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Thursday, July 2, 2009 04:09 pm

What price speed? FAST TRAINS

After previous derailments, Illinois plans for high-speed rail are back on track

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PHOTO BY NANCY STONE/MCT

President Barack Obama announced his plan for a national network of speedy passenger trains in April by painting a scene familiar to high-speed rail utopians.

“Imagine boarding a train in the center of a city. No racing to an airport and across a terminal, no delays, no sitting on the tarmac, no lost luggage, no taking off your shoes,” Obama said, eliciting chuckles from the crowd. From there, he continued, “Imagine whisking through towns at speeds over 100 miles an hour, walking only a few steps to public transportation, and ending up just blocks from your destination.”

It’s a compelling image, particularly for denizens of Springfield and other central Illinois locales, who are always searching for a more efficient means of getting to Chicago and St. Louis through the St. Louis-Springfield-Chicago corridor, among the most heavily traveled in the country.

If Obama’s high-speed rail dreams seem like déjà vu, that’s because they are. Illinois has been contemplating such a system since the early 1990s. Acting on overtures from then-President Bill Clinton that he would pursue high-speed rail as part of a strategy to lift the nation from recession, Illinois transportation officials picked out sleek Swedish trains and launched a statewide public-relations push to showcase the chosen system.

Despite higher usage on Amtrak, Clinton’s plans screeched to a halt in 1994 when Republicans took control of Congress on a platform of fiscal discipline. Without the federal assistance Clinton had promised, Illinois had to put its plans for high-speed rail on hold. By 1996, Illinois Department of Transportation secretary Kirk Brown declared that the project was “on the back burner.”

Full speed ahead to 2008. A new Democratic president is once again getting people revved up about the prospect of high-speed rail. Calling it a “down payment,” Obama committed $8 billion from the federal stimulus bill and another $1 billion per year over the next five years in the federal budget for 10 federally designated high-speed rail corridors. This includes what’s known as the Chicago Hub network, which passes through Springfield to St. Louis and Kansas City and also extends to cities such as Minneapolis, Kansas City, Detroit, Cleveland, Cincinnati and Louisville.

The commitment was welcome news back here in the president’s home state where $100 million has already been spent on upgrades to the St. Louis-Springfield-Chicago route; another $400 million was set aside for high-speed rail in the state capital bill, which Gov. Pat Quinn has not signed. And based on Federal Railroad Administration rules that give preference to shovel-ready projects with multistate involvement, Illinois and California are expected to be first in line for federal recovery funds.

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In transportation circles, there is some debate over what types of high-speed rail projects should be pursued, however. In Illinois for example, the state proposes to update signaling equipment and improve grade crossings so that Amtrak trains can go 110 miles per hour.

Federal law defines “high-speed” as anything faster than an automobile. And while 110 miles per hour may be superior to current maximum speeds of 79 miles per hour — with the average speed around 59 miles an hour — it’s a far cry from France’s Train à Grande Vitesse, Spain’s Alta Velocidad Española, Japan’s Shinkansen, or China’s frictionless magnetic-levitation system. All these trains dart passengers between destinations at around 200 miles per hour.

Here in the U.S., other states are also thinking bigger than Illinois. California is currently batting around the idea of a frictionless magnetic-levitation system between Los Angeles and Las Vegas similar to China’s.

High-speed rail’s critics argue against sinking billions in taxpayer money into Amtrak, which hasn’t recorded a profit in any year since its inception in 1971, and relies on dated fossil-fuel burning technology.

Bill Warren, an emeritus professor of environmental studies at the University of Illinois at Springfield puts it another way. Warren explains that in 1940, the fastest train from St. Louis to Chicago took four hours and fifty-two minutes; today, the same trip takes five-hours-twenty-five minutes on Amtrak.

“So in 69 years we’ve gotten 30 minutes slower,” says Warren, who also taught transportation planning at UIS. “The rest of the world has left us in their dust. It’s sad but true, but that’s the status of what we might call high-speed rail.”

So why is Illinois taking baby steps with high-speed rail? Springfield’s Amtrak station sees the third highest number of passengers in the state behind Bloomington-Normal and Chicago, the fourth busiest Amtrak station in the country. So we like trains.

Amtrak’s recent history has seen some success. Ridership on the St. Louis to Chicago corridor has experienced record levels in recent years, increasing 16.5 percent in fiscal year 2008 over 2007.

The Midwest High Speed Rail Association proposes trains similar to this one from Spain to move passengers between St. Louis and Chicago in less than two hours.
PHOTO PROVIDED BY MIDWEST HIGH SPEED RAIL ASSOCIATION

George Weber, IDOT’s bureau chief of railroads, suggests that incrementalism is the most pragmatic course. “I’ve heard people comment, ‘Why don’t we just go to 200 miles-an-hour?’ And my answer is look at the history of this country and how we do things in a timely fashion,” Weber says.

Completing work on the corridor by 2014 and bringing the trains up to 110 miles an hour will cost around $2 billion, Weber says. Once the service begins, the current three-and-a-half hour ride from Springfield to downtown Chicago will be shaved to three hours, state transportation officials report.

Anyone in Springfield who’s ever booked passage with the dodgy Amtrak service or found themselves trapped at a railroad crossing as a hulking freight train ambled through town would likely be delighted with any increase in timeliness, no matter how small.

Whether it’s worth the expense is another question. Rick Harnish, executive director of the Midwest High-Speed Rail Association, leads the effort in Illinois and surrounding states to improve inner-city light-rail systems such as Chicago’s El and St. Louis’ MetroLink, streamline rail freight, and ultimately make high-speed rail a reality. He understands that taxpayers may need a little more speed for their money.

Separate from the state’s plan, Harnish’s association this week unveiled a proposal for a 220 mile-per-hour rail line through the Springfield corridor with — are you ready for this? — travel time from Springfield to Chicago of an hour and fifteen minutes. The St. Louis-Chicago trip would take one hour and fifty-two minutes.

“There are a lot of people who really want to figure out how to get St. Louis just two hours away from Chicago and it’s not because they want to do high-speed rail. It’s because they want to be two hours away from Chicago and high-speed rail is the only way to do it,” says Harnish.

“So that means people are traveling back and forth more frequently. That means they’re being more innovative, more productive,” he explains of the St. Louis to Chicago system. “What happens is that you turn these two cities that used to be economic rivals into two cities that work closely together.”

Limiting the commute to two hours would enable someone in St. Louis or Chicago to spend a full day in the city but still be home for supper. Connecting the two towns would also strengthen other local transit agencies as well as attract businesses to the Midwest, he adds.

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Harnish, who lives in Chicago and travels almost exclusively by train, characterizes the idea as akin to building a new interstate highway system. The state plans to max out at 110 miles per hour because of the difficulty involved with separating the highway grade crossings, he says. Fixing that problem alone is where most of the expense comes in.

Under the high-speed rail association’s plan, most of the labor and cost — $4 to $5 billion — would go toward separating the tracks at highway grade crossings. New tracks would then be placed alongside those on existing rights of way.

But Harnish faces an uphill battle to build political support in an already cash-strapped state, which so far has been unwilling to jump aboard.

“I’ll be frank, I think they’ve got the cart out in front of the horse on this one,” says IDOT’s Weber.

“We haven’t even gotten to 110 [mph]. Somebody has to do the planning for 200 mile-an-hour but it’s a long way off.”

Not everyone agrees that trains should be a part of our nation’s transportation system, regardless of how fast they travel. Randal O’Toole, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and the nation’s leading skeptic on taxpayer funded rail investments, says “passenger rail is a thing whose time has come and gone.”

O’Toole argues that building a high-speed system will be too expensive, do little to alleviate congestion on the roads and at the airports, and will be used mainly by the wealthy.

Even a 200-mile-per-hour train won’t remove more than 3 or 4 percent of cars from the highways, he says. According to the most generous estimates, various high-speed projects around the country project that citizens will ride the trains anywhere from 30 to 300 miles per year, which is insignificant when you consider that Americans travel almost 19,000 miles a year, three-quarters of which are by automobile.

Meanwhile, cars are getting cleaner and more efficient every year and at $2.5 million per lane mile, highways are cheaper to build and they pay for themselves with gas taxes.

Rick Harnish
PHOTO PROVIDED BY MIDWEST HIGH SPEED RAIL ASSOCIATION

Once you factor in that some high-speed rail projects are calling for fare increases of as much as 50 percent over current Amtrak fares, “Unless you’re rich or someone is paying your way, you’re not going to take the high-speed train.”

Most of all, the burden on taxpayers is “grossly unfair,” he says. “We’re going to have a system being run for bankers, bureaucrats and lobbyists. We’re not protecting the environment, we’re not saving energy, we’re just creating a Disney-like toy for yuppies.”

His points are supported by National Bureau of Transportation statistics, which indicate that airlines, buses and autos comprise some 99.4 percent of all passenger travel in the U.S. Meanwhile, the U.S. taxpayer has sunk $40 billion into Amtrak over the past three decades.

If that weren’t enough to prevent high-speed rail from gaining steam, Obama’s administration even concedes a number of challenges. Among them, a sort of brain drain among engineers and other train experts resulting from years of passenger rail decline, the need to gain support from private railroad companies, forming multi-state operating agreements, and establishing a new layer of high-speed rail safety standards.

The most formidable obstacle, of course, is funding. According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the 11 high-speed projects that have passed the environmental review phase would cost $82 billion while 44 other corridors around the country are in some stage of planning and development (see graph).

However, there is some light at the end of the train tunnel.

Proponents of high-speed rail expansion hold up Amtrak’s only profitable system, the Acela, as a model for high-speed rail across the country. The Acela, which connects Washington, D.C., Boston and points in between including New York City and Philadelphia, accounts for 20 percent of all Amtrak’s revenue.

Consider that Amtrak projects 2009 passenger revenue to exceed that of fiscal year 2008 by more than $135 million and the picture for passenger rail looks rosier. The projection was made before gasoline prices dropped, but rail enthusiasts predict they’ll get back up to $4 a gallon before long.

Another factor that could bode well for the future of the state’s high-speed rail program is Chicago’s bid for the 2016 Summer Olympics.

China was able to get its maglev system up in two years, just in time for that country to host the summer games in 2008. The Midwest High-Speed Rail Association believes that if Chicago is selected in September as the future host city, it could speed up plans for 200-mile-an-hour trains in Illinois.

Harnish: “I believe that if the governor and the president said ‘I want to have a high-speed train running by the Olympics,’ and the mayor [of Chicago] was behind it, it could happen.”

Amtrak’s Acela, which runs from Washington, D.C., to Boston and is the company’s only profitable line, is often looked to as the model for high-speed rail.
PHOTO BY PETER VAN DEN BOSSCHE

Contact R.L. Nave at rnave@illinoistimes.com.

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