What the Folks in Port Huron Know about Train Travel

March 22, 2015

The following story from The Times Herald newspaper in Port Huron, Mich., affords a remarkable insight into the transformation taking hold in Americans’ attitude toward train travel. They like it, and they know why.

As recently as a generation ago, most Americans still shunned train travel or viewed it with suspicion as somehow “un-American.” Except on Amtrak’s high-speed Northeast Corridor connecting Boston, New York and Washington, Middle America still viewed rail as an “alternative” form of travel rather than “the mode of choice.” The train was seen as a welfare program the federal government set aside for people too old or too poor to drive a car, or to college students who couldn’t afford to keep a car at school, but it definitely was not O.K. for people who had the means to exercise choice when they traveled.

Fast-forward to 2015. The Times Herald story suggests rail travel now has crossed that watershed to become legitimate, respectable and even preferred among the kinds of typical middle-class Americans who live in Port Huron.

Fact check: In some ways Port Huron (pop. 31,000) is not what you’d call typical: Sited directly across the St. Clair River from Sarnia, Ontario, it’s the easternmost point in the state of Michigan and has something of a border-town feel about it. It also has a strong Great Lakes feel about it: The southern end of Lake Huron forms its northern city limits, and the citizens of Port Huron have long been accustomed to watching giant Great Lakes bulk carriers pass from the Lake into the St. Clair River for the 90-mile trip downstream to Detroit and into Lake Erie. Some stop in Port Huron for fuel, repairs or provisioning.

But, although Port Huron faces east, its citizens are American and enjoy heading west to Chicago when they’re in search of weekend fun and recreation. According to the story, a growing number of them prefer to ride Amtrak’s Blue Water, the daily state-supported passenger train. The Blue Water is not particularly fast, taking just over 5 1/2 hours to cover the 319-mile route, but the people interviewed for the story say driving takes even longer, and the drive times are not reliable because of traffic congestion and weather delays.

But, the passengers interviewed by the Times Herald aren’t riding the Blue Water just to avoid driving. They told the reporter they’re actually attracted to the train because it affords them so many amenities, including the freedom to eat and drink without interrupting their trip, to work at a laptop or watch a movie, to get up and move around, to catch up on sleep, and even to enjoy the scenery (of which there’s plenty along the Blue Water’s route).

In some ways the Times Herald story almost reads like advertising copy, so positive are the passengers about their rail-travel experience. Yet, their remarks have the ring of authenticity. These people weren’t coached: They discovered the virtues of train travel themselves and can talk about it knowledgeably and convincingly.

They’ve even learned some lessons from it — like the woman who told the reporter: “I just wish the train arrived and departed more often.”

She’s onto something. As any rail-traffic expert can tell you, routes with only one round trip a day are always underperformers and quickly double their ridership when people along the route get two daily choices of arrival and departure. The state of Illinois proved the principle when it doubled the frequencies on all three of its Amtrak routes in 2006. North Carolina learned the same lesson when it doubled its frequencies between Raleigh and Charlotte in 2013 (California was way ahead of the pack. It bulked up all three of its routes to multiple frequencies back in the 1980s).

On its current schedule, the Blue Water leaves Port Huron at 6:20 a.m. Eastern Time and arrives in Chicago just before noon. It leaves Chicago at 4 p.m. and gets back to Port Huron at 11:38 p.m.

Got that? With only one train a day, people from Port Huron can make a day trip to Chicago, but, Chicagoans cannot make a day trip to Port Huron. They’d have to spend two nights in a hotel to see Port Huron in daylight.

That’s a shame, because Port Huron is a pretty city with a great beach, a busy, beautiful riverfront and friendly people.

All it needs is one more train to Chicago.

— F.K. Plous

Have a great time en route to Chicago

You are up early and you can feel the excitement in the air.

You have a days worth of events already planned and you are about to embark on an entirely new experience even while the world sleeps.

Taking the Amtrak trip from Port Huron to Chicago should be on everyone’s bucket list. …

 

Read the full story from Joseph Hayes of the Port Huron Times Herald here.

 

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