Adventures in Rail Travel of a Michigan College Student

Justin Vagnozzi is currently interning at the Michigan Environmental Council and is a senior at Western Michigan University majoring in Geography and Sports Management. He is an avid traveler who has visited all 50 states, Ontario, the Bahamas, and the District of Columbia.

What are some thoughts that come to mind when you think about train travel in the U.S.? When talking with my friends from college, they think of it as a slow, boring journey filled with delays and headache. For me, this couldn’t be further from the truth. I’m currently a 21-year-old college senior who’s ridden the train in 33 states including Alaska.

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An Alaskan Railroad train rolls through the mountains on its route from Anchorage to Fairbanks.

While some may prefer the flexibility of a car, I prefer to hand over the keys and let the engineer do the driving. There are various reasons for the stance that I’ve taken. First of all, while riding the train you don’t have to pay attention to your surroundings like you do while driving. I can check my phone, read the newspaper, or sleep on the train. All of these things would be highly dangerous while driving.

Second, passenger rail can provide transportation to those without cars. During my first three years at Western Michigan University I didn’t have an automobile and used Amtrak’s Blue Water line to travel back and forth from my home in suburban Lansing to Kalamazoo. While I typically take short trips on Amtrak, I have also traveled long distances on cross country trains. I have traveled to or from the cities of Portland, Seattle, Minneapolis, San Antonio, Flagstaff, Denver, New Orleans, and Boston. These trips have featured desolate deserts, majestic mountain ranges, flat plains, and sandy coastlines. One of my favorite experiences was riding the California Zephyr through the Rocky Mountains. The train slowly wove through the deep canyons and jagged peaks that are universally associated with the Rockies. You can’t get this scenery in a plane or car.

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An eastbound Amtrak train sits in the Glenwood Springs train station.

While I’m fine traveling by car or plane, it’s important that we invest in railroad technology in the United States. President Obama’s 2009 stimulus package—which included $8 billion allotted to high speed rail—was a good start, but more can be done to bring this country’s rail transit up to the level of countries such as Germany, France, or Japan.

High speed rail can spur development in areas around train routes and help speed up the flow of goods and ideas between major metropolitan areas. It can reduce pollution by taking cars off the road while also reducing our dependency on foreign oil. From my house, there is one train a day to Chicago and Port Huron but no way to get to some of the state’s bigger cities like Detroit, Grand Rapids, or Ann Arbor. How great would it be to live in Lansing and roll into Detroit for work without having to deal with rush hour traffic?

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The proposed Coast-To-Coast train service between Holland and Detroit.

This issue is being dealt with in Michigan’s Coast-To-Coast study, which looks at the viability of connecting Michigan’s major cities with a passenger rail service. There are three proposed routes to connect the west side of the state to Detroit. They all follow the same route from Holland to Grand Rapids to Lansing but then split off on three routes with one going to Jackson, another going to Howell and on to Ann Arbor, and the last one going straight from Lansing to Detroit. Further study will determine which of these potential routes makes the most sense to pursue to get the best bang for our buck.

From my experience, rail doesn’t have to be the dysfunctional way to travel it is perceived as in this country. When I was 14, I rode on the Acela Express train from Providence, RI to Boston, MA. The train zoomed along at 150 mph, which is by far the fastest in the country. There, the train is not just a mode of transportation but the mode of transportation. Driving is filled with headaches due to construction and heavy traffic, and flying takes too much time as passengers have to arrive early to print their boarding passes and go through security. The same thing is applicable in Michigan as there is heavy traffic—especially around Detroit—and flying is inconvenient and expensive.

The train can be a good transportation option in our state and one which should be expanded. College students, families, and the elderly would all benefit from increased funding in train travel. I hope that elected officials remain committed to expanding and improving rail travel in our state in the coming years.

Written by: Justin Vagnozzi, MEC Intern

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