For better or worse, trains are inextricably linked to cities, and a healthy passenger rail system depends on vibrant urban areas.
Of course, trains are well-suited to serve locations of all sizes. But they have particular advantages in serving rural areas that have no other service, and in providing direct service to downtowns.
So it’s not surprising that Millennials want trains, and they want to live in cities with good transportation.
Those of us who participated in this year’s NARP Day on the Hill were pleased to discover that we got a much better reception than we did last year. There seems to be a glimmer of hope that we’ll return to seeing support from elected officials representing urban and rural, liberal and conservative districts, as has been the norm in the past.
But modern passenger rail won’t work if it’s surrounded by crumbling, hostile communities and infrastructure. Just like in the 1960s, trains will be left to rot if they are considered to be an urban amenity, and the better-off will retreat behind their gated communities and their locked personal cars.
These scenarios are already happening. Canada’s trains are not doing well because they are perceived as too elitist, despite their serving many places with no other transportation options.
So it’s too soon to expect a wholesale defection from the 20th century’s car- and airplane-centric ways of thinking. We have a lot of work to do.
The first step: Passenger train advocates need to build the largest possible tent. We need to welcome everyone: rich, poor; urban, rural; of all ages, abilities, races, backgrounds and political beliefs. That variety of support is imperative if we are to build a consensus for a modern, reliable, and efficient 21st-century rail system.
Trains need to become the place that people know they can be comfortable, and they need to travel and make connections between vibrant, healthy cities and towns.