A vision of high-speed rail for the Midwest

The Midwest High Speed Rail Association (MHSRA) advocates for fast, frequent and dependable trains linking the entire Midwest. The MHSRA website lists compelling arguments why the Midwest, in particular, needs high-speed rail for its economy to achieve its potential:

The Midwest is a strong and diverse economy. The area stretching from the Allegheny Mountains to the Missouri River still contains the bulk of the country’s economic strength, the majority of our population and our nation’s food supply. Midwestern cities provide specialized services that make this strength possible. Truly, the Midwest is America’s Heartland.

Traffic congestion is making travel within this region more difficult and expensive. This is impacting our ability to compete in international markets.

Adding sufficient highway capacity to maintain a healthy economy is prohibitively expensive, For example, all of the expressways leading into Chicago have been above capacity for over thirty years, and yet, as each has been rebuilt no new lanes were added.

With proper investment and service design, railroads can provide substantial growth in transportation capacity at a relatively low cost. They can provide travelers with a comfortable and convenient way to bypass highway congestion and can fill the gaps left by declining air service to smaller communities.

Additional MHSRA bullet points:

  • Although the Midwest has the ingredients for a strong economy: well-educated work force, a powerful higher-education network, and major hub airports offering non-stop service to business centers worldwide; cities and towns are too far apart to function as an efficient economic unit. Drive times are too long and airfares too high.
  • Only high-speed trains can draw our cities into commuting distance, transforming the entire Midwestern into a virtual metropolis with more dynamic cities and rural towns, with quick connections to worldwide markets.
  • Transforming the Upper Midwest into a single economy requires the ability to visit a distant city and return the same day, which means downtown-to-downtown trips of just two hours; three hours max. With modern trains, the entire Midwest would be less than three hours from Chicago. With transit times that short, it would become very practical to spend a fully productive day in another city and still be home in time for dinner.
  • High-speed trains would draw major Midwest universities together, allowing them to cooperate more closely and focus on their individual strengths.

Sample travel times on 220-mph high speed trains would be 36 minutes from Milwaukee to Chicago, approximately 2 hours from St. Louis to Chicago, or  3 hours from Pittsburgh to Chicago. Trains would take passengers from downtown to downtown cutting out the need for local transportation to and from the airport. Not only would a high-speed train system transform business, research, and higher education, it would provide hundreds of thousands of jobs for construction and ongoing operation. It would link rural towns with larger cities, unleashing creative energy and untold economic opportunity.

MHSRA envisions a Midwest network that would have fast, frequent and dependable trains linking the entire Midwest including 220-mph high-speed lines and upgraded Amtrak routes using 110-mph cruising speeds and increased frequencies for shorter routes.

Earlier this year, the Obama administration introduced plans for a high-speed rail system in the United states. Although advocates for high speed rail feel it doesn’t go far enough, it is a welcome start for something that should have been in place long ago.

You may have read that high-speed rail is a “boondoggle,” or too expensive, or not right for this country. But, as MHSRA points out, “most of the ‘research’ and quotes online and in the media [against high-speed rail] can be linked to just three conservative groups: The Cato Institute, the Reason Foundation and the Heritage Foundation, which receive funding from the likes of Chevron and Exxon Mobil.” It seems the oil industry, and the think tanks they fund, would rather we continue to use gas and oil in our cars, trucks and planes, rather than move to the more efficient and environmentally friendly electric high-speed trains.

Because of the excessive influence of the oil industry on our economy, and the shortsightedness of past administrations and politicians, the United States lags behind the rest of the world in efficient rail transportation. We have only one high-speed rail service—Amtrak’s Acela Express — that operates along the Northeast Corridor between Washington, D.C., and Boston via Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York. The highest speed the Acela trains attain is 150 mph, though they average less than half of that. Currently, the popular Acela is the only Amtrak line to show a profit.

On the other hand, much of Europe, Japan and China, has efficient high-speed rail systems that can achieve speeds of up to 220 mph, and they are aiming to expand these systems in the future. China’s trains are the world’s fastest, its network of tracks the longest, and its expansion the most ambitious, with plans to link China to the European Union. By 2012, just four years after it began its first high-speed passenger service, China will have more high-speed train tracks than the rest of the world combined. It also hopes to become the chief high-speed train supplier in the world, including providing trains for the United States.

Postscript: A week ago, I traveled from Madrid to Toledo on the Ave, a high-speed train that is part of the Spanish rail system. The ride was whisper quiet and smooth. The train was clean and on time, and the short 50 mile journey took all of 30 minutes. After this experience, I can’t wait for this exciting Midwest high-speed rail network to become a reality. It will transform my personal travel from St. Louis to Chicago and Milwaukee, but more importantly, it will transform the Midwest into an economic dynamo, linking it to the rest of the country and the world.