Intercity Trains: How Good Do Connections Need to Be?

Today on the Streetsblog Network, we return to the question of connectivity — or, to translate it out of transpo jargon, how to get there from here.

The Transport Politic
looks at one of the objections to high-speed rail: that people won’t
want to ride it because when they arrive at their destination, transit
connections are insufficient or entirely absent. He points out that if
you make the comparison to airports, even transit-impaired downtown
rail stations have an advantage:

3521566573_c51fc41fb5.jpgMeridian,
Mississippi, has invested heavily in its downtown rail station, and is
hoping high-speed trains will bring more business to its walkable
downtown. Photo by Sarah Goodyear.

Do commuters need good transit at stations to be attracted
to riding intercity trains? Few U.S. airports have efficient transit
connections, and even those that do typically see few of their
customers arriving by train or bus. Yet people who want to fly make it
to the airport by car.…

More important, though, is the fact that many high-speed rail users,
especially businesspeople, will be aiming their travel towards a
destination within walking distance or a short taxi ride of
the station. Unlike airports, which are by definition completely
inaccessible by pedestrians, train stations can be positioned
underneath major cities and provide direct access to the job centers.
Unlike automobilists, who encounter congestion and high parking fees
downtown, train users get reliable, non-stop connections into the focal
points of major cities.

Rail
opponents frequently like to point out that sprawl has reshaped
the American landscape to such an extent that they argue it would be
ineffective to focus the benefits of train travel at the center of
town. But they usually neglect to mention the fact that in almost all
metropolitan areas, the single largest employment zone remains downtown
— and it is usually the only walkable one. Similarly, for better or
worse, U.S. cities from coast to coast have invested massively in new
convention centers, sports arenas, museums, parks, and entertainment
corridors over the past three decades — and the vast majority of that
spending has been downtown, near centrally positioned train stations.
For businesspeople and tourists, there will be a significant incentive
to choose rail over air or automobile travel for convenience’s sake.

This post reminded me of my trip last spring
to Meridian, Mississippi, where the city’s then-mayor, John Robert
Smith, showed me around the downtown. Since the rebuilding of
Meridian’s historic train station as a multi-modal transit center
(Greyhound and taxis also use it as a hub), the eminently walkable
downtown area has been cleaned up and revitalized. Smith hopes that
Meridian, which is an important regional commercial hub, will be a stop
on the high-speed corridor between Atlanta and New Orleans.

More from the network: Bike Portland has an in-depth look at one of the city’s bike boulevard projects. The City Fix reports on China’s tightening grip on the minerals necessary to make hybrid cars like the Prius. And MetroRider LA wraps up its excellent series on ten top transportation and planning blogs.

  • I’ve done some Amtrak business travel. Here are the problems I encounter:

    * An almost universal lack of any kind of transportation around the train station, even “multi modal” stations like your example in Meridian — I’m not going to take Greyhound for my business appointment. There’s never a car rental desk at a train station. The car rental businesses have phone numbers at the train stations, but because arrival for many stations is at 2 AM (see next point), the offices are closed.

    * Arrival time in the middle of the night for many stations, when nothing is open and the multimodal transit connections aren’t running.

    * The station’s in a sketchy part of town, where the business class hotels are not.

    * Maybe the downtown is walkable and has major employers, but the businesses I visit are almost always in office parks in the suburban ring.

    There are exceptions, of course, and these are all solvable problems for the enterprising business traveler, but the fact remains that these are obstacles that take time and effort to overcome.

  • Sue

    At some point I’m going to be addressing this issue extensively in my blog — especially as it relates to Boston, Massachusetts. Amtrak goes in and out of Boston from two different, unconnected train stations — South Station and North Station. The Amtrak trains that arrive at South Station come from New York City and Chicago, bringing passengers from as far away as San Francisco (that would be me). I have to get to North Station to get the trains that take me to any of the end points where my family members live — around Lowell, Ma., near Portsmouth, N.H., at points along the train into Maine and then north of Portland where it ends, and along the North Shore out towards Gloucester.

    I’m fairly intrepid and will — with luggage in hand — navigate the Red and Green subway lines to get from one train station to another, but imagine what it is like for families and the elderly or disabled. The fact that South Station and North Station are not connected — because of a decision that was made during the design of the Big Dig — is likely a huge impediment to many people who would otherwise like to take the train from, say, New York City to Portland, Maine or Gloucester, Massachusetts for vacation.

  • ZA

    Ideally, any municipal or county system will integrate with a regional rail system to provide cost-competitive service to prospective riders. Since a train runs on a published schedule (and delays should be relatively transparent), a bus service should have a pretty good idea of the scale of service needed and when.

    Since the ideal isn’t reality in far too many parts of the country, it seems to me opening up the opportunity for Bikeshare entrepreneurs or charter vans (SuperShuttle is an efficient solution born out of the poor design of most US airports) to set up a business.

  • MCA

    You might note that John Robert Smith was recently appointed the new President and CEO of Reconnecting America, one of the key partners in the Transportation for America campaign.