Since we're talking about Germany (see previous post), it's a good time to look at the German high speed rail system and see whether, in this area too, that country has something to teach the Midwest.
Germany and the Midwest are roughly the same size. Both are mostly flat. Germany has more people but both areas -- especially the Midwest east of the Mississippi -- are densely populated.
But in rail, they couldn't be more different. Germany has its Intercity-Express (ICE) network of high-speed trains, many of them running up to 200 miles per hour on tracks so smooth that the wine in your glass barely jiggles as you race through the countryside. The Midwest, like the rest of the United States, has Amtrak. If you haven't ridden Amtrak, be assured that all the awful stories you hear about it are true.
For the Midwest, there's got to be a better way and copying the German ICE system might be it. Many Midwesterners want to see this happen -- the Midwest High Speed Rail Association is the best source. All this was discussed at a meeting in Omaha this summer. One result was a paper from the German company, Siemens, called "High-Speed Trains Running on Freight Line Tracks: The Experience of Germany."
Siemens is not exactly a disinterested party. It is the leading manufacturer of the German trains and, along with companies from other nations like Japan and France, senses a big sale for its expertise and equipment if the Midwest adopts high speed rail.
But Siemens does know what it's talking about, and the paper deserves reading by any Midwesterner interested in the issue.
Two main points jump off the page:
First, the Midwest so far has made a deliberate decision to miss the train. Most federal funding for high speed rail is going to Florida, California and the Midwest. Florida and California plan to use the money to begin building systems for trains that will go 150-200 mph, just like the much-admired systems in Europe. The Midwest, by contrast, plans to upgrade existing Amtrak service, mostly on the Chicago-St. Louis line, enabling trains to run up to 110 mph, but with an average speed of 78 mph. This guarantees that these trains will be both uncompetitive and a waste of money. See previous posts on this issue here and here. This makes no sense, except as an expression of the traditional Midwestern reluctance to join the 21st century.
Second, the Midwest, like Germany, contains a dense web of freight railway lines: indeed, as the paper says, "the Midwest is the center of the U.S. freight rail industry and Chicago is its capital." This is one of the big problems with Amtrak: its trains run on lines owned by railways that make most of their money from freight haulage. This means that Amtrak passenger trains sit in sidings while freight trains barrel through, adding hours to the average Amtrak trains on-time performance.
It's always been assumed, at least by me, that any real high speed network in the Midwest would need dedicated tracks, separate from freight lines, with all the expense this implies. The Siemens paper says this isn't necessarily so.
In Germany, it says, freight and passenger trains share the same rails: there probably isn't room for separate lines. This means that the shared lines have to be upgraded to handle both high speed rail and heavyweight freight, with curves straightened, grade crossings eliminated (for safety reasons) and "passing loops" installed. Rail automation has been upgraded to 21st-century standards to prevent accidents. (In 1998, 101 persons were killed in a terrible ICE accident: since then, there have been no fatalities on the system.)
All this, of course, is hugely expensive. But the dual use allows the expense to be more quickly amortized. And virtually everyone agrees that this dense train network is crucial to German prosperity.
It would seem that freight and passenger trains using the same tracks at the same time would produce inevitable delays. Siemens says the Germans avoid this by scheduling most freight trains for off-peak hours, with most daytime traffic reserved for passenger trains.
As mentioned above, Germany and the Midwest share geographic and demographic similarities. It's about 550 miles from Munich in the south to Hamburg in the north, just as it's about 600 miles from St. Louis in the south to Minneapolis-St. Paul in the north. (Nobody is talking about extending high speed rail into the less populated areas of the Midwest, like northern Minnesota.) The Midwest, though, is broader, about 700 miles from Omaha to Cleveland, twice the 350 miles from Cologne to Berlin.
Germany is somewhat denser -- 82 million people in this area, as opposed to the 60 million in the eight upper Midwest states (more if western Pennsylvania and upstate New York are included.) If high speed rail is designed to serve major cities, the two areas are about equal: the Midwest has 13 cities over 300,000, if the Twin Cities are counted as one: Germany has 14 or 15.
Siemens, like other global companies, wants this Midwestern business. Since the U.S. lags so far behind the rest of the world in developing high speed rail, buying systems and expertise abroad is inevitable. But actually making the equipment -- cars, rails, signals, automation gear -- can and should be done right here. This would create jobs right now, for a rail network that would pay off in economic vitality for decades to come.