A Hitch For Rail Riders: Getting To Final Destination Congress has approved $8 billion to create high-speed-rail lines across the nation, but a fundamental problem persists: Lack of coordination between train service and local public transportation means passengers face obstacles getting from the station to their final destination.
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A Hitch For Rail Riders: Getting To Final Destination

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A Hitch For Rail Riders: Getting To Final Destination

A Hitch For Rail Riders: Getting To Final Destination

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Let's say you plan a trip and you decide not to fly but to take a train. You arrive at your destination after a speedy, smooth ride, and you discover the flaw in your plan. You still have to get from the train station to your final destination, and there is no clear way to do it. That is known as the last mile problem.


All this week, we're exploring the prospects for high-speed rail all across the U.S.,. The Obama administration is about to start handing out $8 billion in stimulus money for rail projects. But creating a modern American train culture will take broader thinking on how to get from there to here, as NPR's Adam Hochberg found in North Carolina.

ADAM HOCHBERG: People in the transportation business talk about something they call multimodal design. It's a fancy way of saying that once you take a train, for instance, to another city, there should be some obvious easy way to get from the train station to wherever it is you ultimately want to go. If there's not, the whole idea of high-speed transportation begins to break down.

Unidentified Man: (Unintelligible) train number eight. This is the 11 o'clock ride from Charlotte/Greensboro...

HOCHBERG: Consider, for example, the recent experience of nursing professor Debbie Hancock and her 8-year-old nephew, Drew Wilson. They rode an Amtrak train from Greensboro to Raleigh, North Carolina, to spend a day seeing the sights.

Professor DEBBIE HANCOCK (Professor of Nursing): Going to go to the Marbles Kids Museum and the North Carolina Museum of History. We came from Greensboro just for the day.

HOCHBERG: How'd you like the train ride?

Mr. DREW WILSON: I like it.

Prof. HANCOCK: We enjoyed the train ride. It was different. I have not been on a train in years.

HOCHBERG: But once Debbie and Drew arrived at the Raleigh Amtrak Station, they realized they'd have a less enjoyable time finishing the last mile or so of their trip. 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 here, and a cab seemed too expensive. So they walked off in search of a bus stop.

Prof. HANCOCK: I have a couple of maps in my bag. I knew we were going to have to walk a little bit.

HOCHBERG: So what we're doing here is walking across the tracks, and there's no sidewalk here on the street.

Prof. HANCOCK: Yeah, it would have been good if there is a sidewalk.

HOCHBERG: The nearest bus stop turned out to be only a block and half away, but it was on the other side of a busy street. And traffic was so heavy that by the time they could cross, the bus was already pulling away.

Prof. HANCOCK: Okay. Well, we just missed the first bus. Oh, Drew, get out of the street. Get out the street.

Mr. WILSON: Sorry.

HOCHBERG: So that meant a 15-minute wait for the next bus in 99-degree heat at a stop that had no bench or canopy.

Prof. HANCOCK: I guess we could have walked. I don't know if there's another stop up the street in the shade.

HOCHBERG: So what was easier: taking the train the 60 miles from Greensboro or getting the last couple of miles from the train station to the museum?

Prof. HANCOCK: Oh, taking the train. Yeah, in the future, I probably would just drive it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HOCHBERG: Because of this.

Prof. HANCOCK: This part's not real fun right now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HOCHBERG: 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 the head of the state rail division, Pat Simmons, knows it will take more for travelers to choose the train instead of their cars.

Mr. PAT SIMMONS (Director, North Carolina Department of Transportation's Rail Division): Clearly, we need a more integrated public transportation network that would include buses, train stations, commuter rail, all of those aspects working closely together. That's how you begin to substitute for the convenience of the automobile.

HOCHBERG: Simmons says one challenge in that 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.

Urban planner Susan Zielinksi at the University of Michigan says multimodal ambitions can fall apart quickly if all those interests won't work together.

Ms. SUSAN ZIELINKSI (University of Michigan): 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, you know, with institution to institution and actually saying, oh, 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.

HOCHBERG: Cities with poorly integrated systems are easy to find. But some places have begun to embrace multimodal planning, including Portland, Oregon, St. Louis, and Greensboro, where Debbie Hancock began her trip and where this downtown transit hub opened four years ago.

Greensboro Transit spokesman Kevin Ellwood says ridership has gone up almost 40 percent since train and bus services were consolidated here.

Mr. KEVIN ELLWOOD (Spokesman, Greensboro Transit): 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. But the city of Greensboro took a look at it and said that we could actually bring multimodal transportation options to Greensboro, and that's exactly what they did.

HOCHBERG: Ellwood notes that making Greensboro multimodal came at a price. It cost $32 million to renovate the city's historic train depot into this modern transit hub, and planning and construction took more than a decade, underscoring what many cities have discovered: that building the infrastructure for fast trains can be a very slow process.

Adam Hochberg, NPR News.

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