Here’s a summary of what I talked about in my presentation at RailNation, which I did from a friend’s living room in Washington, DC. My proposal was this: “While there is lots of focus on metropolitan transit needs and major intercity lines, a connection that has been primary throughout human history is largely ignored. That is, the connection between cities and outlying rural areas. In the past, these were essential as sources of food, and human capital. Today, at a time when climate change and economic inequity have become pressing global issues, it is vital that we develop new, mutually beneficial urban-rural connections. In terms of economic development, reduced emissions, affordable housing for city workers, access to jobs and education for rural residents, passenger rail is transformative. It is, however, hard to get attention from city-centered governments. There are many efforts to restore passenger service throughout the United States, and I’ll explain how we are overcoming cross-border and funding challenges by engaging citizens and coming up with 21st-century approaches to running a passenger rail service.”
Reading the news, you’d think that cities and rural areas are natural enemies. Rural regions are either ignored entirely or thrown the kind of payout that rankles the urban and suburban taxpayers who have to foot the bill. Think, for example, of the $12-billion farm bailout or rural-county exemptions from safety-net work requirements.
And rural people are angry: they know they have been left behind, targeted by the pharmaceutical companies making billions off opioid drugs, and looked down on by sophisticated, better-educated, and more liberal city folk.
Both rural and urban dwellers feel misunderstood and disparaged: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/22/upshot/rural-and-urban-residents-feel-disparaged-pew-survey.html
Connectivity is the key to getting beyond this zero-sum game. Throughout history, cities and rural areas have been interdependent. In the 21st-century the right kind of interdependence can increase innovation and economic activity, and improve quality of life. Today, high-value, high-paying jobs can be created anywhere. As one expert put it, “Rural communities have many of the building blocks of strong digital economies.”
I run a global publishing company in Great Barrington, Massachusetts and founded the Train Campaign in 2011. Our organization believes that the future of rural America, as well as smaller cities and towns, depends on the connectivity offered by freight and passenger rail. Rail-oriented development attracts new permanent residents and job-creating entrepreneurs, and reduces carbon emissions while supporting agriculture and light industry.
And the benefits go both ways. Rail is a key to solving the affordable housing crisis that plagues otherwise thriving cities like New York and Boston. Rail connectivity will enable a new generation of urban dwellers, who don’t have and don’t want personal automobiles, to benefit from outdoor recreational opportunities and historic and cultural venues outside crowded urban centers.
The Green New Deal refers to “high-speed rail.” A recent opinion piece by Stan Rosenberg and James Aliosi refers to “Big Rail.” What we’re focused on is Big Enough Rail.
I introduced some of the projects underway in Massachusetts and described western Mass as a hotbed of rail activism. I tried to make a case for more cost-benefit analysis (rail studies typically put 5% of their time/money into looking at benefits and devote 95% to costs) and more attention to return on investment, which I suspect will be higher with some modest projects than will huge, expensive, glamorous high-speed initiatives.
I also highlighted the importance of looking outside the United States for models, and mentioned the UK Campaign for Better Transport: “September 6th 2015 saw the culmination of one of the most remarkable transformations in British railway history – and one of the greatest achievements of grassroots rail campaigning. When ScotRail train services began running over the 30.3 route miles of the new Borders Railway between Newcraighall (in south east Edinburgh) and Tweedbank (between Galashiels and Melrose), this became the longest railway to have been built in Scotland since the Fort William-Mallaig line in 1901 – and the longest rail re-opening project in British history.”
The discussion afterward was lively, focused on how to make change happen and how to build coalitions. These are subjects we will be talking much more about. Finally, I want to thank RPA president Jim Mathews for urging me to participant even though I couldn’t make it to California, to his colleagues Bruce Becker and Matt Melzer who were incredibly helpful in making everything go smoothly, and to my fellow panelists Robert Munson and Mike Christensen (who is no relation!). Click here for my PowerPoint.