Small-town stopovers on the national network

Posted by Malcolm Kenton
on Sunday, June 25, 2017

A number of small and mid-sized American cities are served by Amtrak and regional commuter rail that aren’t thought of as tourist destinations, but offer much for a visitor to enjoy during a layover of several hours between trains. The most forward-thinking of these cities offer the visitor arriving by train a choice of ways to get around without having to rent a car, including bus and rail transit, bikesharing or bike rental, and carsharing by the hour. These cities also offer their residents ways to get around town, and out of town, without needing a car for every trip.

Uptown Station in Normal, Ill. Photo by Malcolm Kenton.
I took the opportunity to stop over for five hours in one such city this week en route from Chicago down to Austin, Tex. to ride the detouring Amtrak Texas Eagle over two rare mileage routings. Instead of hopping on the Eagle in Chicago on Monday afternoon, I got on a morning Lincoln Service train and stepped off in Normal, Ill. five hours before the Eagle was to land there. I was attracted to Normal having heard about the Uptown Station that opened there in 2012, replacing a 1970s cookie-cutter “Amshack” (still standing across the tracks, but vacant), and the walkable neighborhood that had grown around it. The multimodal transportation hub, built by the Illinois Department of Transportation with federal stimulus funds, has been cited as one of the models for using an intercity passenger station as a catalyst for local transit-oriented development.

Not only did I enjoy strolling around Uptown, but I was also able to rent a shared bike (through Bike Share 309, part of the Zagster family of bikeshare systems), enjoy wooded rides along part of a network of rail trails (abandoned former Illinois Central lines), and take in the sights of historic downtown Bloomington, just under three miles south of Normal. After picking up my bike near the station in Normal and riding for an hour and a half (including a visit to a wetland park on the east end of Bloomington that’s connected to the rail trail network) and spending just $6.00, I returned the bike in the heart of Bloomington and, after spending 90 minutes in the McLean County Museum of History, I caught a Connect Transit bus for a swift 15-minute ride back to the station for a fare of $1.00.

Part of the rail trail network on ex-Illinois Central right of way in Bloomington, Ill. Photo by Malcolm Kenton.
It is in part to attract young urbanites like me that many towns are investing in these car-free mobility networks. Having a major college or university also tends to put a smaller locale ahead of the curve. But the development of Uptown Station, just a few blocks from the Illinois State University campus, would not have happened — at least not as quickly as it did — without the help of a federal investment program, in this case the competitive grants provided by the 2009 stimulus bill. There are doubtless a number of similarly positioned communities to Bloomington-Normal that could replicate its success with an upfront investment of federal funds in combination with state, local and private contributions -- both to build new or revitalized stations and to start or expand regional train service.

Paying a short (non-overnight) visit to an en-route community as part of a larger, longer-distance itinerary is only possible where there are corridor or commuter trains to supplement longer-distance trains — otherwise, at least a 24-hour stay is required. Such freedom of movement by rail is commonplace in Europe and much of Asia where there is frequent passenger service nearly everywhere, but trips like this here require creative use of the Amtrak system timetable. 

To pique your wanderlust, here’s a brief list of smaller places outside the Northeast Corridor that can be included as Amtrak stopovers with a shorter plus a longer-distance train (coincidentally, many of these are also college towns). Feel free to add other suggestions in the comments:

  • Fullerton, Calif.: Southwest Chief plus Pacific Surfliner or Metrolink
  • Santa Barbara or San Luis Obispo, Calif.: Pacific Surfliner plus Coast Starlight
  • Martinez or Davis, Calif.: Capitol Corridor plus California Zephyr or Coast Starlight
  • Salem, OR or Olympia, Wash.: Coast Starlight plus Amtrak Cascades
  • Springfield, Ill.: Lincoln Service plus Texas Eagle
  • Champaign-Urbana, Ill.: Saluki/Illini plus City of New Orleans
  • Galesburg, Ill.: Illinois Zephyr/Carl Sandburg plus Southwest Chief
  • South Bend, Ind.: Capitol Limited or Lake Shore Limited plus NICTD South Shore Line
  • Charlottesville, Va.: Cardinal plus Crescent
  • Petersburg, Va. or Rocky Mount, N.C.: Palmetto or Carolinian plus Silver Meteor or Silver Star
  • Greensboro, High Point or Salisbury, N.C.: Carolinian plus Crescent
  • Any number of upstate New York points: Empire Service or Metro-North plus Lake Shore Limited
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