Trainsforming America: the transformative power of trains, from a passenger's point of view

Guest-blogger Rebecca Sansom is joining NARP to write about the process of creating her new documentary, Trainsforming America.  This film looks to spark a dialog about transportation in America, engaging the public about the many benefits of passenger trains.

My parents have never been to Europe. They've pretty much lived in the South their whole lives. Which is fine, but I realized there was a disconnect when I was telling them about my travels, especially about taking trains everywhere. So, I decided to make a film to show my parents, and the many others like them, what it's like to live in a train culture. Fellow filmmaker and friend, Katie Chen, and I raised some money by and then headed off to Europe to film trains and talk to train passengers. We discovered that most people don't own cars, and that riding trains is just part of their everyday lives.

Back in the U.S. we talked to Professor Richard Wener who is an environmental psychology professor at NYU Polytechnic in Brooklyn, NY. He has done a number of compelling studies about commuting and stress. For example, in one study he compared train commuters to car commuters. He brings up points that most people have never considered. Did you know that being stressed out on your daily commute to work can effect your whole day?  We also talked to Petra Todorovich Messick, Director of America 2050. She outlines the benefits of adding more trains to our current infrastructure and the importance of thinking ahead knowing that our population is going to steadily rise in the coming 30 years. We talked to a number of American passengers, too, asking them if they would support more investment in rail service.

All in all, this film has turned out to be more convincing than I initially expected it would be that Americans really do want access to more trains. I can't say that I'm surprised by what we found and I hope that the film can play a part in encouraging policy makers and other citizens to realize that expanding our rail infrastructure is crucial to the future of transportation in the U.S. 

We were honored to hold a sneak preview of an abbreviated 30 minute version of the film at the U.S. High Speed Rail Association's conference in Los Angeles last week. The screening went really well, and can be summed up nicely by what Principal Engineer at Aetypic, Jack Wang said, "It was great to end the conference with your film because all we've been talking about is funding and the technical aspects of the bullet train project in California, but your film captures the heart and soul of what we want to do here."

As far as where you can see the film: at this point we're going to try our luck at the film festival circuit. We would love to have a distributor acquire the film, but to do that we need help from other rail enthusiasts to get the word out and garner support for its release.  If you want to interview the director, or donate to the film festival submission fee fund please email Wendy at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

Rebecca Sansom is a documentary filmmaker, with a degree from Samford University in Broadcast Journalism. She has worked on Equal Hoppertunity and Monarchs: Those Words, Those Frames.  Sansom currently lives in Northern California.

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+4 #8 Roger A. Shope 2013-01-08 23:14
Dan- it's not the operation of Passenger Rail that would improve Ohio's freight position, it is the initial $400M investment in Privately held Rail Infrastructure that would increase freight fluidity.
A win-win for Ohio. More and Better travel choice for those without and positioning Ohio for the opportunities that will come with soon completed Panama Canal improvements.
The Facts on operational subsidies are that the FRA grant covered them for several years, and station development in Riverside and throughout the State would have more than covered them as the system got up and running. Far from a "risky" investment as you claim.
Transit Oriented Development in and around stations are revitalizing communities like Troy, Michigan - one state that received Ohio Tax Revenue from Gov. Kasich. I don't need to believe in any of this, I am animated by the facts. I look forward to working with you and anyone to return Passenger Rail to Ohio, the sooner the better!
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+4 #7 Ed Damato 2013-01-08 22:31
Rebecca: thanks for explaining more about the film. I've been an active advocate of rail for more than a decade and got little nervous that the focus was solely on HSR (that's what the trailer makes it look like). Just to explain a bit further: while some areas of the country are definitely ready for true HSR (California, Boston-Washingt on, Washington-Rich mond, Vancouver, BE-Portland, Chicago-St. Louis covers most, if not all of them) much of the nation needs to build up conventional services first. HSR needs conventional trains to feed passengers in and out of the HSR network because HSR serves primarily major urban areas. Thank you for doing this film!
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+3 #6 Ed Damato 2013-01-08 22:24
Dan, you did get sucked in, but it wasn't your fault. ODOT did a horrible job of communication on the 3C. You may have attended one planning meeting, but I actually met with ORDC early on as the Ohio Hub Plan was created in the early 2000s and remained in the loop as it unfolded. The 3C was going to be faster than the Downeaster at its start-up and with more frequencies: 3-4 not 2-3. It would have been the 3rd fasted state-funded start-up in the last 30 years. You see, as the planning proceeded and they got a firm handle on the $400 million was going buy, they realized it would be possible to have an extra round trip or two without increasing the subsidy. And, there definitely was a freight component which was bigger than the passenger component. The host railroads don't give away their infrastructure. They expect, and rightfully so, to be kept whole if the government wants to use their property. The expansion of freight rail component would have diverted enough truck traffic off of Ohio's highways to reduce highway damage enough to more than offset the $17 million per year subsidy. Every successful state-funded corridor started out too slow by your standards and in some cases only 1 train per day. Ohio was only following a successful trail that other states already blazed. Finally, $17 million is chump change compared to how much money every lane-mile of interstate in Ohio loses (except the Turnpike). Don't accuse others of drinking kool-aid. What else have you got? I'm willing to help educate here.
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+2 #5 Rebecca Sansom 2013-01-08 20:34
Dan, The film explores the desire for more conventional trains and even looks at subway systems in America and Europe. The high speed rail part is about California's bullet train story. The main objective is to show the benefits of commuting by rail (moderate or high speed) and convey how passengers in the U.S. really want more train options.

I know the task of re-developing our infrastructure will be expensive, but my aim was to show that not only is it necessary for environmental, and economic reasons, but people want more trains to improve their quality of life.

I feature both democrats and republicans in the film and show that there is definitely bi-partisan support for HSR. I agree with Roger that "the politicization of the "debate" left the station long ago" ha! nice, Roger!

Dan, I hope you will reconsider not wanting to see the film-we're all on the same team on this site, and can agree that we want more trains in the U.S. right?
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