From the perspective of somebody who doesn’t know anything about the history of passenger railroading in America, it must seem strange that there is so little of it in the Midwest. The region is much like the heart of the European continent in quite a few measures: it’s a galaxy of small and midsize cities, anchored by a few larger metropolises, all close enough together to afford a vibrant intercity travel market.

Yet passenger service is wildly variant, between “nonexistent” and “inadequate”, throughout this region. This is, of course, a function of the history of passenger service in the region, particularly in the postwar era, and how its abandonment leads to a blindness to the fact that large chunks of the infrastructure remain. We can still see the many railroad stations, underutilized (Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Toledo) or abandoned (Detroit, Buffalo, Ft. Wayne) or repurposed (Cleveland, St. Louis), but only rarely demolished (Columbus), empty halls today that served, on average, about 5,000 passengers daily 60 years ago.

More can be done with this embodied infrastructure. More should be. We can see this simply by observing peer networks in Europe, in Japan, in Russia and Australia and China. Indeed, with a proper investment program (as Michigan has already shown, with its investment in the Wolverine corridor), there is plenty of available infrastructure for more intensive passenger flows throughout the Midwest, without impinging on freight flows.

This map is representative of one possible service breakdown–in terms of city pairs linked and convenient transfers available–centered around Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio. Of what’s shown, three (WolverineBlue Water, and Hoosier) are currently available. Yet the infrastructure exists for much, much more.

Ohio is particularly bad in this regard. Passenger trains don’t pass through Ohio during the daytime (unless they’re horribly late); yet a dense web of corridors linking Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, and eventually Chicago existed historically and can still be developed today. It’s a question, as people like Cap’n Transit regularly say, of priorities and will.

But that is the heart of the problem, is it not? For every successful demonstration like the Wolverine, ten more corridors lie fallow, awaiting reactivation. It will take time, dedication, and patience, but in the long run, the Midwest can rebuild its rail network, and in so doing, offer an amenity that Northeasterners and Californians are–like Europeans, Chinese, and Japanese–so accustomed to that they don’t even notice is an amenity anymore.


One thought on “The Vacuum

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