Train stations to play leading role in new golden age of rail travel
Train stations that elevate the commuter experience support regional travel return on investment
According to NBC News, the United States’ federal infrastructure bill invests in rail travel to the tune of $44 billion over the next 15 years. The undertaking will connect more than 160 new communities to the Amtrak system and modernize transportation for a more sustainable future.
Now is the time to consider what can be done to achieve a return on this investment, which creates opportunities for both supportive development and a change in transit behaviors. Regional travel, or travel that connects major metropolitan areas within 400 miles of one another, constitutes a significant part of the larger green infrastructure. Last year, Amtrak passengers took 33,000 trips per day, equating to nearly 12.2 million trips in 2021 (Amtrak FY 2021 Company Profile).
“With the guaranteed investment in the future of American rail travel, regional stations must be designed to set the tone for the improvement of the total system.”
As metropolitan areas grow and, in some areas, begin to combine, regional intercity travel becomes a viable option in the gig economy. Workers further afield can be remote, but when they need to be in the office, the train can take them into the cities while allowing them to be productive along the way. Families can remain connected with expedient travel options in larger cities. Students have long used the regional train for transit to and from schools.
Rethinking the Viability of Rail Travel
During the golden age of rail, we built monuments to rail travel that brought new people to big cities. Unfortunately, the advent of the automobile brought about the wholesale deterioration of train station design, especially in suburban areas. It’s no secret that America has a love affair with its cars. Car and air transportation have overshadowed our long history of rail travel.
But rail transit is not the outmoded laggard we’ve made it out to be. The U.S. Department of Energy Transportation Energy Data Book, Edition 39, 2021 reveals that train travel via Amtrak is 34% more energy efficient than flying and 46% more energy efficient than traveling by car.
One of the key arguments against U.S. rail travel is the need for a car at the destination. Flying faces the same challenge, but this has rarely been seen as a detractor to air travel. Though rental cars have always been an option, the rise of rideshare over the last decade has significantly diminished last-mile travel drawbacks, making micromobility a game changer.
Time has been a point of contention. This concern, however, has abated with the ease of access for train travel versus flying, as well as the speeds newer trains can achieve.
As onshoring increases local production, there is a greater need for our regional rail lines to not only move product but also support the movement of individuals. Gained efficiency and time are luxuries that the regional train provides.
The Resurrection of the Regional Station
The growth of metropolitan areas since World War II demands that regional rail stations once again become important nodes to support the new green infrastructure investment as points of connection for both people and experiences.
Regional stations allow travelers to be picked up away from the major metropolitan areas and taken to their desired destinations. Amtrak’s Pontiac and Dwight, Illinois stations, designed by Legat Architects, are strong examples. Located just outside the edge of the Chicago metropolitan area, they are at key points on the Amtrak Lincoln Service running from Chicago to St. Louis with connections to campuses along the way. You will often see groups of students engaged in conversation or simply the lone student fast asleep on their bag of belongings as the train bustles along. You’ll also see families that want to experience the city for a day or two, or even business travelers focused on their laptops or phones.
With the guaranteed investment in the future of American rail travel, regional stations must be designed to set the tone for the improvement of the total system. Achieving that return on investment means the station needs to support growth and ease of accessibility. It also needs to be an integral part of an experience that people remember with fondness.
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