High Speed Rail: On The Fast Track?

High Speed Rail: On The Fast Track?

A distant dream just a handful of years ago, high-speed passenger rail lines appear much closer to being built, thanks to the Obama administration's financial support. But will enough travelers use a Twin Cities–Chicago route to make it feasible? Is 110 miles per hour really all that fast?

In Minnesota, where business travel has long meant sailing along on interstates through long stretches of rural landscapes or jumping on a jetliner for a one-hour flight to Chicago, the notion of high-speed rail has always seemed exotic.

Why take trains—even if they are faster than Amtrak’s current Twin Cities-to-Chicago Empire Builder service—when driving and flying are quicker and so familiar?

Backers of a Midwestern regional initiative to establish a 3,000-mile network of high-speed trains, mainly along existing freight and state passenger rail tracks, say the equation has changed enough to lure business travelers from Minnesota and elsewhere in the Midwest onto the rails. Their efforts, which have been ongoing in a quixotic fashion since the mid-1990s, got a massive boost in this year’s federal stimulus spending bill, which targeted $8 billion for high-speed rail.

Just how many of those federal dollars would go to Midwest passenger rail was still undetermined as of early June. Other regional lines, some with advanced planning and some money already in place, are also seeking federal funding. But assuming that by 2013 or so work has begun on a high-speed rail link from St. Paul (perhaps through Minneapolis and Rochester) to Madison, Milwaukee, and Chicago, would enough people ride it?

Some business travel experts say the line would create a sizable new niche among those who crave legroom to use laptops and cell phones while they travel as well as among people for whom the security and congestion hassles of flying are becoming too much to bear, especially on shorter trips. At around $100 one way to Chicago, value travelers would also be attracted, as would those seeking to reduce their carbon footprint. (There have been no official ridership estimates. About 554,000 rode the Empire Builder last year.)

Would that be enough to enable high-speed trains to cover their operating costs? Critics think not. Others believe they won’t move fast enough to attract large-scale ridership. By federal regulation, high-speed rail runs at a top speed of 110 miles per hour—nowhere near as fast as, say, a Japanese bullet train, which can zoom at upwards of 200 miles per hour. (The Empire Builder averages about 50 miles per hour, including stops.)

Still, the current U.S. version of high-speed rail has momentum. Faster trains may be coming fast.

The Acela Experience

The Twin Cities-to-Chicago high-speed rail link is part of a larger effort called the Midwest Regional Rail Initiative, a proposed 3,000-mile network of high-speed and near-high-speed interconnecting rails. (See map.) The Minnesota-Wisconsin-Chicago spoke would be the costliest to build at $2.2 billion, a price intended to cover all capital costs, including a new line from Green Bay to Milwaukee. The next costliest is Chicago to Cleveland, at roughly $1.6 billion.

Currently, the only existing high-speed rail line in the United States is Amtrak’s Acela Express, which connects Boston, New York, and Washington, D.C. Acela reaches 135 miles per hour in spots—about 25 miles per hour higher than the speed envisioned for the Midwestern trains. Between Boston and New Haven, a total of 35 miles, Acela actually runs at 150 miles per hour, because new, state-of-the-art tracks have been built there. But because of the old tracks, curves, and narrow tunnels and bridges, Acela averages only 86 miles per hour on its entire 456-mile trip

Still, Acela’s ridership had been soaring: In the fiscal year ending last September, Acela’s ridership was up 7 percent. Due to the economic downturn, ridership in February 2009 was down 17 percent from a year earlier. In response, Amtrak cut fares from $133 to as low as $99 for one-way trips between New York and Washington.

Dave Kilduff, managing director of ground transportation consulting for CWT Solutions Group, a Minnetonka-based consulting arm of Carlson Wagonlit Travel, is convinced that business travelers would find high-speed rail appealing—if they only knew about it. “You have space to work on the trains,” Kilduff says. “CWT does recommend taking Acela to our East Coast clients.” The big problem with Amtrak, Kilduff says, is marketing: Not enough corporate travelers are aware of a rail option.

Kilduff adds that many of his corporate travel clients are specifically asking for “low carbon-footprint” options in this age of environmental awareness—a point echoed by Howard Learner, executive director of the Chicago-based Environmental Law and Policy Center, an advocacy group that has spent 15 years studying the “green” costs and benefits of a Midwestern high-speed rail system. And, Learner says, such a system would also compete on a time basis with air travel. The five and a half hours it would take to ride the train from downtown St. Paul to Chicago’s Loop, for instance, is similar to the time required to fly between the two cities—that is, when all travel time is taken into account: arriving early at MSP International and then taking a cab from O’Hare Airport to the Loop, especially during rush hour.

Still, Learner says that while such a network will “fundamentally change” the region’s travel options, it won’t replace cars or airplanes. “High-speed rail will provide a third good option for business travelers who are trying to get around the region,” he says. “It works on the East Coast, where ridership has consistently gone up while air travel has flattened out.

“That’s because it’s a good alternative for businesspeople who want to get from New York to Philadelphia or Baltimore, and for families on weekends,” Learner adds. “It also enables business travelers to go from downtown to downtown, drawing development to the city centers. It will compete in the Midwest on that basis, as well.”

Minnesota Gets Up to Speed

After years of opposing efforts to plan a higher-speed rail line through Minnesota, Governor Tim Pawlenty changed his approach early this year when federal money for such projects came available through the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, otherwise known as the federal stimulus bill. In May, $26 million was included for high-speed rail planning as part of the 2009 state bonding bill. Its approval officially committed Minnesota to becoming a “dues-paying” member of a multi-state Midwestern push to gain the region’s share of high-speed rail stimulus funding.

“I think that the stimulus package was a kick in the pants for high-speed rail in Minnesota, and that made us realize that now is the time to get our act together,” says State Senator Katie Sieben, DFL-Cottage Grove, one of the state’s top legislative supporters of high-speed rail. “The important thing about the bonding money is that it shows a commitment to the project. Even if the funding for high-speed rail is 100 percent federal, the grants are competitive, and there’s a list of 10 rail corridors from around the country that are interested in this money.”

There is $100 million in work that can be done immediately. That includes $5 million to plan for a refurbishing of St. Paul’s Union Depot, which involves converting the big concrete train concourse that’s now used by the U.S. Postal Service for truck parking back to its original purpose. There’s also $10 million needed to separate car and train traffic at a grade crossing in Red Wing. But the vast majority of the money would be used for purposes including an environmental assessment along the river corridor, property acquisition, and the initial phases of construction.

Sieben has several reasons for being a high-speed rail enthusiast, including the $1.2 billion to $2.3 billion she believes Minnesota would save in the form of quicker travel times and less congestion between the Twin Cities and La Crosse, as well as the 1,500-plus new spin-off jobs proponents say that the improved transportation link will help generate.

Last year, at the behest of the state legislature, the Minnesota Department of Transportation began work on developing its first intercity passenger rail plan—a document expected to be released by year’s end. While a completed state plan wasn’t necessary for Minnesota to receive the stimulus funding, the lack of such a document contrasts with Wisconsin, where the high-speed rail leg between Madison and Milwaukee already has been planned and has gained the legal approvals needed to move ahead.

All Wisconsin lacked was funding. Seeing the opportunity the stimulus bill provided for high-speed rail, Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle in March wrote a letter to the Federal Railroad Administration stating that Wisconsin would be applying for more than $500 million for the Madison-to-Milwaukee stretch, citing its “shovel-ready” status.

That leg of a Twin Cities-to-Chicago high-speed rail route probably gives the closest approximation of what a Minnesota line would look like and involve in terms of cost and the kind of work that needs to be done.

Wisconsin transportation officials have high hopes for the link: They’re optimistic it will be ready to open by 2013 at the latest and will carry 1.08 million passengers per year within a couple years of service. But bringing the 85-mile section of freight tracks, about half of which are owned by the Alberta-headquartered Canadian Pacific Railway, “up to code” for trains that go as fast as 110 miles per hour would involve upgrading 154 road crossings, including 42 private farm crossings. The public road crossings would require outfitting with high-tech signal arms that would include such features as trapped-vehicle detection systems, as well as barriers (which could resemble the ground-level tire-stoppers used at car-rental parking-lot exits) to prevent drive-arounds.

Another major expense in upgrading the tracks would be the installation of an advanced train control system using a technology called “positive train control,” in which train engines equipped with GPS transceivers stay in constant data contact with a control center. Computers there would continuously calculate braking distances for the train and send alerts to the crew if they were approaching a curve or another train with too much speed. If a problem up ahead on the tracks were detected, the system would automatically apply the emergency brakes.

Ron Adams, chief of the Railroads and Harbors section of the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, says that all the tracks along the route would need to be welded—no bolted joints allowed. And in order to share the right of way with freight trains, “there are going to be some places where we’ll have to build new sidings,” he adds.

Adams notes that high-speed rail has been in Wisconsin’s plans for so long mainly because of the resounding success of its state-subsidized Amtrak service between Milwaukee and Chicago. Last year, the Hiawatha Service carried 766,000 passengers on seven daily round trips (about 90 minutes each way) between Milwaukee’s renovated downtown Amtrak-Greyhound intermodal station and Union Station in Chicago’s Loop, a 24 percent jump over 2007.

No planning, meanwhile, has ever been done for the $456 million leg from Madison to the Minnesota border, in part because of a lack of funding, in part because there was no one in St. Paul for Wisconsin to partner with. That has changed: Pawlenty and Doyle appeared together on March 31, promising to work together on the high-speed rail effort.

Still, not everyone’s on board.

Does This Make Sense?

The main skeptics have been Wisconsin Republicans. Their fundamental criticism: Will the millions, even billions, of taxpayer money that would be poured into high-speed rail make economic sense? At a time when states face huge fiscal deficits, is it worth taking the risk that the state will have to subsidize the operations of an untested transportation concept that may or may not have other economic benefits? After all, critics contend, Doyle and Obama have been vague about just what kind of jobs high-speed rail will create.

Sieben and the Midwest Regional Rail Initiative say the jobs will come from economic development that would spring up around high-speed rail stations, created and sustained by the presence of a popular new mode of transportation in the cities it goes through. These types of jobs would be supplied by small, generally tourist- oriented businesses that flock to popular destinations. The other economic benefits rail supporters cite are a spreading-out of jobs by big companies from the Twin Cities to underserved areas of the state along the line, thus distributing wealth more evenly. They also assert that property values around the station in St. Paul would increase by up to $150 million, and up to $13 million each in Red Wing and Winona, citing the experience of cities like Memphis and Washington, D.C., where refurbished stations stimulated development. In addition, they point to $2.3 billion in “user benefits” to Minnesota, primarily time savings due to less car traffic congestion and reduced emissions from cars and buses.

The vast majority of the construction costs are going to be covered by federal dollars—i.e., mostly from taxpayers. After that, where will the money come from to maintain the lines? Doyle believes that demand will be so high that operating costs can be covered through ticket sales. WisDOT says a worst-case scenario would be the Madison-to-Milwaukee line needing a subsidy of $13 million per year in the first few years, which it says could be borrowed from a federal transportation loan program with a 35-year payback schedule. But that’s just Madison to Milwaukee. And there’s no certainty that millions wouldn’t be needed after that.

Other critics say that 110 miles per hour just isn’t fast enough to lure travelers from planes—particularly since the average speed from Chicago to the Twin Cities would actually be 78 miles per hour. If new rail networks are to be built, they should resemble the “very high-speed rail” (VHSR) trains like the French TGV system, which can reach close to 200 miles per hour.

“I think there should be some rethinking about the speed of trains,” says CWT Solutions Group’s Kilduff, adding that “you have to get it fast enough to really make it work.”

But 110 is as fast as trains are allowed to go in the United States. Federal regulations require that trains going more than 110 and up to 125 miles per hour require a barrier—not just a gate—at crossings to keep autos off the tracks when a train is approaching. Trains faster than 125 mph would require complete grade separation from roadways, which would cost from $50 million to $100 million per crossing. Anything faster than 125 would also require dedicated rails—no sharing with freight trains.

Rail safety experts say 110 miles per hour is the highest speed possible on existing tracks shared with freight and local commuter trains. What’s more, U.S. spacing between two sets of tracks is too narrow to give VHSR trains enough leeway to tilt on their special suspensions while going around curves. Thomas Dorsey, who runs the travel Web site soulofamerica.com, says that it would cost $100 billion in federal funding and an additional $30 billion from states to establish a nationwide VHSR system.

Laura Kliewer, executive director of the Illinois-based Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission, says she understands the desire for VHSR trains, but sides with pragmatists who say that in a country that doesn’t have very much interstate passenger rail, “you have to start small.”

“What you need to do is let the ridership on it grow and see where it might make sense to put in additional tracks,” Kliewer says. “Both Europe and Japan have long histories of investments in high-speed rail. In the Midwest, though, what we have seen is success in shorter corridor service, where ridership has exploded, especially in recent years.

“That’s what we need to build on to make the case that high-speed rail will be truly competitive for business travel.”