Why Rural America Needs Passenger Trains

What the Brookings Institute's recent report "Why Rural America Needs Cities" means for passenger trains

Abe Zumwalt, Rail Passengers

Riding the train clear across the American countryside is very distinct from driving across on the interstates.

On the highways, the same national chains hinging off of massive cloverleafs all over the country make for town centers, strip mining money away from local economies. “Town centers,” that have in turn effectively replaced the hundreds of now derelict local main streets one sees if you were to choose the state routes instead. In contrast, taking the train takes you through many small cities and main streets that are generally all alive and generating activity.

A new research effort from the Brookings Institute sheds some light on this effect: it’s not a total coincidence. “Why Rural America Needs Cities” outlines the importance of small cities, or “micropolitan” areas in the vast expanse of the United States. Given the increasing disparities between the country’s dense metropolitan areas and vast rural areas, the report has naturally generated some press. The basic premise is that Fargo, ND will never be New York, NY in terms of growth and employment numbers, but people that live in the proximity of Fargo are still far better off for it being there—and policies supporting rural communities would be well spent if invested in Fargo.

“Proximity to cities itself might not be as important as a related attribute: access. […] Given market realities and the bleak long-term prospects for many small towns, rural America’s best bet might be to support economic growth in urban centers, including micropolitan areas, and strengthen linkages between urban and rural communities.”

Make no doubt about it, passenger trains are a tool that can help do just that: provide access. The report, by and large, talks more about policy to help small cities grow sustainably. More use of differentiated local resources and educational institutions, and less “smokestack chasing” like the humiliating pageant that was the Amazon HQ2 selection process. That said, language like “strengthen linkages” can’t help but make one think of better transportation options as well:

“Imagine the state of Illinois not just anchored by the Chicago metro area, but by a network of other vibrant communities like Rockford, Peoria, Decatur, and Champaign-Urbana, which in turn offer opportunities for surrounding rural communities.”

It’s interesting that every one of those cities, identified by Brookings as promising small cities worthy of investment, are either connected to, or are working in some fashion to be connected to the national passenger rail network. Another city called out specifically in the report, Kalispell, Montana, is 15 miles (a relative stone’s throw) away from the Empire Builder stop in Whitefish, Montana. Brookings' literature review for the report found that transportation connections matter in a big way:

"Researchers at Headwaters Economics categorized counties in the Western United States into three groups: “metropolitan,” “connected” (defined as rural counties that were connected to the rest of the world through airports with daily service), and “isolated” counties. They found that while “metropolitan” counties performed best, “connected” rural counties had higher rates of educational attainment, population growth, average earnings, and high-wage service jobs, and less income volatility than “isolated” counties did. In other words, the communities that were most closely connected to larger markets did better."

Therefore it is in the interest of small strong cities to become more connected to their greater regions. The dichotomy of “connected” versus “isolated” for small cities is an interesting one – even if the differentiation in the Headwaters report cited relied solely on airport access. We would argue that to be a myopic restriction given the surprisingly local patterns of use aboard Amtrak’s national network. Not to mention the general industry movement away from regional air service, making it an asset that may yield to future headwinds.

There is an absence in the literature asking if trends like higher rates of education; growth; and earnings, hold true for Amtrak served communities as well as those served by airports. However, we know for a fact that railroad network retrenchment had the opposite effect: when the railroad left town, the economy often went with it. It follows that the inverse may be true, especially in light of the conclusions drawn in this report.