Chicago High-Speed Rail Illinois Midwest High-Speed Rail

Illinois Moves Towards Rail Authority with Goal of Developing True High-Speed Service

» Passage by State Senate needs to be followed by House approval; Illinois would be third in the nation to specifically plan for very fast trains.

Considering the infusion of federal funds earlier this year for the state’s rail system to be only a first step towards a truly upgraded network, the Illinois State Senate last week almost unanimously approved a measure that would create a commission to evaluate the implementation of true high-speed rail service there. If passed as expected by the State House and signed by the Governor, bill SB 2571 would make Illinois the third in the country after California and Florida to actively promote the implementation of trains operating at over 150 mph.

In January, the U.S. Department of Transportation allocated $1.13 billion for upgrades to the St. Louis-Chicago mainline, enough to speed trains to 110 mph and connect the cities in just four hours. Then, in February, the state received $100 million in TIGER funds for its CREATE project, which will clear up freight and passenger rail congestion south of Chicago.

In addition, with significant support from Democratic Governor Pat Quinn, Illinois has already committed $400 million of its own funds to advancing rail internally, the second-highest state contribution after California. The Golden State’s citizens made a $10 billion pledge in 2008.

The Illinois Senate’s bill will create the Illinois and Midwest High-Speed Rail Commission whose mission will be to develop by March 2011 a roadmap for true high-speed service in the state. Though the legislation does not designate a specific corridor for future investment, the Chicago-St. Louis corridor, which passes through Champaign (location of the primary branch of the state university) and Springfield (the state capital), has already been studied for 220 mph operations and closely matches in demographics of some of the world’s most well-used fast train systems.

The bill would encourage the commission to explore how to create a public-private partnership (PPP) to design, build, and operate a fast rail network and provide recommendations about how to fund the system. The mess that followed Chicago Mayor Richard Daley’s privatization of its parking meters seems to have had no effect on the interest of Illinois legislators in putting what is clearly a public good into private hands. There is little actual evidence that PPPs have been successful in reducing taxpayer expenditure on new high-speed rail lines.

Nonetheless, the commission has yet to announce its conclusions about financing and route selection. Nor does it have the right to single-handedly institute new revenue sources, meaning that construction of a true high-speed line is in no ways assured. The Chicago-St. Louis corridor alone would likely cost at a minimum $12 billion to upgrade to 220 mph top speeds, fast enough to allow for a two-hour link between the cities. In the middle of a recession, Illinois will not be willing to pass over such funds without serious preliminary study, and nor will the federal government, which is likely to be handing out billions of dollars in further rail grants over the next decade.

Political agreement on the creation of the commission, coming from both Democrats and Republicans in the State Senate, underscores the sense among Illinois residents that Chicago should be the nation’s rail capital. It also suggests that there is common ground in the thinking that current plans for 110 mph service won’t provide the kind of speed improvements necessary to take full advantage of the rail system, a reasonable assessment. Yet while the creation of the commission is a definite advance, the state will have to commit more funds if it wants to compete with California and Florida for true high-speed rail.

Image above: Chicago Union Station, from Flickr user egvvnd (cc)

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Final Applications Submitted for Corridor-Level High-Speed Rail Grants

» First phase of applications for Track 2 line planning and construction attracts major bid demands from California, North Carolina, Florida, Oklahoma, and Virginia.

Update (13 October): State of Indiana has applied for $2.8 billion in funds on behalf of the Midwest Regional Rail Intiative for a 110 mph line connecting Chicago and Cleveland.

Update (6 October): Federal Railroad Administration head Joseph Szabo released the following news earlier today:

“We have received numerous applications from states and groups of states for the development of high-speed and intercity passenger rail programs for grant funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.  These include 45 applications from 24 states totaling approximately $50 billion to advance high-speed rail corridor programs. We also received 214 applications from 34 states totaling $7 billion for corridor planning and smaller projects.”

All awards, according to the statement, will be announced this winter (for the $8 billion). This means that the states applying for the second round of high-speed rail (applications due in Spring 2010) will have to rely on Congress authorizing more money for the program…

Update: New York has submitted a proposal for $7.9 billion (inflation-adjusted) in investments in its Empire Corridor, making it the biggest project on the list yet announced. Pennsylvania has added its own proposal for $3.1 billion in funds.

More than forty states submitted $100 billion in proposals for stimulus funding of high-speed rail projects in July. Those applications were preliminary, but they followed with more serious applications at the end of August for the Federal Railroad Administration’s first, third, and fourth tracks of rail financing, which include small project construction and corridor planning. Last week, a number of states completed their final application for the FRA’s second track, which is designed for corridor-level construction on a much larger scale. These projects, unlike those submitted for consideration in August, do not have to be shovel-ready. The FRA will determine which states receive financing in the beginning of next year.

Though the list I’ve compiled below is not necessarily complete, it provides a basic overview of the states that have announced their applications thus far. Project costs total $18 $30 $50 billion — far higher than the $8 billion thus far committed to high-speed projects in the United States, and coming in addition to the almost $7 billion for which states applied in August. Clearly, there is far more demand than supply for these funds.

Applicants for High-Speed Rail Corridor Projects
State Amount Project Description
California $4.5 b 220 mph service preparations for San Francisco-San Jose; Merced-Fresno; Fresno-Bakersfield; Los Angeles-Anaheim (source)
Florida $2.6 b Tampa-Orlando HSR; Passenger rail between Jacksonville and West Palm Beach (for the first time since 1968) (source)
Georgia $472 m Atlanta to Macon, full capital costs (source)
Illinois $550 m Line from Chicago to St. Louis (source)
Indiana $2.8 b Line from Chicago to Cleveland, via Indiana (source)
Kansas $10 m Upgrades to the Newton-Kansas/Oklahoma state line (source)
Michigan $830 m Upgrades to 110 mph of Detroit-Chicago service (source)
New York
$7.9 b Albany-Rochester-Niagara Falls upgrades to 90-110 mph service (source)
North Carolina
$3.9 b Charlotte-Raleigh-Richmond upgrades to 90-110 mph service (source)
Ohio $564 m 3C Line connecting Cincinnati, Columbus, and Cleveland (source)
$2 b Tulsa-Oklahoma City-Texas State Line (source)
Pennsylvania $3.1 b Harrisburg-Philadelphia speed up; Lackawanna Cutoff; Pittsburgh Maglev (source)
Virginia $1.75 b Washington-Richmond-Petersburg, reducing DC-Richmond trip times to 90 minutes (source)
Washington $850 m Portland-Seattle-International Border (source)
Wisconsin $652 m Milwaukee-Madison (source)


The state that submitted the second biggest proposal, California, has a major rail program underway, and there’s a lot to be said for why it should receive the lion’s share of federal funds. It is the only state whose taxpayers have made a serious commitment of their own to fund their rail program.

But North Carolina, Florida, Oklahoma, and Virginia have also submitted multi-billion dollar bids for money, arguing that their corridors deserve federal help. It remains to be seen how Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood will decide to spend the cash, but it would be inappropriate for federal funding to ignore local efforts. But would it make sense for Oklahoma and California both to receive $2 billion, when the latter had already agreed to spend $10 billion of its own money, while the former has done nothing of the sort?

In a September meeting in Georgia, Mr. LaHood was asked whether that state would receive federal dollars for high-speed rail. He responded: “It’ll come to Atlanta if Georgia gets its act togetherThere has to be a commitment by state government that transit is important.” This kind of rhetoric is helpful, because it provides a clue for how the U.S. government will determine funding.

The Department of Transportation has yet to establish how it will measure the efficacy of various proposed rail projects. The government will release a draft national rail plan later this month, a document which should provide some clues about Washington’s goals for intercity rail. Initial plans suggested that the government would release funding for Phase I corridors (those submitted in August) in late September, but there has been no news on that front. It would be appropriate, after all, if the government provided funding after describing its goals for the rail program.

There is also the question about how much of the $8 billion the federal government will distribute for each of the funding tracks; some states are planning to wait for round two of applications, which will be due in Spring 2010. For instance, Minnesota is planning to apply for $200 million in track 2 funds for the Midwest Regional Rail Initiative, Northstar, and the Northern Lights Express — but only next year. New Hampshire has temporarily delayed action on a planned line between Nashua and Concord, with the expectation that it will be able to demand funds later. How much will the DOT have already committed by then? Will there be any money left?

Of course, Congress has a role to play here as well. If the $8 billion included for high-speed rail in the stimulus was a good start, it clearly isn’t enough to rework the American rail system, which is hardly the paragon of quality service. President Obama requested $1 billion in additional annual appropriations for rail for the next five years, but that isn’t enough to meet the demand; the House has suggested a $4 billion grant for this year alone, but the Senate has yet to sign on. James Oberstar (D-MN), Chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, has proposed a $50 billion allocation to rail over the next five years, but his efforts to see a new transportation bill passed have been delayed repeatedly by disagreements in the Congress about how to find money.

Nonetheless, the deluge of applications from states suggest that congresspeople increasingly have strong constituent desires for increasing the pot of federal rail allocations. Whether Congress will follow through on that incipient desire, however, is another matter.

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Southeast Minnesota Angles for Rail Link through Rochester

Linking Southeast Minnesota to the Midwest Rail Network

» But the fastest route would stop at the city’s airport rather than downtown.

Though state of Minnesota has not been the most active advocate of new rail connections, a faster connection between the Twin Cities and Chicago has been an ubiquitous component of proposals for high-speed rail in the Midwest. The corridor’s termini are set in stone, but its exact route is not. Whereas existing Amtrak service runs along the Mississippi River from La Crosse, Wisconsin to St. Paul, residents of Rochester and the surrounding areas are pushing for the improved line to run through southeast Minnesota. A new study demonstrates the advantages of such a detour, but its lack of connection through downtown Rochester could ultimately prove to be a major limitation.

The Southeast Minnesota Rail Alliance report compares several different routes through the state, including the 130-mile existing corridor that parallels the river and a new 170-mile line that would extend west of La Crosse, through Rochester, and then north to the Twin Cities. The latter route’s primary advantage is that it would connect to the rail link the 100,000-person population of Rochester; it is the state’s third-largest city and a major employment center, notably as a result of the presence of the Mayo Clinic. The population of areas within 20 miles of the Rochester route is roughly twice as high as that of areas near the river line, not counting the Twin Cities.

Including Rochester would undoubtedly increase ridership on any rail line since the river route reaches no cities of significant population for the entire distance between Winona and St. Paul. With 110 mph diesel train operation, the Rochester route would move 5.5 million people a year, versus 5.1 million on the river line, according to the study; both would enjoy higher fare revenues than operation costs. These estimates seem unreasonable considering other Amtrak corridors: the Keystone route between Philadelphia and Harrisburg, which already offers 110 mph electric operation, only attracts about a million riders a year and is 50% subsidized.

The “greenfield” route proposed by the Southeastern Minnesota Rail Alliance would run through Rochester Airport instead of downtown Rochester. This is clearly a decision meant to ensure fast speeds along the entirety of the route and to avoid community opposition to fast trains in Rochester’s urban areas, but it has the negative consequence of limiting potential ridership to and from this detour’s major destination! It also mistakenly assumes that a large number of people will take the train to and from the Rochester Airport when the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport offers far more air service and it could be linked to the project just as easily.

Nonetheless, the argument for a Rochester corridor over the river line is strong. Despite the former route’s longer distance, it would cost only $973 million to construct, compared to the $834 million needed to upgrade the latter corridor, not enough of a difference to justify choosing the cheaper, less effective line. The river route would need 150 miles of new track to handle six round trips a day. It would be quicker to take a train between St. Paul and La Crosse via Rochester — 2h00 versus 2h11 along the river and 2h57 today — because the new link would be far less curvy. The river line includes some 176 curves, requiring a 90 mph speed limit along most of the line — even after improvements.

The other major advantage of the Rochester route is that it would allow for 220 mph operation in the long term, whereas the river route would be unable to ever offer such speeds. With electric trains, travel between St. Paul and La Crosse could be completed in just 1h13 via Rochester; upgrades of the connection through Wisconsin to Chicago would whittle down trip times to just four hours from the Twin Cities (it takes eight hours today). Fast service would cost two billion dollars but make up the difference by attracting nine million riders by 2030, according to the Rail Alliance.

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Major Study Advocates 220 Mph Operation on Chicago-St. Louis Run

Chicago-St. Louis High Speed Rail MapMidwest High Speed Rail Association envisions a less than two-hour express trip between the cities.

Today, the Midwest High Speed Rail Association released a major report studying 220 mph train service between Chicago and St. Louis. Though the project has yet to be endorsed by any government officials, the Association’s study will stimulate further discussion about the level of investment necessary for the link between the two cities. More importantly, the study’s conclusions indicate that Illinois’ existing plans for 110 mph, four-hour service between the metro regions are out of date and under-scaled to meet travel needs in the Midwest.

The study, completed by consultant Tran Systems, was commissioned by the Association to determine costs and other elements of a potential very-fast service across the state of Illinois. The main challenge of the report was to compare the existing Amtrak corridor, which runs almost directly from Chicago to St. Louis, via Springfield, with another corridor, partially unused, which runs via Champaign and Decatur before continuing on. The latter route was found to be acceptable for a 220 mph operating speed, largely because it is quite straight throughout. The Amtrak route is constrained by numerous curves which would slow down trains considerably.

Excitingly, the study argues that trains could run express between the major cities, with stops in Champaign and Springfield, in 1h52; with more stops in Kankakee, Decatur, and Metro East, trains could complete the journey in 2h04. The study advocates hourly trips. These journey times compare favorably with operations on the very similar Paris-Lyon TGV corridor in France. According to the report, the line could be rebuilt with electric catenary for $11.5 billion in 2012 dollars, an estimate that does not include rolling stock or maintenance facilities. The study argues that the state could prevent a sudden loss of treasury by building the line in seven phases.

The short report is worth a glance-through; though it isn’t particularly detailed, it is the first step towards transforming ideas for this Illinois route from mediocrity to world-class status.

The cost of implementation for this project would be relatively minimal considering how effectively it would likely contest air and road travel along the corridor. This route is currently served by at least 41 daily round trips on a number of airlines, making it one of the U.S.’s major air links and one that would be prime territory for rail market share takeover considering the less than two hour trip made possible by high-speed trains. The route could also serve as the central corridor of a line eventually stretching west to Kansas City and south to Dallas; the connection at Chicago would similarly provide new routes to Minneapolis, Detroit, Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Indianapolis.

It’s two bad that this report was commissioned, then, by the Midwest High Speed Rail Association, not the Illinois Department of Transportation. We need to push this route as one of America’s major transportation corridors, but few at the state or national levels are willing to take the major political step necessary to begin pushing for a financial commitment similar to California’s $10 billion high-speed rail bond approved last November. Illinois needs a push now to make this study more than simply a series of hypotheticals.

Image above: Potential routes for Express HSR service, from Midwest HSR Association

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Does Senator Bond Have it Right?

» A minimal investment in rail between Chicago and St. Louis won’t get Americans excited about fast trains.

Since Congress approved $8 billion for high-speed rail in this year’s stimulus bill, Illinois has been pushing hard for improvements along the Chicago-St. Louis corridor, which they contend should be the first investment in a Midwest-wide network of fast railways. Now governors Pat Quinn (D) of Illinois and Jay Nixon (D) of Missouri are pledging to work together to fund the corridor connecting their two states. But for now, their efforts are focused on an anemic project that will ramp up speeds to only 110 mph, reducing the journey time between the two cities from five hours today to less than four. Mr. Nixon said yesterday that he’d like to eventually speed trains to 210 mph, but the $8 billion authorized for projects around the nation won’t be nearly enough to pay for such improvements.

Missouri Senator Kit Bond (R) asserted last week that the federal government’s plans for high-speed rail investment lacked vision, and pointed out that Washington would be better off finding a select few projects to fund fully. In a Senate subcommittee, he said “My concern is that… we will be spreading the money so thin and wide that we will have nothing to show for it.” Implicitly, he was arguing for investment in express high-speed rail in a select number of corridors at speeds above 150 mph, rather than a hodge-podge series of minor improvements along a number of corridors.

Mr. Bond raises a legitimate concern. If the line between these Midwest cities were improved, it still would be only slightly faster than travel by automobile — at a higher cost for passengers. No mass of people will choose to travel on trains between these cities if they take four hours to make the trip; the route is hardly competitive with car travel and much slower than air routes. A far-off promise for 210 mph trains is no promise at all.

Indeed, the Chicago-St. Louis line would be a legitimate candidate for a much greater investment on the scale of California’s 220 mph high-speed program. Compare the basics of the route with that of the Paris-Lyon TGV line, one of the most successful in the world:

Chicago-St. Louis vs. Paris-Lyon
Line Metro 1 Pop Metro 2 Pop City 1 Pop City 2 Pop Distance
Chicago-St. Louis 9.6 m 2.8 m 2.8 m 0.4 m 300 mi
Paris-Lyon 11.2 m 1.6 m 2.2 m 0.5 m 290 mi

Both pairs of cities are roughly the same distance apart, and their respective metros and inner-city areas have similar populations; neither route has major population centers between the termini. Yet while TGVs take the trip between France’s capital and second city in two hours, Illinois and Missouri officials are promoting a rail system that will take four. The Chicago-St. Louis project lacks the appeal of the French line, and it will therefore be unable to ever produce the kind of ridership numbers that are now standard between Paris and Lyon. A 110 mph line will never make up its cost; conversely, a 210 mph line, with much higher ridership, could potentially break even.

The United States must get its investment in rail right from the start if we are to envision a long-term program of fast train projects, because we need to build public support for the program from the beginning. Spending a few billion dollars on a project that will only slightly improve commutes and attract few passengers is the wrong first step. Senator Bond has it right — we must find the resources to ensure that our initial investments will produce tangible, visible results; otherwise, in ten years, we’ll be calling high-speed rail yet another “failed” government program.