The Choo-Choo and the Bus

My son, who is approaching 2 years of age, is obsessed with trains. And it's no wonder: every day as many as 10 freight trains whistle and chug their way through our town, down a track that runs parallel to our street and very much within sight. We sit at the window and count the train cars, sometimes as many as 100 at a time. If I call home from the office and my wife puts him on the phone, he has only this to say: “choo choo!”

If only the rest of the town was as excited about the trains as my son is. Of course, the train isn't new to the town; it's been passing through since before the Civil War. It used to carry passengers as well as freight, but those days are long past. In fact, our train line rarely carries even freight. Most of the trains are empty, having carried their cargo down from inland mines and quarries to the coast via a different route. They just pass through our town on the way back where they came from. No matter to my son, but a source of some disappointment if one considers the economic relevance of the choo-choo.

Some companies do occasionally take a serious look at building in our area, to take advantage of the train line. They would build short spurs off the line to link to their manufacturing facilities. Since the interstate came to the surrounding county a few decades ago, that has been the obvious destination for most retail and service type businesses, and for many industrial firms as well. But in some cases rail is a better way to go than by truck.

But what about bringing back passenger service? Now, that's a serious long shot to ever happen. Even before Obama's vision for high speed rail hit the Congressional budgetary skids, it was intended primarily to link major cities. There was never any talk, as far as I could tell, about connecting cities to outlying small towns via rail. That's historically been the role of commuter rail, and we're a little too far outside the metro orbit to ever benefit from that.

For us, a more likely scenario for transit in our community would be an expansion of bus service. We do have a lively regional transit provider, which we can use if the car ever breaks down. You have to schedule a trip 24 hours ahead of time. Also, because the bus goes directly to people's houses (rather than a fixed destination), depending on the number of riders, it can take a couple hours for a trip that would only require 40 minutes by car. But in the absence of any other transit service, the bus is critical to have available.

It's just not quite as dramatic as the choo-choo. So even though the odds of our ever being able to jump on the train just a hop and a skip from our house are next to nil, we'll keep envisioning it anyway.

Photo by Train Chartering & Private Cars (CC BY-SA)

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