Due to a series of tornado watches and significant hail storms, I had trouble biking out of Denver to cross the Great Plains. Especially since I was traveling alone, severe thunderstorms aren’t something I wanted to play with.
Falling behind schedule and testing the patience of my friend whose couch I had commandeered, I decided to take the train to Chicago. Gazing at the great expanses of cornfields, I remembered an advertisement I’d seen tucked behind Amtrak’s baggage claim in Washington, D.C.’s Union Station. It touted the important, underrated role Amtrak plays as a vital link for rural communities around the U.S. by providing the only scheduled passenger service among numerous places.
By bike and now by train, I began to understand how disconnected some rural communities really can be from our transportation network. Airlines and bus companies such as Greyhound have been cutting services to small towns for a few decades, leaving many with cars as their sole transportation option over vast, empty distances. Far from interstates and commercial airports, the world can be hard to reach for such small population centers. For those along Amtrak routes, I could see how daily train service really does serve these small towns.
In Amtrak’s 2015 fiscal year, its long-distance services carried 4.5 million passengers, many of whom live in rural communities that lack other reliable transportation connections. Certain towns along the California Zephyr, Empire Builder or Southwest Chief are far from the interstate and have limited to no commercial transportation services. Without the daily train service stopping in town, options for residents are restricted to lengthy drives, and those who cannot drive might not be able to travel at all.
By providing an alternate transportation option, long-distance train routes move people who might otherwise not have the opportunity to travel, such as Mennonite families who cannot utilize other travel methods to visit far-flung relatives in other remote areas, or disabled people who are unable to utilize air travel. More than 8 percent of passengers – a bit more than 2.5 million people – say they would not travel without Amtrak service.
There is a unique social aspect to long-haul trains as well: they bring people together in a way that other transportation modes don’t. Between the isolation of individual cars and the discomfort of airplanes, it was a noticeably different atmosphere on the train. The mode has developed a culture, with social media bringing enthusiasts together to celebrate train travel.
The communal spaces in the observation car, with its panoramic windows allowing wide-angle views of the scenery, and in the dining car where fellow riders share a table, encourage strangers to talk to each other and experience the ride together. On the California Zephyr to Chicago, I conversed and played cards with multiple riders from these small towns who I likely would never have met otherwise, and – ever the proselytizing cyclist – even may have convinced a few to replace some of their car trips with bike rides.
Rail connections not only help residents get out, but help bring visitors in. Many areas, particularly along the Empire Builder line through the northwestern states, are isolated enough that states like Montana would lose significant numbers of visitors without train service, taking a significant toll on their tourism economy.
Long-distance trains connect rural communities economically as well. According to the Denver Post, the national network’s routes contribute significantly to local economies, creating an “economic stimulus that reaches over a 70-mile radius at every stop.” Through employment, procurement and tourism, the service adds millions of dollars to towns that otherwise would not likely see such income.
Amtrak directly employs thousands of rurally based workers, providing millions in wages across small towns for train and maintenance crews, as well as through employing manufacturers and their subcontractors for equipment and infrastructure. The service economy benefits as the trains draw people toward stations, travelers visit new areas, passengers wander on longer stops, and local vendors serve as supply stops along the routes.
Opportunity on rails
Amtrak service has proved its necessity to rural communities. What especially proves this is how hard small towns will fight to gain and keep stops. Due to consistent capital funding shortages, the burden frequently falls on towns for infrastructure and station costs. Yet many lobby hard for years, band together and buy in to the system to keep passenger trains rolling through, providing an economic boon to an isolated region and giving residents an efficient and environmentally friendly option to access the rest of the United States.
In a report on the Empire Builder line’s economic benefits to Montana, multiple officials refer to the service as a “lifeline” in some form, a sentiment reflected by the communities fighting for the Southwest Chief and other routes.
Long-haul passenger routes have proven their worth to areas that are typically overlooked in the national transportation system. They continue to grow as a result, with multiple non-northeastern routes setting ridership records in FY2015. The service to rural communities offers a non-driving option and boosts economies in a way that likely could not be replaced with car traffic.
And, watching the lightning from the shelter of a train car, I too came to appreciate how valuable a connection Amtrak is across the expansive landscape of the United States.