Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Train comes to Hope

Downtown Hope, AR

A Brookings Institution report earlier this year came out with a report that the Northeast is essentially subsidizing passenger rail throughout the rest of the country. Matthew Yglesias, who is quite good, gives an analysis of the impact of these findings here for The crux of the problem - if the Northeast is making transportation profitable, then shouldn't those profits be sent back to the northeast, where even small improvements will be seen by many, rather than spread out across the country? On the other hand, if not for federal aid, can efficient passenger rail service ever be an option for the rest of the country?

That brings us to the news, this week, that Texas Eagle service is coming to a newly renovated station in Hope, Arkansas. Hope, the birthplace of President Clinton, needs significant help - 27.2 percent of the city's 14,000 residents live below the poverty line. Passenger rail is hardly a panacea, but an efficient way to get potential workers into town, or to other cities is a step in the right direction. In the short term, though, there is much reason to be skeptical of any impact. The Texas Eagle, which runs 1,305 miles from Chicago to San Antonio, had a fiscal year 2012 ridership of 337,973 - a number that translates to only 926 per day. While this may seem paltry, it is a 12 percent increase over the previous year, and 17 percent higher than its 2010, which saw only 787 daily riders. Progress can be slow.

More notably for Hope customers, the train won't necessarily be coming through at what would be considered optimal times. The southbound train stops at 5:09 am. It reaches Dallas, 250 miles away, at 1:30 pm, and terminates in San Antonio (564 miles away) at 9:55. Heading north? You'll catch the 9:18 pm train to be in Little Rock (107 miles) at 11:38, or you can get to Chicago (741 miles) at 1:52 pm the next day.

Perhaps this is part of the reason why ridership in Arkansas is so low. Here is the yearly boardings for the five existing stops in Arkansas along the Texas Eagle route (north to south):

Walnut Ridge: 4,766
Little Rock: 24.036
Malvern: 2,105
Arkadelphia: 1,602
(Hope): NA
Texarkana: 8,849

Arkadelphia, a similarly sized city to Hope about 50 miles to the northeast, has about four boardings per day. The much larger Texarkana gets closer to 25. Should Amtrak (and we, as a general population) simply accept that people in Arkansas don't take the train? Or do we continue to invest, hoping that gradual improvements in efficiency can produce a gradual cultural shirt?

It's my belief that we should at least try the latter. Yes, as a northeasterner, there is some frustration that the profits provided from the many using rail service in my region isn't being kept here, in service improvements, higher speeds, and/or lower prices. Part of the American experiment, however, is the exchange of resources. Profits in Massachusetts improve transportation infrastructure in Arkansas, with the benefits, including the emissions reductions and increases in productivity gradually cycling back.

In the meantime, now I can begin planning our 80 hour round trip to Hope.

Photo credit: Billy Hathorn, taken from,_AR_IMG_6459.jpg

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