Editorials, Opinion

Bringing trains into the 21st century

When given the choice among trains, planes or automobiles, most Americans will choose to fly or drive. Flying is fastest, and driving offers the most flexibility and control. Virtually no one sees traveling by train as a viable option. But hopefully that will change in the coming years.

President Joe Biden’s administration has announced billions of dollars in upgrades to America’s passenger railroad infrastructure, including improvements to existing rail lines and creation of new high-speed trains.

 U.S. Sens. Joe Manchin and Shelley Moore Capito, with the help of state- and municipal-level officials, worked to secure language in the Infrastructure Investment & Jobs Act to create the Federal Railroad Administration’s Corridor Identification & Development program and authorize a study to look into ways to restore daily service for Amtrak’s Cardinal line.

Once a daily line, Amtrak Cardinal currently only runs three days a week  between Chicago and New York City — with stops in nine West Virginia cities and towns: Huntington, Charleston, Montgomery, Thurmond, Prince, Hinton, Alderson and White Sulphur Springs.

 If it can get back up to daily rides, that means more chances for people to see the beauty of the Mountain State — and maybe even hop off at one of West Virginia’s stations and go exploring. That would be a huge boost for West Virginia tourism.

Unfortunately, the Cardinal line takes about 26 hours one-way. Driving from Chicago to New York City takes about 13 hours, and a non-stop plane can get there in under three.

While a train ride itself usually does take longer, according to travel experts and frequent travelers, it can be cheaper and less stressful. A coach ticket for a train trip of a few hundred miles is generally cheaper than a ticket to fly coach for the same distance. Plus, in trains, you have more room, better views and often more luggage capacity — and you can arrive at a train station 30 minutes or less before departure. When you account for all the time-eating aspects of flying (arriving 1-4 hours early, going through security, taxiing, takeoff and landing, retrieving your luggage, etc.), a train ride can be only slightly longer and with fewer weather delays.

Trains also tend to be more environmentally friendly. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, passenger vehicles and light-duty trucks accounted for 58% of transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions; aircraft for 8%; and rail for 2%.

Data from the UK Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy says short-haul passenger flights (think: flying within a U.S. state) produce 255 grams of carbon dioxide equivalent per passenger-kilometer; a medium passenger car produces 192g; a long-haul flight (over 2,000 miles) produces 150g; and the UK national rail produces 41g.

We have to take that last number with a grain of salt — not because the figure is incorrect, but because America’s passenger rail system lags far behind those in the UK and Europe, so ours may not be quite so efficient. Yet.

That’s why this investment into our passenger railroads is so important. We’ve allowed infrastructure for our trains to languish, disappear and/or get swallowed up by private companies to be used for freight. If we can bring our railroads and trains into the modern era, we will have more travel opportunities and choices that — as a bonus — are likely to be cheaper and more environmentally friendly than the ones available today.