Opening Letters

Let’s Talk About Trains, Bay-bee

let’s talk about all the good trains, and the bad trains. that. can. be

Eric Rasmussen |

I don’t know if you know this, but I’ve been on a high-speed train. Yep, little old me traveled several times faster than average freeway speeds to reach a destination in a laughably short amount of time. It was an electricity-fueled junction of fuel efficiency, travel time minimization, and low stress commuting, with a stop at the depot of faint Wild West nostalgia.

 The train ride in question took place in South Korea, when my brother, who works over there, accompanied my wife and I from his home in Daejeon to Seoul at the end of our visit. We had taken the same journey by bus when we arrived, and all of you light-rail fanatics will be happy to know the train ride was clean, quiet, and remarkably fast. The bus ride there was exhaust-y, and it took forever, although we did enjoy the opportunity to stop at several Korean waysides, experience their crazy bathrooms (you would think that the commonalities in human plumbing would lead to similarities in bathroom plumbing, but not so!) and enjoy wacky Korean snacks out of their giant building-sized vending machines.

So, as a high-speed rail veteran, I am always curious why, whenever the bigwigs and mucketymucks around here talk about potential rail lines skewering Wisconsin, no one comes to find me. Just recently, the West Central Wisconsin Rail Coalition, which is working on placing the forthcoming Chicago-Minneapolis rail line through Eau Claire, scored a big victory.

A Minnesota study identified Eau Claire as one of the top three best cities to connect with, not that stupid La Crosse. All of this feasibility testing and plan concocting was put on the fast track when President Obama put money for rail lines in the stimulus package, providing economic activity, reducing foreign oil dependency, and saving the environment. So, the train climate in the Chippewa Valley really could not be better. We may even see a resurgence in hobos! Maybe the coalition can add high-speed boxcars to their list of objectives.

But like the mean old conductor coming around to ruin your train hopping fun, this journey may soon experience some cattle on the tracks of progress. Even though this project is still many years away, the naysayers have already started in. A recent Newsweek article pointed out that rail-ifying the country would be so massively expensive that, based on the potential savings in carbon output, fuel, cars, etc., it would take a few thousand years to pay for itself. Of course, there are values to a rail system that cannot be quantified in dollars, but, yeah, that’s just a lot of money, when the experts predict that it would remove, at most, 3.5 percent of the traffic off of American roads.

    The revision of our transportation system seems to be running into this issue a lot. Even here in little old EC, we have spent a fairly sizeable chunk of dollars on some really fancy new bike trails. This summer, I have packed my son into his bike trailer a dozen or so times to enjoy the Clairemont bike trail, and I think I’ve passed three other people using the trail in all those trips. I understand that midmorning may not a heavy biking time, and that none of the schools are in session, but still, if we are going to pay for bike trails, it would be nice if people use them. Same with this potential train – I love the idea of hopping on a train, showing up in the Twin Cities eight minutes later, taking my kid to the science museum or a Limp Bizkit reunion show, and returning home.

But, are 10 billion-plus dollars worth of people (or whatever part of that pays for our section of train track) going to enjoy similar trips? It’s a car-related chicken or the egg question – I’m not totally convinced simply providing the option for non-car travel is enough to hook people on alternative transportation, while converting the masses with limited options doesn’t seem to work, either.

On top of that, what happens to all of the features of America that rely on the interstates? What will happen to Baldwin without the interstate traffic? Maybe there’s more to Baldwin than the truck stop complex, I don’t know, I haven’t explored that far, but there are plenty of businesses and small towns that rely on those big concrete rivers.

Nonetheless, at this point, there is definitely reason for cautious optimism. Despite these and many other objections, trains are awesome. They are good for the environment. They make me think of cowboys. They have given us very us a good reason to point at La Crosse, laugh, and smugly say, “The Minnesota Rail Study likes us better, and you can shove that right up your national cities’ rankings and your stupid Mississippi River.” And they give us all a good reason to practice tying a few small items into a handkerchief that hangs from a stick.

All aboard.