answer to luring Americans back onto the rails. None have come through. Cost is always an issue. Accessibility often is as well.
Apathy, however, is the biggest challenge. People have heard the arguments before, shrugged, and gotten back in their cars. And, unless supporters can figure out a way to convince most people that Amtrak is more than a solution in search of a problem, they’re probably going to find success elusive.