Congress has approved $8 billion for high-speed-rail lines that, according to advocates, will make traveling by train faster than driving. But for high-speed trains to live up to their potential, planners also have to consider how long it takes to get to your destination after you get off the train.
"What you really need is a door-to-door trip," says Susan Zielinski, managing director of the Sustainable Mobility and Accessibility Research and Transformation project at the University of Michigan, a center that promotes sustainable transportation. "You should be able to combine your modes of transportation."
Planners such as Zielinski refer to the concept as "multimodal design," and they say without it, the whole idea of high-speed transportation begins to break down.
"It's about connecting the dots," she says.
Tourist Debbie Hancock and her 8-year-old nephew, Drew Wilson, were frustrated by how long they had to wait for a bus after they got off an Amtrak train in Raleigh.
Tourist Debbie Hancock and her 8-year-old nephew, Drew Wilson, were frustrated by how long they had to wait for a bus after they got off an Amtrak train in Raleigh. Adam Hochberg/NPR
Consider, for example, the recent experience of nursing professor Debbie Hancock and her 8-year-old nephew, Drew Wilson. They rode an Amtrak train within North Carolina, traveling from Greensboro to Raleigh, to spend a day visiting two downtown museums.
While they both said they enjoyed the 90-minute train ride, they faced a challenge after they arrived at Raleigh's train station, located about a mile from the museums.
They hoped to catch a bus to the children's museum, but the train station has no regularly scheduled bus service. Nor is there any other form of local mass transit in Raleigh, and a cab seemed too expensive.
"I knew we were going to have to walk a little bit," Hancock said, pulling maps out of her handbag. They decided to walk to the nearest bus stop, navigating along broken pavement on a street without a sidewalk. Then, they stood in 99-degree heat at a bus stop with no bench or canopy.
"This part's not real fun right now," Hancock said during their 15-minute wait for the bus. Indeed, she found that part of the trip so uncomfortable that she says she isn't likely to ride the train to Raleigh again.
"In the future, I probably would just drive it," Hancock says.
That's the kind of story mass transit advocates hate to hear — and it provides a cautionary tale as cities and states vie for federal money to build higher-speed-train lines. In North Carolina, leaders hope to upgrade existing tracks to allow trains to go more than 30 percent faster. But Pat Simmons, the head of the state rail division, knows it will take more for travelers to choose the train instead of their cars.
The city of Greensboro, N.C., spent $32 million to renovate its historic downtown train station into a multimodal transportation hub that integrates train service, local and region buses, college campus shuttles and interstate bus lines.
The city of Greensboro, N.C., spent $32 million to renovate its historic downtown train station into a multimodal transportation hub that integrates train service, local and region buses, college campus shuttles and interstate bus lines. Adam Hochberg/NPR
"Clearly we need a more integrated public transportation network that would include buses, train stations, commuter rail, all of those aspects working closely together," Simmons says. "That's how you begin to substitute for the convenience of the automobile."
He says one challenge is getting different agencies to cooperate. In Raleigh, for instance, the train is operated by the state and federal governments. The local bus system is owned by the city, while a separate regional bus network is run by a transit agency.
"We think that technology is going to save us, but really what we need to be working on at the exact same time is the connection with each other and institution to institution," says Zielinski, the University of Michigan transportation expert. "This isn't about the train competing with the bus. This is about the train and the bus getting together and creating a better-integrated system."
Cities with poorly integrated systems are easy to find. But some places have begun to embrace multimodal planning — including Portland, Ore., and St. Louis.
Greensboro, N.C., where Hancock began her trip, also has built a multimodal transit hub, and city officials say ridership has gone up almost 40 percent since train and bus services were consolidated.
"When the train station was located away from downtown, there really wasn't an effective way to get people from the train to their end destination besides taking a taxicab," says Greensboro Transit spokesman Kevin Ellwood.
But Ellwood notes that making Greensboro multimodal came at a hefty price — $32 million to renovate the city's historic train depot into a modern transit hub. And planning and construction for the project took more than a decade, which underscores what many cities have discovered: Building the infrastructure for fast trains can be a very slow process.