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Public Transportation Mon Jan 11 2010

Will High-Speed Rail Finally Become Mainstream?


In case you missed it, freelance writer Jessica Pupovac penned an interesting piece in this month's Mindful Metropolis. In the article, Pupovac looks at how $8 billion in federal stimulus money could finally bring high-speed rail to the Midwest. If successful, Americans might finally break their dependence on the automobile, and the money could help America catch up with other high-speed rail hubs like France and Japan (whose notorious bullet train is pictured above).

According to the article, a high-speed line between Chicago and St. Louis could be running very soon since it could rely on existing Amtrak tracks. Pupovac also notes in her article:

Many in Illinois are hoping Illinois is a lead contender among the more than 34 states that submitted applications totaling more than $57 billion. Illinois is asking for $4 billion, or half of the totally kitty, to build out a second, high-speed track from Chicago to St. Louis. The funds would purchase or upgrade the actual tracks, purchase new trains, install new signaling mechanisms and make a host of related improvements necessary to safely and efficiently run a train capable of traveling up to 110 miles an hour between the two cities.

But not everyone sees a future in high-speed rail. Pupovac also quotes Randal O'Toole, a senior fellow with the Conservative think tank Cato Institute. O'Toole, who wrote the study "Taking Illinoisans for a Ride: The False Promises of High-Speed Rail," argues that the hefty cost of high-speed rail far outweighs any environmental benefit.

"Who will ride these rails?," O'Toole asks in the summary of his report. "The most ardent supporters of high-speed rail predict that when the FRA (Federal Railroad Administration) plan is completely built, it will carry Americans 58 miles per person a year. By comparison, the average American travels by automobile more than 15,000 miles per year. The average Illinoisan will take a round trip on high-speed rail once every 8.7 years-and in actual practice, for every Illinois resident who rides high-speed rail once a month, more than 100 Illinoisans will never ride it."

Read the full report here (pdf).

I agree it's going to take a lot more than simply building the rail lines and technology to change people's car habits, but we're destined to rely on the automobile forever if we don't try. And not to mention look pitiful in comparison to train technology in China, South Korea, Japan and almost every country in Europe. It's time to look beyond the car.

Read Pupovac's full article here.

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roberto / January 12, 2010 1:00 AM

The Midwest was once the center of an extensive interurban electric rail network, parts of which survived into the 1950's.

The major hurdles facing a new network are similar to the problems faced by last century's predecessors. Getting from point a to point b was not an issue. What doomed these rail networks was sprawl and congestion that made their city-center terminals inefficient in lost travel time and lack of convenience to newly built outlying areas served only by automobiles.

At the same time cutbacks in rail service were supplemented by the growth of inter-city buses which offered more flexible routing to rural areas not served by rail lines. Some interurbans supplemented their rail service with buses, providing feeder service to and from areas not directly covered by rail. However then as in now, an automobile provided the maximum flexibility for those who could not or were not served by either bus or train service.

Although dedicated right of ways and a renewed interest of city-center living would make a transit hub attractive, high speed rail is only as good as its convenience to a rider outside the immediate service area. Regular ridership will depend on reliable and timely connections be it by public transportation or park-and-ride lots.

Without flexibility and connections to outside ridership, point to point rail travel will suffer the same issues as their predecessors, and lose any advantage in travel time to the inconvenience of passengers getting to and from the station.

Chris / January 12, 2010 9:40 AM

Regular ridership will increase, as Roberto said if there are reliable and timely connections between urban areas. High speed rail will, as in Spain, flip the dependence on Cars and Planes over to a much more sustainable system. Currently, any travel over 500 miles is best accomplished by Airplane, and High speed rail will not and should not challenge that. Within 500 miles, the difference is clear, high speed rail (220mph) is the answer.

To ease connections and congestion in city centers, most proposals for integration, like that developed by the Midwest High Speed Rail Association, have required inter-modal hubs to be built with the new rail system. For example, in Chicago, the plan would rebuild Union Station to connect Metra and the CTA. This would allow for travelers to arrive in Downtown Chicago and easily catch a Metra train to their station and likely car out in the vast suburbia.

It will take the courage of our elected officials to create our "Great Leap Forward"...which would only put us on par with other developed nations when it comes to transportation infrastructure.

Econ 103 / January 13, 2010 10:30 AM

Just a couple of questions to see if this has been thought thru:

1.) There is $8 billion in funding available. Does anyone think that the system will be built for that amount?

Estimates for the per mile cost for high speed rail vary from a low of $20 million to a high of $80 million. So $8 billion will get you somewhere between 100 and 400 miles of track. St. Louis is about 300 miles from Chicago, so with $8 billion in funding, we could maybe get to St. Louis, but definitely not to another midwest city.

The $4 billion that IL has asked for would apparently get us to the highly profitable Chicago to Springfield route!

2.) If the rail system was successful, what is the net effect on tax revenues via gas, toll, etc...

It would seem certain that all those revenues would drop significantly at the time when they woudl be needed to pay off the debt incurred to build the system.

Also, since Federal and state budgets are much more static than consumer demand, this would lead to a significant budget shortfall that would be handled by either taking on more debt or raising new taxes.

3.) If the system was successful, and the demand for cars was lessened, what would happen to the tax revenues that municipalities get from the sales of new cars.

As we have seen from the Cash for clunkers/local government bailout program, municiple budgets rely heavily on tax receipts from auto dealers. Libertyville , in fact bases around 20% of their budget on those tax receipts (

If people buy fewer cars, then then those municipal givernments will need to either:

- Reduce public services and layoff workers
- Enact new taxes to make up for the shortfall
- Take on new debt, which will kick the fiscal can down the road

So its hard to see where the benfefit is when the economic effect would be either to raise taxes on private sector activity, which will lead to loss of private sector economic output and fewer jobs, or to force several levels of government to take on new debt and/or reduce the public sector's economic output (via jobs or spending).

...and we haven't even gotten into operating expenses vs. revenue model yet!

It'd be nice if the new "green" economy was a little more than just wishful thinking.

F.K. Plous / January 13, 2010 3:16 PM

Americans drive 15,000 miles per year because they have no choice. We have built a vast highway system but almost no passenger rail lines. The average American simply has no alternative to driving, and the economics of car ownership are such that it makes little sense to restrict your driving once you have begun paying for the car. The more you drive, the less each trip costs you, so that once you buy a car you are enrolled in a perpetual-driving scheme.

Rick Dedman / January 13, 2010 9:51 PM

Regarding O'Toole, he has written the same "report" related to high speed rail for a dozen states, only changing the names and numbers.

I think the real truth in the matter of intercity passenger rail is it won't change the way people use their cars.

But, for long distance, high speed rail that competes with commercial air in total travel time, passenger rail absolutely changes the way people use commercial air. And, we can pick up 300,000,000 passengers per year, the first year of full service with 8500 miles of double track, connecting the top 50 US airports and running trains at 400+ mph.

After that service is provided, AMTRAK, private rail, and local transit will not be able to build and equip new, profitable, passenger rail routes to extend that rail travel advantage to other locations fast enough to meet demand.

That's when passenger rail will change the way people use their cars and how many will abandon car ownership altogether.

And, yes, we can run trains at 400+ mph and use less energy per passenger mile than any passenger rail trains running anywhere else in the world.

Ace / January 15, 2010 3:46 PM

With the Cta/Metra both broke and the state broke that money should be used for local needs right now,instead some future pie in the sky fast speed train.Services right now are being cut back.Give that money right now to CTA/Pace and Metra

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