Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Midwest High Speed Rail: Part 3: How Fast is Fast?

This is part three of a four-part series of articles about the plans for high speed rail in the Midwest. 

In some countries high speed trains shuttle thousands of people each day between cities at 200 MPH or more.  High speed rail is coming to the Midwest (see parts one and two of this series).  But when it pulls into the station here, the maximum speed will be a comparatively paltry 110 MPH.

To be brutally honest, it's because Midwesterners, for the most part, aren't ready for 200 MPH trains yet.  Sure, there are any number of futurists and hard core city dwellers and Tokyo fanbois who think that in a place of such wide open spaces there is no reason to compromise.  But they are vastly outnumbered by those who see trains as a waste of time and money.  Who think getting around in a shared space is stupid.  And who will give up sitting in freeway gridlock only when you pry the Christmas tree air freshener out of their cold, dead hands.

Geographically speaking, the Midwest and Texas are the locations in America best suited for the fastest trains.  But there isn't the political leadership or the public support to make it happen.  And without those, the money hose trickles, rather than flows.

In order to reach the kind of speeds achieved in places like Korea and Belgium the rail lines have to be electrified.  Installing an overhead electrical system along the thousands of miles of track envisioned in the Midwestern high speed rail plan is massively expensive.  So instead, the high speed trains that will plow through the plains will run on plain old diesel.  The idea is for America to learn how to walk before we run.

Also, keep in mind that the 110 MPH figure is a maximum speed, not an average speed.  You won't get from Cincinnati to Cleveland in an hour and a half.

But for anyone who's traveled by rail knows, door-to-door rail is faster than air travel at midwest distances.  And high-speed rail is expected to beat cars in the same measurement.

That's an important factor when it comes to travel and speed.  While it would be great to have trains going 300 MPH, 110 MPH is enough to beat cars on most trips in the midwest.  And once trains become better than cars for traveling between cities, it doesn't matter how much you beat them by -- people will start using the train.  So there's no need to invest all the extra money into pushing the trains up to 200 or 300 MPH.  110 is the sweet spot; the compromise between speed and cost.

So, if rail travel is so great, how come it hasn't worked before?  Well, a big part of that has to do with how rail travel is regulated.

For the most part, passenger rail and freight trains share the same tracks.  Lots of people have experienced what happens when a lumbering freight train clogs up the works.  I, personally, spent an hour sitting on a siding in New Westminster, British Columbia waiting for a Canadian National freight train to clear a track so the Amtrak Cascades train I was on could get into Pacific Station in Vancouver.  I know lots of people who have been stuck behind freight trains while trying to get into Saint Louis, before the new passenger station was built.

Under federal law, freight trains are supposed to get out of the way of passenger trains.  In practice, they don't.  The freight train companies see their cargo as the priority and don't care if they inconvenience a few hundred people on a passenger train.  The problem is there has been no way to enforce the right-of-way law until now.

A new law has been passed which actually fines the freight companies if they block passenger trains.  Since it was enacted, the on-time performance of passenger trains has increased nationwide.  With additional passing sidings and better signaling systems, passenger travel is already getting faster and easier in America.

Some cities are already getting ready for the passenger train revolution.  As mentioned above, Saint Louis built a new intermodal station that links Amtrak trains with city buses, city light rail, and inter-city bus service.  I've used it, and it works really well.

In 2005 Milwaukee built a new Amtrak station at its airport.  In 2007 it built a new one downtown.  As much as the naysayers like to say nay, the rail revolution is becoming a reality.


  1. I really hope HSR becomes a reality for the midwest. The easier, faster and more economical we make it for people to get in and out of Chicago, the more inclined they will be to visit our fair city. Curious, the Chicago to Kalamazoo line seems like it goes across (under) Lake Michigan. Was this done for ease of viewing, or do they plan to actually go through the lake??

    It would be nice to see a HSR line from Chicago to New York. I wonder what speed they would have to attain to make it competitive with air travel?

  2. The Kalamazoo route doesn't actually go through Lake Michigan, that's just a stylistic shortcut necessitated by my lack of Photoshop skills.

    The idea of a high-speed link to New York seems like a no-brainer to me, and it was brought up at a recent meeting. But the people behind the HSR plan think that's a long way down the road for a few reasons. Among them, the cost of the infrastructure, and the lack of political will. The theory is that if people get used to using HSR on a regional basis, there will eventually be the political will to make it work on a nationwide scale.

    Of course, part of the problem is also the distance involved. I just checked American Airlines, and Chicago to New York is 2:15. A train would have to go more than 317MPH continuously to beat the plane. Of course, trains only beat planes in downtown-to-downtown comparisons, so add 45 minutes on each side of the plane trip and the time to beat is actually 3:45. At a distance of 800 miles (an estimate, because it's not going to be a straight shot) the train would have to average 213MPH. That's really the very top end of what's currently running in Europe and faster than Asia. And in Europe, it's only in bursts -- not continuous.

    Perhaps by the time the technology improves to help bridge the kinds of city distances that are typical in the United States, America will be ready to make that investment. But not just yet.

    (If the fastest currently available train were to make the route, and it was completely straight it would still take more than eight hours to travel between Chicago and Los Angeles.)

  3. I think the regional approach is the correct one because as you noted in your Chicago to NYC and Chicago to LA calculations, the United States is huge. Especially when compared to some of the other countries we are attempting to emulate.


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