Getting Midwesterners on board with high-speed rail

I was surprised when Vocalo radio host, Molly Adams, asked me about high-speed rail. I imagined we would only talk about local transit and bicycling projects and issues; as a railfan, I was prepared to answer her question. She said, “How realistic is a possible high-speed rail, in the region?”

I confidently replied, “It is finally starting to happen” (read and listen to the full interview). Work finished in September 2010 to replace tracks between Alton, Illinois (north of St. Louis), and Lincoln, Illinois (north of Springfield).

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An Amtrak and Metra train wait in the south part of Union Station in Chicago. Photo by Eric Pancer.

The best part of this interview is at the end when we talk about how urban dwellers choose their transportation mode. But let’s stick with high-speed rail (HSR).

Progress in Illinois

Now, the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) and Union Pacific (UP) are hard at work replacing track between Elkhart (north of Springfield) and Dwight (south of Joliet) on the Amtrak Lincoln Service route. This will increase theoretical maximum train speeds to 110 MPH. Illinois along with the Departments of Michigan, Iowa, and Missouri, have received federal funding to cooperatively purchase new trains and locomotives that can reach this speed. IDOT and its consultants, PB Americas, Hanson Professional Services, and Parsons Transportation Group, are working on an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the project to “double track” the entire route from Chicago to St. Louis, or build a new one, in the Tier 1 study.

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The track on the right is new, thanks to the first phase of track replacement on the Chicago to St. Louis route. Photo by Tim Carman. 

Brian wanted to know what all of this will do, for whomever. I explained one benefit of the construction work on these tracks: shorter travel times. If it takes less time to get somewhere on a certain mode, then that mode becomes a bit more attractive. And the more passenger rail can compete with popular modes (like driving and flying, which comprise 99% of trips to St. Louis), the transportation system becomes more balanced and sustainable.

There are other benefits: A friend and I won a design competition sponsored by the Van Alen Institute to explore these benefits, as well as who benefits, in “Life at the Speed of Rail.”

What else is going on with Midwest high-speed rail?

Wisconsin

Wisconsin and the federal government battled in July 2011. After Governor Scott Walker rejected $810 million to build an extension of the Hiawatha Milwaukee and Madison (which would be HSR), his administration later applied for $213 million to buy new trains, and upgrade tracks and stations for the existing Hiawatha route between Chicago and Milwaukee, the region’s busiest. The federal government said no. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel called this retaliatory in an editorial:

Federal transportation officials turned down the state’s request, saying that Wisconsin wasn’t a reliable partner when it came to rail because it turned down the Milwaukee-Madison rail line. Nonsense. You could make that argument about the Milwaukee-Madison connection, but not about Milwaukee-Chicago. Walker and many other Republicans have supported and continue to support rail from Milwaukee to Chicago. Sounds like payback to us.

The Obama administration could have taken the higher road and given Wisconsin the money. Instead, the Democrats apparently chose to play the same political game. Walker may have started it, but the Obama administration finished it. And Wisconsin taxpayers will be the ones left to foot the bill.

Nonetheless, a state legislature committee approved spending $31 million on improving the Hiawatha line, costs two editorials argued would have been paid for by the rejected funds: LaCross Tribune, Isthmus (Madison).

Michigan

Since June 1, Amtrak trains from Chicago to Michigan have been running 90 minutes slower because Norfolk Southern (NS), a freight railroad that owns 135 miles of track, lowered the maximum operating speed to 60 MPH, “with some stretches 25 MPH.”

The Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) has received the full $150 million it needs to outright purchase the track from NS; additionally they have the funds to make upgrades to the track to bring service levels back to 79 MPH, or faster. (Toledo Blade)

Earlier this year, MDOT had good news for bicyclists, announcing that all three Amtrak routes between the state and Chicago would allow roll-on bike storage.

Parking policy’s effect on transportation choices

At the end of the Vocalo interview, Brian Babylon said he only liked to drive. But he would consider taking the train “if it was easier.” I asked Brian about his trip and Molly jumped in saying he lives “right by the 47th Street Green Line stop.”

John Greenfield pinned down that he drove to work at Navy Pier (the studio location) everyday and asked about parking costs.

Brian replied: “Too much, $8.”

I started laughing (not on the microphone, though) and Molly caught this, saying, “Steve’s like shocked and appalled.” I wasn’t exactly!

“No, $8 is very cheap. I can understand that you would want to drive everyday. Because parking pricing policy is one way to discourage driving. And parking seems plentiful here at Navy Pier.”

Updated August 9, 2011, to correct a mistake about including Wisconsin in the cooperative train purchase agreement as well as clarifying the description of the line between Milwaukee and Madison. 

18 thoughts on “Getting Midwesterners on board with high-speed rail”

  1. He’s also willing to pay that $8.00 since it probably means a shorter commute. I don’t think you can get to Navy Pier without a transfer to a bus.

    1. I’m glad you caught that.

      Off air, and not on the transcript, we talked about how he would get to work. I mentioned that the 29/State and 124/Navy Pier go there from the Green Line stop at State and Lake. It would cost him $5 a day whereas now it costs him $8+gas+insurance+depreciation+everything else related to driving.

        1. The circulator is long dead, and any current plans focus on Clinton/West Loop plan. North Michigan Avenue will be coming up for re-build in the next 20 years… perhaps we can get some LRV feeding those destinations such as Water Tower and North Michigan Avenue via light rail or street car system.

  2. My dream is that someday the South Side Green Line really mirrors the North Side Red Line. It’s near the lakefront, travels through some high-potential neighborhoods, and hits a number of high-traffic destinations (e.g., IIT, Bronzeville, U of C…sort of). Plus, unlike the Dan Ryan L, it goes through the middle of neighborhoods, making it easily accessible and pedestrian-friendly.

    I think it’s a real possibility, but it depends on convincing people like Brian to choose transit over their cars.

      1. That’s my hope at some point, yeah. Obviously it would obviously require massive increases in neighborhood density and CTA investment, but I think it’s do-able.

        1. The south side is far better served than the north side. You have the Metra Electric District, tons of express buses, and two elevated lines. What more do you need?

  3. Wisconsin isn’t one of the states that has received federal funding for new rolling stock. The state has however purchased Talgo trainsets (which made far more sense when we were about to receive $810mil than when we gave it back).

    As far as returning the funds go, Wisconsinites were sold a train that goes from Madison to Milwaukee (similar to how you presented it). That wasn’t what it was. It was an extension of the Hiawatha Service route from Chicago, thru Milwaukee, to Madison. The last leg being HSR. The state failed to sell it that way (even before Walker was elected). So people rejected the notion of rail from Madison to Milwaukee, but missed the Waukesha/Madison/Pewaukee to Chicago angle that was a key selling point.

    I’m told by a very credible source (I haven’t been able to track down the actual application) that the Hiawatha HSR application that Walker filed didn’t actually result in any HSR service levels, so it was in fact ineligible and had very little to do with political payback.

    1. Thank you Jeramey. I’ve made a couple of corrections based on your feedback. I double checked the press release from the Federal DOT and sure enough didn’t find Wisconsin in the shared train purchase funding agreement.
      I really want to see more information about Talgo’s progress on building those trainsets for Hiawatha and Cascades.

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