We are in the midst of a major global COVID-19 health crisis. No one knows exactly how or when it will end. Events such as this have many negative aspects, to say the least. On the other hand, occasionally crises offer an opportunity to reassess how we are going to live our lives going forward.
One example of this was the post-9/11 change in our national security preparedness. Another, a generation earlier, was the revamping of the British health care system after World War II. As Winston Churchill said (and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel later quoted), “Never let a serious crisis go to waste.”
I'm sure that many new or resurrected old ideas will come to the forefront after the COVID-19 pandemic has passed. I've heard the governor and his colleagues say over and over, “Let's get back on track, Indiana.” That got me to thinking ... I'm all for getting “back on track” ... and why and when did we decide that the automobile and air travel should be our primary modes of passenger transportation? What about the possibility of our literally getting ourselves “back on track”?
For too long we have been overly dependent on the automobile. We have an excellent freight rail system throughout the U.S. and in our region, but there is little or no opportunity to utilize passenger rail transportation. We do have the opportunity to board an airplane to travel throughout the Midwest and beyond. However, at the time of 9/11 and during the ongoing pandemic, the commercial airlines have been essentially shut down for long periods of time.
The time has come for us to re-embrace passenger rail travel as an adjunct to – not a replacement for – automobile and air passenger transportation.
Modern passenger rail travel has many advantages as part of a multi-modal transportation system. As noted above, passenger rail proved its resilience when rail service continued but air travel halted immediately after the 9/11 crisis.
Train transportation creates only one-eighth of the atmospheric pollution per passenger mile produced by automobile travel. We are all aware of the amazing decrease in atmospheric pollution during the current pandemic. Reduction in automobile emissions is a major factor leading to this improvement in our environment. If our post-COVID-19 world is less dependent on the automobile, we will all breathe cleaner air and be healthier.
Many jobs have already been created by rail transportation, including those at the SDI steel plant, a major rail producer in Whitley County. Many more can follow in the future. Enhanced passenger rail service has already been shown to lead to increased employment as businesses develop at or near rail stations such as our downtown Baker Street rail station. Rail cars are already being built in Indiana. With increased demand, many more will be built.
Travelers already drive from throughout the region to attend events in Fort Wayne and Allen County. If we were connected by rail with Warsaw, Plymouth, Valparaiso, and Lima and Toledo, Ohio, our city would likely become more and more of a destination. And envision traveling to Chicago or Indy or Columbus, Ohio, while reading a book or doing online work en route, hopping an Uber or taxi at your destination, and returning to Fort Wayne later that day. It's all possible.
Significant public investment will be needed to expand passenger rail service in our part of the country. Independent studies have shown that a return of passenger rail service to Fort Wayne will eventually be self-supporting.
All levels of government currently spend tens of billions of dollars every year to finance air and highway travel. Of the Indiana Department of Transportation's $4 billion annual budget, $57 million is spent annually just cleaning and mowing along the state's highways. There has been discussion of spending up to $1 billion to modernize and make more safe U.S. 30, which we drive to Chicago; in addition to that, hundreds of millions more dollars will be needed to combat Chicago highway gridlock.
A new Indiana legislature will be elected this November. New federal officials will also be elected. It is important for us to support candidates for state and federal office who agree to work hard for passenger rail expansion. Being able to hop a train to Chicago or Indy or Cleveland or Columbus makes so much sense, it will happen eventually – why not get this done sooner rather than later? When we do this, we will all benefit from the many advantages of passenger rail transportation.
Tom Hayhurst, a Fort Wayne physician, is a board member for Northern Indiana Passenger Rail Association.