By Andrew Nusca
Posting in Cities
The most promising new high-speed rail service in the U.S. connects Chicago to Detroit. Will it help the economy? Conflicting views on potential impact.
The second-fastest train in the U.S. is coming to...Kalamazoo, Mich.
The Chicago Sun-Times reports that an Amtrak train demonstrated speeds of 112.5 miles per hour on its way from Chicago's Union Station to Kalamazoo, just a hair above the 110 m.p.h. speed that the U.S. Federal Railroad Administration uses to define high-speed rail.
(It should be noted, however, that the U.S. Dept. of Transportation calls "high-speed" anything above 125 m.p.h.; ditto Europe, although that bar has now been raised to 155 m.p.h. for new track.)
Mark Brown describes his 138-mile trip in the report, which took two hours eight minutes:
The ride was noisy and bumpy. Walking the aisle at the highest speeds was challenging. Using the washroom was similar to what you might experience on a turbulent flight. On the other hand, the wi-fi worked great.
After some speechifying in Kalamazoo, we made the turn and were back in Chicago by 12:30 p.m. — exactly on schedule. Amtrak officials say dependability — and frequency of trains — are bigger issues in attracting riders than achieving high speeds.
Why Kalamazoo? With all due respect to the town of 74,000, it's halfway between Chicago and Detroit, and any efficiency upgrades along the route will hopefully benefit the Midwest's two biggest metropolises. (The plan is to reduce the 5.5-hour trip to 3.75 hours.)
But would it really help? Cities guru Edward Glaeser suggested in 2009 that it would not, citing a similar potential connection between Houston and Dallas:
Any transportation investment can create large economic ripples only if it significantly increases the speed at which an area with cheap real-estate gains access to a booming place that doesn’t have any comparable, closer available land area... there is little here to bring confidence that rail lines revitalize cities.
A better solution might be Milwaukee-Chicago, where a high-speed rail line has been proposed and where the commute is just 1.5 hours on Amtrak's 79 m.p.h. Hiawatha line. (Ridership has doubled on the line in the last decade, according to Milwaukee's Journal Sentinel.) An upgrade to 110 m.p.h. would cut the commute to just an hour.
However, Glaeser argues that even that would not necessarily lead to economic benefit and urban revitalization, as Amtrak's high-speed Acela between Philadelphia and New York has demonstrated. In this case, density correlates to economic productivity -- and regional passenger rail only reduces that.
Photo: Amtrak's Wolverine service, one of two lines that would benefit from the upgrades. (John Mueller/Flickr)
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Feb 21, 2012
We're in 2012, aren't we? High-speed? 115 mph ?? LOOL How about getting a 45 year old French TGV cruising at 200 mph ??? Or a newer one, those cruising at nearly 400 mph ?? Or what about one of those magnetic German or Japanese trains?? America is soooo retarded when it comes to public transport, geez...
In order to have an economic impact (or to survive) transport has to connect two place which people want to travel between, Hooking Detroit to Chicago at higher speeds only makes sense if there's a market. ANY attempts to build hi-speed rail using existing track w/o rebuilding the ballast and laying track designed for the speeds involved, will result in problems ranging from bumpy rides to derailments. A Midwest hi-speed route that makes sense is the Chicago-Milwaukee-Madison-Minneapolis route which Wisconsin's insane and idiotic Governor decided wasn't worth it based upon a false idea of how maintenance and operation fees work--turning down $8 billion so he could turn around and squeeze the public employees for a tiny fraction of that amount. The Chicago-Minneapolis corridor carries a lot of traffic--both human and freight. The freeway system is overloaded through about 1/2 the route. But the biggest factors affecting mass transit areconvenience and accessibility. To go from Menomonie to Pewaukee was once possible by rail, and possible by bus. Neither is now possible. In either case, an additional 35-50 miles must be covered using some other form of transit at BOTH ENDS. The frequency of transport is very low, trains go through once each way each day, buses are more frequent, but not greatly so. The unfortunate fact is that our transportation system was never designed as a system, but assembled from a hodge-podge of ad-hoc vehicles, largely under the influence of big oil, automobile manufacturers and truckers. What coordinated systems we had were largely disassembled as the freeway network expanded, and has been rebuild slowly in some areas since the 70's. There's no convenient transfers between travel methods. In Chicago, its possible to land at O'Hare, take a short train ride downtown and switch to bus or cab for the last bit of your journey--and it's cheap, too! In Milwaukee, there are cabs and hotel courtesy vehicles as options from the airport. There's no direct and inexpensive transit from the airport into the city, and no rapid intra-urban transport (which is a shame, because 60 years ago Milwaukee had a pretty decent light rail line.) Chicago=cheap&fast, Milwaukee=expensive & cumbersome. There's a lot of traffic from around the state to Madison, and it's a very long distance from Madison to the shores of Lake Superior. But many government agencies have people constantly driving back and for to meetings. Not only is all this driving wasteful of resources (including people,) but it's dangerous too. It's ~3 hours drive from Menomonie to Madison-200 miles. It's another 150 to Lake Superior ~ 2.25 hours. over 5 hours driving time, which with breaks takes 7-8 hours and leaves people exhausted. Now that we have to arrive 2 hours before departure to fly, the length of the shortest practical flight is much longer than it used to be--in the time it takes to go to the airport, wait in line for some idiot to blow us all up, get checked in, get on, fly and get off, then travel from airport to destination--I can drive 300+ miles. And any day now, requirements for id to pass from State to State will be required.
- - A better solution might be Milwaukee-Chicago, where a high-speed rail line has been proposed and where the commute is just 1.5 hours on Amtrak???s 79 m.p.h. Hiawatha line. - - HSR at 125 mph is a waste on such a short run. An express train running at 100 mph could have nearly the same time improvement at half the purchase cost. Which would keep setup and operating costs down making fares affordable. But HSR supporters only look at cool speed numbers, not cost effective transportation solutions.
My point was that speeding up the Hiawatha line, whatever the top speed, may be more impactful than doing so to the line between Chicago and Detroit. If you're traveling between those two cities, you're likely going to fly; 3.75 hours from 5.5 won't really make a material difference to that decision. Whereas a 33% reduction between Milwaukee and Chicago makes a daily commute within reach for more people, though the price may very well ruin that advantage. In other words, context matters. Still, we're only talking about passenger rail here. Freight may benefit all the same.
What you are describing are the old express trains that used to run non-stop between cities at close to 100 miles an hour. The 1940s era steam train that ran the express run between Boston and NY did it in more than an hour less than Acela does on its best run today. A comprehensive rail plan for the US would have subways or trolleys for local urban routes feeding and being fed by commuter rail (up to 60 mph) for runs out to 50 miles. Express trains (100 mph) on limited stop intercity routes up to 250 miles and HSR (over 125 mph) for non-stop intercity routes over 250 miles. The California HSR plan, with stops every 20/30 miles, is a waste of the trains capabilities. There by, a huge waste of money.