Everybody, it seems, agrees that the Midwest needs high speed rail. The problem is that no one agrees what high speed rail really is.
The inside track right now seems to belong to proposals for "high-speed rail" with inter-city trains reaching top speeds of 110 miles per hour, and average speeds (counting station stops) of about 78 miles per hour. These trains presumably would be run by Amtrak and, in fact, amount to not much more than a slightly speedier version of the present Amtrak.
Advocates of "real high speed rail" (as they call it) want a system with trains reaching top speeds of 220 miles per hour, with average speeds of about 150 miles per hour. This is what most of the world considers high speed rail to be: it's about average for many European countries and, indeed, is a bit slower than trains in China and France.
For baffling reasons, much of the Midwest seems ready to walk when it can run, to go for snail rail when it could get the real thing. Clearly, moving at 110-mph in a 220-mph world means that the Midwest, already lagging in the global sweepstakes, will get left in the dust. But, if current plans prevail, this is what will happen.
These two attitudes were on display Jan. 15 at a Chicago meeting, sponsored by Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn and called "Beyond Transportation: The Economic Impact of Rail in Illinois." The meeting dealt with both passenger and freight traffic, the latter also a crucial issue in Midwestern economic planning. But much of the conversation centered on high speed rail, defined vaguely.
Both Quinn and Sen. Dick Durbin, for instance, spoke glowingly of "high speed rail" without saying which version -- the fast one or the slow one -- they meant. So did Joseph Szabo, the Illinoisan who is now administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration. But Rep. Debbie Halvorsen (D-Ill.) went out of her way to say that there's a difference between 110-mph trains, which she called "rapid speed," and 220-mph trains, which she called "high-speed."
Gary Hannig, who is the Illinois Transportation Secretary, spelled it out. Current plans, he said, call for 110-mph trains on "high-speed" corridors linking Chicago to St. Louis, Milwaukee, Madison, Minneapolis, Detroit, Indianapolis, Cleveland and Cincinnati. These trains would make plenty of stops -- 10 between Chicago and St. Louis, 13 between Chicago and Minneapolis -- too many to allow any train to really highball it.
Why anybody would want trains that went no faster than this was never explained. Halvorsen said the whole project is aimed at "putting people back to work," indicating it's a job-creation program with no link to economic development or the real future of the region. Other supporters of the slower system insist that voters would never approve the money for a true high speed rail net (which doesn't explain why they'd be willing to pop for an inferior version). Others say it's not the speed that counts but the comfort of the slower trains: speaking personally, if I want comfort, I'll stay home. Another argument holds that the slower system, being cheaper and easier, could also be done quicker, while the real thing is a mammoth project, akin to the interstate highway system, that will take a decade or two: true, but if this is an investment in the Midwest's future, then it has to be a project that will serve the region for most of this century, as the interstate system did the last.
High speed rail is a hot issue right now because the Obama Administration has taken it off the siding, where it's been tended by a few rail buffs over the years, and made it a priority. The administration put $8 billion into the stimulus package to get work started, and President Obama says he will ask Congress for another $5 billion. Obama is said to be an enthusiast, as is Rahm Emanuel. Last July, the governors of eight Midwestern states and the mayor of Chicago signed a "memo of understanding" to work together to get this money. But the memo specified that the resulting network would be on the 110-mph model.
No one denies that a true high-speed 220-mph network would cost tens of billions of dollars. We're talking dedicated high-speed tracks here, not the rickety rails that Amtrak now shares with freight trains, which invariably have the right of way. We're talking new equipment. Most of all, we're talking overpasses and underpasses that would eliminate level grade crossings, plus proper fencing: no train going this fast can stop in time to avoid hitting a cow or car on the tracks. But it's a long-term investment for the future -- again, like the interstate system, which has paid for itself many times over. It's far safer than driving. And it's incomparably less polluting than either planes or cars.
In addition, all that money would create thousands of jobs over many years: as a single investment to ignite economic growth, it's hard to beat.
More to the point, it would unite the Midwest into a true economic region. Most Midwestern cities, plus most major Midwestern universities, are just far enough apart to be unhandy. It's not possible to make the trip to and from the major economic and academic centers without spending most of a day. Going to Chicago for a show or to Indianapolis for a game involves a major investment of time -- usually an overnight trip. Many people don't have the time. So they don't go.
A 220-mph system would defeat this tyranny of distance. Business people could commute between Chicago and, say, St. Louis or Cleveland, going in the morning and coming home in time for dinner. The face-to-face interaction that seems to be so important in this global era would become incomparably easier. People could work in Minneapolis and live in Madison, or vice versa.
But all this depends on trains that go fast enough to compete with -- and defeat -- both cars and planes. The proponents of 110-mph service say this would cut the train trip between Chicago and St. Louis, now five and a half hours on the rare occasions when it is on time, to about three and a half hours. OK, not bad. But Southwest Airlines runs ten flights daily between the two cities: allowing for a half-hour cab ride at each end, an hour at the airport and the 65-minute flight, that's about three hours door to door. The proposed snail rail just isn't competitive.
The Midwest High Speed Rail Association says that 220-mph trains could get passengers from Chicago to St. Louis is one hour and 52 minutes. Milwaukee would be 36 minutes away, Madison an hour, Indianapolis 75 minutes, Detroit two hours, Cleveland two hours and 20 minutes, Minneapolis two hours and 40 minutes. Now we're talking. The last time I flew from Chicago to Minneapolis, the trip took nearly five hours door to door.
Any Midwestern rail system inevitably would have Chicago as its hub. So what's in it for the rest of the Midwest? Chicago is far and away the region's biggest and most dynamic city: even cities that are thriving, like Minneapolis and Indianapolis, don't have the diversity of contacts and business services that are found in Chicago. A true high speed rail network would bring these cities into Chicago's economic orbit. They wouldn't become suburbs (despite the fears of some of them), but they would be able to feed off the economic vibes emanating from the lakeside metropolis.
What's in it for Chicago? If other Midwestern cities are struggling in this global age, they still have talent and assets, including terrific universities and great cultural institutions, and Chicago can only be enriched by bringing these cities into its neighborhood.
Mostly, a true high speed network would be the bones and arteries of a Midwestern economic revival, and that's good for everybody in the region.
With so much at stake, it's wise to sit back and think hard about what we want. Nobody yet has come up with reliable figures comparing costs of the two systems. More important, nobody's done an economic impact survey defining how the two systems would affect the cities they serve. It's hard to imagine that St. Louis, for instance, would want a relatively slow service that is inferior to flying. But the backers of 220-mph trains still have to quantify the real economic benefits that their service would bring to St. Louis before they'll win the political battle.
The Midwest, which is having a hard time with the present, has a chance here to leap from the past to the future. It's too good an opportunity to miss.