Image of train by Karin Karin
For Rick Harnish, even to recall the experience of riding on a bullet train is thrilling. “You feel the acceleration coming out of the station,” says Harnish, who has traveled on high-speed trains in Europe and Asia. “There’s this weird sense that the speed is really hard to discern, except an interesting thing happens at about 150 miles an hour. It starts to sound like you’re in an airplane because the wind is rushing by so fast.”
Despite this sensation, he adds, “It’s actually a smoother and more comfortable ride than anything you have in the United States.” That’s because the track and train suspensions are built to higher standards.
Harnish, executive director of the Chicago-based Midwest High Speed Rail Association, envisions a similar high-speed rail network to connect the cities of the Midwest. The network, planned to cover about 1,400 miles in all, would link Chicago to Detroit, Cleveland, St. Louis, the Twin Cities, Indianapolis, and Cincinnati.
It would travel at speeds up to 220 miles per hour, whooshing passengers from Chicago to St. Paul in two hours and forty-five minutes and from Chicago to Cleveland in just over two hours. The trains would be safe and quiet, with comfortable seats, and would emit far less carbon into the atmosphere than do cars or jet airplanes.
Dream on, you say? Well, Harnish believes it is a dream that could come true.
“The Midwest needs high-speed rail because we’re really spread out, and we’ve got a lot of very important economic assets and social assets,” he says.
“So we need a less expensive, safer, and more convenient way for people to interact more often.”
In Harnish’s view, the United States has reached the limit of productivity for its highway and air networks. “The quality of both has declined, especially on the aviation side,” he says. The folks standing in airport security lines this spring for upwards of three hours would not disagree.
Japan’s Shinkansen network first started running with bullet trains between Tokyo and Osaka more than a half-century ago, in 1964. French TGV trains connected Paris and Lyon in 1982, and the system has since spread out like a giant spider web to carry passengers from Paris to most corners of France, garnering 100 million riders a year. High-speed rail links Madrid, Seville, Barcelona, and other cities in Spain, attracting nearly 17 million riders in 2009. In just ten years, China built a high-speed network of more than 6,000 miles. Taiwan and South Korea both boast high-speed rail lines.
High-speed trains are “a proven and mature technology,” says Anthony Perl, co-author of Transport Revolutions: Moving People and Freight Without Oil. But the United States has lagged badly—not only in high-speed rail but in all passenger rail.
“We have had a long-term near-death experience with our rail infrastructure since the 1950s, partly because we poured billions of dollars into competing highways and airports,” says Perl, a professor of urban studies and political science at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia. “That kind of imbalance had a big effect on the railroads.”
Over the years, the Federal Highway Administration has greatly favored roads, typically providing 80 percent and sometimes even 90 percent of the funding. The Federal Transit Administration is supposed to fund transit projects at an 80 percent rate, too, but in recent years, federal funding for transit projects has only been in the 50 percent to 60 percent range.
The Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act, signed by President Obama in November 2015 to fund highway and transit projects, addressed some of this imbalance by authorizing $1.1 billion to improve rail service and upgrade safety. Though this sum is small relative to highway spending, the National Association of Railroad Passengers noted that “it’s certainly better than the $0 that were authorized in prior years.”
Still, critics deride the lack of a coherent national transportation policy. Harnish calls the current system “just a really bizarre series of small decisions that got made over many decades.”
Part of the problem is ideological. Conservatives just don’t seem to like trains.
Governors John Kasich of Ohio, Scott Walker of Wisconsin, and Rick Scott of Florida all put the kibosh on planning for passenger rail improvements in their states. In 2011, conservative columnist George Will opined:
“[T]he real reason for progressives’ passion for trains is their goal of diminishing Americans’ individualism in order to make them more amenable to collectivism.”
Actually, Harnish and other rail devotees offer other arguments for why the United States should embrace high-speed rail. These tend to fall into two camps. One is the earth. The other is the economy.
High-speed trains use about one-ninth of the energy per passenger mile that cars use, and are far more efficient energy users than jet airliners. They’re powered by the electric grid rather than by gasoline- or diesel-powered engines and, according to Perl, “an electric motor is four times more efficient than an internal combustion engine.”
As the power grid moves toward renewables, high-speed trains will run greener. “Once you put in the electric infrastructure,” Perl explains, “you can incrementally shift to renewable energy. You can’t do that with any of the other fuels. That’s why I think high-speed rail is so important for our sustainability going forward.”
The Midwest High Speed Rail Association estimates that a Midwest high-speed network would save about 760 million gallons of gas annually and prevent about 3.3 million tons of carbon from entering the atmosphere. “That would be a dramatic change,” Harnish says.
According to the American Public Transportation Association, 55 percent of the typical two-car household’s carbon footprint owes to using cars or trucks. A person who switches from driving to commuting by public transportation can reduce carbon emissions by 4,800 pounds per year. A household that downsizes to one car can reduce its carbon footprint by 30 percent.
Besides the environmental benefits, high-speed rail advocates see exciting potential for economic growth. Says Perl:
“The Midwest has plenty of places that could be revitalized or further stimulated for urban development by high-speed network development if it’s done right.”
Consider the example of Nagoya, Japan, the epicenter of Japan’s auto industry and a major stop on the Tokaido Shinkansen line between Tokyo and Osaka. The area around the Shinkansen station has sprouted office towers, residential complexes, and other commercial activity.
“It’s become the hub of a new urban center,” Perl says. “I’ve stayed there. There’s a fifty-story hotel built right above the station, and it’s very convenient just to take an elevator down to the train.”
Closer to home, Minnesota recently invested $243 million in rehabbing the St. Paul Union Depot, which had essentially been shuttered. It’s a gorgeous neoclassical building, with sunlight streaming in from skylights and lighting up a space that seamlessly blends the traditional and the ultra-modern. In its new life, the station is a node of connectivity, hosting bus services and light rail. Eventually two commuter lines will run out of the station.
“If you look around the neighborhood, it’s a very dense, built-up part of town, with warehouses and lofts,” says Daniel Krom, director of the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s Passenger Rail Office. “You don’t see for-lease or for-rent signs anymore. Those places are gone. There’s a lot more demand for housing in that area.”
But it’s not all a rosy picture. Since the rehab was finished, the depot spends $6 million more a year in operations than it produces in revenues. And only one retailer has leased space in the refurbished building.
Mike Lehman, a Chicagoan who writes a blog advocating a Chicago-to-New York bullet train, thinks high-speed trains could reinvigorate Gary, Indiana:
“You could connect different modes. You could have expressways in Gary and develop the airport. It would stimulate economic development for that starved city.”
In fact, high-speed rail would improve connectivity throughout the Midwest. Only three planes a day connect Chicago to Springfield and to Bloomington, Illinois. Those are the kinds of flights that airlines are most likely to push into oblivion. Harnish says, “The air system is consolidating into very big airports with big volumes.” A study issued by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2014 showed that flights to small airports declined by 22 percent between 2007 and 2012.
This is a key weakness in U.S. transportation policy—that massive investment in roads and airports has had the same negative impact on small- and medium-sized cities that Walmart has had on small towns. High-speed rail could help reverse that trend, attracting investment to smaller cities and linking skilled people to the employers that need them.
The Midwest High Speed Rail Association projects that a high-speed network would generate 104,000 new, permanent jobs in the Midwest while carrying more than 43 million passengers annually. It projects, by 2030, a $13.8 billion annual increase in business sales for the Chicago area alone, along with $5.5 billion in new wages.
Minnesota is now studying a new high-speed rail line between the Twin Cities and Rochester. “Rochester is our third largest city,” Krom says.
“There’s never been a line between Rochester and the Twin Cities. It’s a huge economic driver, with the Mayo Clinic and IBM there. We have done feasibility studies for a 100-mile-long corridor with speeds of 150-plus.”
Krom explains that new stations along conventional rail lines are already spurring development in Minnesota towns like Cambridge and Hinckley: “They’re looking at buying additional property around the stations to put in higher-density housing, senior housing, all complemented by the passenger rail service.”
At first glance, a 1,400-mile high-speed rail network seems like a blindingly ambitious undertaking. The projected cost would be about $84 billion. But, Harnish argues:
This isn’t that expensive in the scheme of things that major economies do. It’s just that we’re not used to doing these kinds of things here anymore.”
The system as envisioned would have three levels of service: Core Express, with trains traveling between 125 miles per hour and 250 miles per hour; Regional Service, with trains running 90 miles per hour to 125 miles per hour; and Emerging Service, with trains running up to 90 miles per hour. The Core Express would operate on dedicated tracks that would never carry freight trains. The tracks would be elevated or run in trenches to avoid surface-level highway crossings and ensure the safety of the system.
A train network can be built in increments rather than all at once. That’s the strategy California is taking on its planned high-speed line from San Diego to San Francisco. The state has broken ground on the first leg, from Bakersfield to Madera. The whole system is projected to cost $64 billion, and California is getting things started with seed money of $3.3 billion from President Obama’s 2009 stimulus package.
In 2014, The New York Times charged that the administration has spent $11 billion on high-speed rail projects “that have gone mostly nowhere.” Rail advocates responded that the criticism was unfair, as projects were still in the planning stages and some of the money went to improve conventional Amtrak service.
By building first in a less-populated part of the state, California can apply the lessons it learns to the complex challenges of extending the system into densely populated Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Francisco. “Seeing is believing,” Perl stresses. “If California can connect the Bay Area and Southern California, that would demonstrate that high-speed rail can work.”
Harnish agrees with the building-block approach. His group is currently advocating for the CrossRail Chicago project, which would connect the South Side of Chicago to downtown, while a new high-speed line would speed passengers from the Loop to O’Hare. Earlier this year, the city awarded $2 million to a Canadian engineering firm to explore routes for an express train. Critics note, however, that Toronto rolled out a new express train between Pearson Airport and downtown that, so far, is attracting a mere 2,200 riders a day, many fewer than projected.
Getting political support will be difficult, given the hostility from certain Republicans in Congress. For rail to work, government must drive the building of the tracks, overhead electric lines, and stations.
“The other countries all have developed their high-speed rail on publicly owned infrastructure,” Perl says. “In one way or another, that’s going to have to happen in North America. It’s just like highways and airports and any other form of transportation.” But he sees the possibility of public/private partnership, as in the United Kingdom, where Richard Branson operates the successful Virgin Trains on publicly owned tracks.
Another encouraging sign is that Amtrak has seen a dramatic increase in ridership, from about 21 million passengers in 2000 to about 31 million in fiscal 2015. The Acela Express, which reaches speeds of 150 miles per hour between Boston and Washington, D.C., continues to set ridership records.
Given the strong demand, several states are taking steps to enhance Amtrak infrastructure and service. Michigan is spending $387 million in federal money and $37.5 million in state funds to upgrade tracks to reach speeds of 110 mph, shortening the Detroit to Chicago travel time by as much as two hours.
Illinois, meanwhile, is investing almost $2 billion—including $1.6 billion from the feds—to increase train speeds and reduce travel time between Chicago and St. Louis, according to Guy Tridgell of the Illinois Department of Transportation. He says the state and Union Pacific Railroad are “replacing tracks and ties, realigning curves, improving bridges, as well as building a second set of tracks and passing sidings, at locations throughout the corridor.”
As states awaken to the benefit of train travel, Harnish’s dream of a high-speed rail system that will whisk people around the Midwest becomes more feasible.
“I’m optimistic,” Perl says. “When it becomes clear to people that we can have the kind of connected, productive economy physically that we have for information through the Internet, high-speed rail has to be part of it. Then it will happen. It’s essential for a brighter future.”
Christopher Johnson writes about environmental and conservation issues from his base in Evanston, Illinois. He is the co-author of Forests for the People: The Story of America’s Eastern National Forests.