Bring Back the Interurban

To save energy, protect land and help rural towns thrive, why not adopt a new (old) idea — the interurban train.

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High-speed rail has gotten a lot of buzz lately because of mass transit funding in President Obama’s stimulus package. The idea of trains whizzing across the landscape at 150 miles per hour or more seems pretty cool for a country that abandoned much of its passenger service decades ago and is now struggling with how to use energy more efficiently.

As a resident of rural Illinois, which subsidizes Amtrak passenger service, I’ve found that having access to twice-daily trains from our town to Chicago is a tremendous boon. We can hop the train for one day visits — to shop, go to meetings, whatever. Developing higher-speed rail service between major cities in regions such as the Midwest would offer relatively fast travel and give riders time for reading and writing along the way, meanwhile reducing the number of cars on the road and saving fuel.

Current plans to improve high-speed passenger service are limited. But now is the time to ask an important question: What’s in it for rural cities and towns? For example, how would a 150 mile-per-hour train between St. Louis and Chicago, perhaps with a stop in Springfield, benefit people in rural communities along the way?

History has an answer, one that should initiate plans for a new electrified rail system feeding into cities along the high-speed passenger lines. Federal policy calls for an integrated approach to transportation, so plans to develop high-speed passenger service should be coupled with a rail system that would move both goods and people efficiently between rural and urban areas.

We once had such a system. This is one of those what-goes-around-comes-around ideas that would recreate the electric interurban railways that crisscrossed much of our countryside before the Great Depression and World War II. The height of these services came about 1920. The interurban faded away as automobiles and trucks gained widespread use, and as corporations, like General Motors, bought out the interurban lines, substituting their own buses.

Trains once connected cities with rural towns all across America. This is a postcard showing a train from the Coeur D’Alene & Spokane Railway in Washington State.

Interurbans moved people and transported fresh farm produce, freight, and even newspapers. They ran on and along public roads, as well as on private rights-of-way. Interurbans often provided electrical service to homes and businesses along the route and sometimes constructed amusement parks to increase traffic.

Schedules were set up both for expresses with few stops and locals that would stop just about anywhere there was a passenger. Frequent stops were possible because the efficient electric motors allowed the cars to accelerate quickly. 

The last generation of interurbans was fast, too. The Cincinnati & Lake Erie “Red Devils” had a top speed of just under 100 miles per hour, making the trip from Cincinnati to the Detroit area in about three hours. A famous photo from July, 1930, shows one of the cars outrunning an airplane on the Moraine Flats near Dayton, Ohio — a desperate publicity stunt as the line was headed into bankruptcy during the Depression.

History aside, there are contemporary reasons for pursing the idea of building a link between rural areas and small cities with high-speed regional rail service. Such a system would make better use of energy and land, and it would provide new opportunities for rural development.  

Energy efficiency A well thought-out web of electric railways could reduce traffic. Comfortable interurban cars with work space and broadband access could let people be productive during their trips to and from the city. By funneling traffic to a central terminal, passengers could easily make connections with high-speed, long-distance trains, passenger planes, and local transportation. The lines also could carry small freight to strategic points along the lines for pick up and local delivery, 

An electrified rail system could become a part of the proposed “smart electrical grid” that would more effectively transmit power across the country. I don’t claim to be an engineer, but I wonder if the lines could be incorporated in regional power distribution and as a user of surplus electricity during times of low demand. 

Good land use Some of the earliest suburbs in the United States grew up along railroad and interurban lines that radiated away from central cities. Early development patterns along these lines left large areas of open space in between for farming and recreation. Restoring transportation to more centralized business areas and neighborhoods in large and small cities would help alleviate pressure for suburban sprawl across prime farmland. Electric rail lines could be incorporated into existing traffic arteries, reducing demand for new road construction and providing a fast, efficient transportation alternative for people and goods. 

For advocates of smaller farms and local food production, regional electric railway lines could open up markets for produce. In the past, interurban terminals were located close to local farm markets, offering fresh food during much of the year.

More room than a Hummer! Riding to town once was accomplished in leather-bound luxury. This car was built in 1930.
 

Better opportunities for rural residents Many rural communities have stagnant or declining economies with limited employment opportunities. Residents who live in these communities often do so by choice, but they use nonrenewable fuels, devote considerable income to maintaining their cars, and spend time every day commuting to jobs in the city or other rural communities. 

Many small town residents are poor and elderly. Driving is costly and may not be an option because of age. An electrified rail web could provide opportunities for work and access to health care, shopping, and recreation. 

Redeveloped rural communities The early suburbs created along interurban lines offered a small-town atmosphere with a generally high quality of life and reliable commuter service to cities. These were, to some extent, bedroom communities, but they eventually developed their own businesses, schools and churches. They became attractive places for people to live.

Many rural communities have their basic infrastructure still in place, and they could, with reinvestment, restore and rebuild their downtowns and historic neighborhoods for commuters and residents who own their own local businesses. They might also become attractive places for telecommuters and others who like the idea of small town life but want access to urban amenities and transportation options. Reinvestment in these towns would alleviate pressure to develop farmland.

The current planning for higher-speed passenger service does not seem to offer much for rural areas at the moment. History offers some perspective on what might be possible. New technologies point the way toward the possibilities for an electrified rail system that could closely connect rural communities and cities in ways that would benefit both.

What a new web we could weave if we were to look to the past for our future and allow ourselves to turn a dream into reality.

 Timothy Collins is assistant director of the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb. Opinions expressed here are his and his alone.

 

 

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