A high speed train ready to depart Cologne's central station. (Photo by jonjk via flickr, creative commons license/noncommercial & attribution)

A high speed train ready to depart Cologne

Last fall on a whirlwind tour of organic farms in Europe, I found myself with a free day and decided to wander Germany botton-to-top by train en route to Amsterdam, where I would catch a plane home.

After finishing up my research on Friday evening, I grabbed a train from Basel, Switzerland, to Tubingen, Germany, arriving in time for a late dinner. I spent Saturday morning soaking up the charm of the lively southern German college town, noted for its picture perfect medieval center and environmental activism, and then caught the 1:30 train to Stuttgart for further sightseeing. As the train whistled through lovely scenery in the Neckar River valley, I changed my mind. According to the guidebook I was reading, Cologne—180 miles north—sounded more interesting than Stuttgart. So upon arriving in Stuttgart, I ran to nearest information booth and breathlessly asked what time the next high speed train left for Cologne. “In two minutes,” the clerk answered, “from the platform right behind you.”

In little more than two hours, even with a train change in Mannheim, I was sitting in a cozy taproom with a glass of Cologne’s famous kolsch beer in front of me. After a long stroll through the city and more kolsch, I boarded the high-speed ICE train and went to bed in Amsterdam that night at a decent hour. Thanks to Europe’s speedy, comfortable trains I was able to cover a lot of ground in one day and have loads of fun to boot.

As an American who lives in a metropolitan region of three million where only two passenger trains stop each day—one bound for Chicago, one for Seattle—that was a revelation of just how far behind we are when it comes to rail transportation.

This lack of a good train system not only harms the environment—forcing many of us into cars or planes for trips that would be more sensible by rail—it diminishes our sense of place. The decline and fall of America’s passenger train service in the 1950s and ‘60s contributed to the degradation of our urban landscapes. Our cities expanded along freeways and near airports, not in lively downtowns. As communities sprawled outward, many vital urban neighborhoods filled with streetlife devolved into grim stretches of strip malls. People’s sense of community suffered in the process.

Restoring train service to American communities—intercity passenger service, commuter trains, light rail and trolleys—is an important element of the Placemaking vision. Giving people a comfortable, convenient alternative to driving will help protect the environment, boost the economy, strengthen our communities and rekindle a spirit of place across the country.

This is why Project for Public Spaces has long been involved with rail revival initiatives. We’ve worked with the New Jersey Department of Transportation to enliven passenger facilities along rail corridors in that state, and with officials in California to turn around commercial districts surrounding commuter train depots.

A key element of PPS’s ambitious transportation program is the Thinking Beyond the Station Campaign [http://www.pps.org/info/Thinking_Beyond_the_Station/], which helps planners and citizens groups better integrate transit into the life of their communities.

These are just part of many promising signs today that trains are poised to play a central role in transportation and community building for the 21st Century.

Europe’s railways are “staging a quiet revolution,” according to Conde Nast Traveler magazine, with trains speeding up to 200 miles per hour between cities like London, Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam. Europe already sports 2600 miles of high-speed rail lines, which will triple by 2020.

What’s more, China is building 6000 miles of high speed rail lines over the next 15 years while Taiwan and South Korea have recently inaugurated state-of-the-art high speec passenger service. Japan, of course, boasts one of the best train networks on Earth. Even Argentina is building a new fast-train line, putting it ahead of both Canada and the United States in bringing the transportation of the future to the Western hemisphere

But Conde Nast Traveler proudly reports that Americans may eventually stop apologizing for our mediocre train service. The Acela train between Boston and Washington, which travels at speeds of 75-150 m.p.h., has become a hit since it was introduced in 2000. Amtrak now accounts for 45 percent of all passengers between New York and Washington, with an on-time arrival rate much higher than that of the airlines.

Californians voted November 4 to construct a $10 billion high-speed rail line between San Diego and Sacramento that would reach 220 mph. High-speed rail is also being explored for heavily traveled corridors in the Midwest, Pacific Northwest, Texas, and the Southeast.

Things are looking up even for regular Amtrak service, which saw an 11 percent rise in passengers over the first six months of 2008. After years of stopgap funding, Congress has provided the national rail company with secure financial support over the next five years.

For decades Amtrak has been crippled by a nonsensical structure where private freight haulers own the rails upon which passenger trains travel. These railroads have no real incentive to take proper care of the tracks since freight trains travel at far slower speeds. Many times Amtrak trains are forced to stop on a sidetrack because trains have priority. This ridiculous situation happens almost no where else in the world and has long had a negative impact on Amtrak’s service, speed and public reputation.

A new day is dawning for passenger rail in the U.S. Growing concerns about the environment and energy costs as well as the inspiring example of European and Asian high-speed trains and a renewal of America’s “yes we can” spirit will all help America get back on track.

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