On the (rail)Road; Jack Kerouac Redux for Millennials?

Last night, we took a midnight Amtrak train from Philadelphia and woke up in Boston.  Today we're spending the day in America's arguably (right Philly?) most historic city, and this evening we're taking a train down the Cape on the Cape Flyer, something that hasn't been able to happen in about twenty-five years.  Needless to say, trains have been around for a long time in this country, but there's some real change afoot these days, after decades of stagnation and decline, America seems to be rediscovering its railways.

Millenial Rail Project route map
Yesterday, we weren't the only ones taking to the train.  August 8th was also the inaugural ride of the Millennial Trains Project, from San Francisco to Washington, DC. The precise purpose is a little muddy, but the ethos is crystal clear; young entrepreneurial people taking to the railways to discover America, make something of themselves, and change the places they live for the better.  Freedom and adventure for this generation seems to no longer be loading up the car and hitting the open road.

Philly welders, showing off their skills at a street fair
These are the same people, not only choosing living in cities and towns over the vast suburbs, but increasingly rejecting (by preference or necessity) their parents' conventions of adulthood: home ownership (you can thank childhood boredom in the suburbs, validated by disillusionment resulting from the recent housing and financial crises), buying a car (communication technology is the prefered use of limited cash, and the rise of the sharing economy makes car ownership increasingly unnecessary, if one so chooses), and cushy corporate careers (by necessity, since finding work right out of college isn't what it was just a decade ago, but you're seeing everything from startup companies to the rediscovery of farming and food production). One of the more amazing things to me is that as the organization's video states, "where early pioneers went west, a new generation will go east."  It's not so much a statement of fact as a call to arms, but a bit of an amazing thing... to think that, with the mythology of California being so rooted in its reputation as a place for adventure-taking and self-making, young West-Coasters might now go "back east" to do the same.

You might say this is all dreamers and upstarts. But intercity rail ridership is breaking records nearly every year, with Amtrak ridership going up by 49% since 2000. The northeast corridor, alone, grew ridership by 4.8% in the last year. This growth, higher than population and GDP is indicative of a shift; something out there is changing. People are voting with their feet and wallets, and train travel for business and pleasure is increasingly their choice. The simple conclusion? Cities with good passenger rail service will attract people and reap the economic benefits, and those without will likely not.

Forty years ago, Arlo Guthrie sang bittersweetly about the train called "The City of New Orleans" and its demise.  So here's to a resurgence in the coming years and decades.

Throughout this blog, I'll report on planned service expansions, and make my own recommendations on how to improve service and better integrate it into the fiber of our cities and towns. Stay tuned.

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