Herald Journal Columns
June 26, 2006, Herald Journal

Rail travel just makes sense

By IVAN RACONTEUR

It has taken a long time, but the spectre of common sense may finally have appeared over our country’s railroads.

The move that has provoked this uncharacteristic optimism in my outlook is the $1.3 million allotment to St. Louis County by the Minnesota Legislature last month.

The St. Louis and Lake Counties Regional Rail Authority hopes to establish rail passenger service between Duluth and the Twin Cities by 2010.

The $1.3 million will be used to help repair and renovate the depot in Duluth in preparation for the service.

Passenger rail service between Duluth and the Twin Cities faded into history in 1985, when Amtrak discontinued the route.

The demise of passenger service in Minnesota, as in much of the US, was the result of a combination of factors, including apathy on the part of consumers, and political chicanery.

Relatively cheap air travel, more cars, and American arrogance, allowed a once vital rail industry to die with limited protest.

Now, with gas approaching, and in some areas exceeding, $3 per gallon, and with the stability of the Middle East very much in question, people are starting to come around.

It is sad that in a country that likes to think of itself as a great industrial superpower, our public transportation system lags far behind other industrialized nations, especially when it comes to rail travel.

It is possible that I am afflicted with a bit of a romantic streak, because I have always loved rail travel.

As a lad, I travelled on the train between Duluth and the Twin Cities many times, and it left a lasting impression on me.

Life on two rails has always had a special kind of appeal.

But apart from the romance of rail travel, there are some obvious practical advantages.

Trains are environmentally responsible, using less fuel per passenger than airplanes or cars.

From a consumer perspective, rail travel is infinitely more enjoyable than other modes of transportation.

The seats are wider, there is more legroom. Trains offer the delicious ability to get up and move around while traveling, which improves comfort and reduces fatigue.

One can work, read, enjoy a conversation, or just sit back and enjoy watching some incredible scenery slide by the windows.

In the decades since it fell out of fashion in this country, rail travel has improved dramatically in other parts of the world.

In Europe, for example, trains are faster, more reliable, and serve far more destinations than they do in this country.

In some areas, travelers on modern high-speed trains, covering distances of less than 400 miles, reach their destination faster than if they had travelled by air.

For those who wish to work while travelling, the time is more efficient, since takeoffs and landings that require all items to be put away are eliminated.

Rail travel is safer, more efficient, and eliminates fatigue that travelers who drive long distances experience.

Much still needs to happen to restore passenger service between Duluth and the Twin Cities, but there seems to be a new attitude, and a better understanding of what this means for the state.

The economic benefit to both northern Minnesota and the Twin Cities could be dramatic, as the flow of people in both directions would increase.

In time, other routes could be added, and service could be improved not only within the state, but between Minnesota and other areas of the country, as well.

Two routes from Duluth to Hinckley, and two routes from Hinckley to the Twin Cities are being considered.

The service could also connect to light rail service in the Twin Cities, which would provide easy access to more areas.

The rail authority hopes to begin a comprehensive study this fall that would help define routes and costs.

This is a beautiful country, and there is no better way to see it than through the panoramic window of a train.

Depots can be built in a wide variety of places, so travelers do not have to put up with airport traffic congestion when going to or from a train depot.

The benefits of rail travel are clear.

Restoring the system and implementing service should be a major priority when appropriating transportation dollars, and the sooner this starts, the better.

Perhaps some day, we will even catch up with the rest of the world, and people here will be able to buy rail passes that will provide a cheap and convenient way to explore this great country.

It could happen.