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There’s been a lot of talk in recent years about the idea of creating a Midwest high speed rail network. High speed rail is an area, like transit generally, where it is almost impossible to get information that does not come from some type of policy advocacy point of view. I think there could be a case for high speed rail, but I think the arguments in favor of it have been way too simplistic to date. Again, to follow-up on a previous post, we have to be careful not to decontextualize the solution.
Truthfully, it’s difficult to see how you make progress other than by taking such an approach.
My belief is that, in practice, the vast majority of trips on any Midwest high speed rail system are likely to be point to point O&D to Chicago. We need to view the high speed rail network not primarily as about anywhere to anywhere hub and spoke through Chicago, but rather as a series of city pair links to Chicago.
So it is very hard to fault the MWHSRA for taking this approach and clearly it is completely valid type solution and probably the more realistic way to get something implemented. Let’s look at some of the high density lines in Europe where we have seen the greatest displacement of air travel with rail.
Also, I don’t think full consideration has been given to what this means practically.
Again, my belief: the scope is the benefits and you have to design a solution to obtain them. Conduct city-pair analysis of every major (one million plus population MSA) city with Chicago, with secondary screening studies of surrounding cities.
Based on this, define a plausible set of mutually beneficial results that we think we can obtain as well as a rough cut on the technology and cost. Here are some characteristics of such a system as well as some praticalities that would need to be addressed in order to have any chance of success. I would also propose a series of federal policy changes and actions to make this a reality.
A commenter, the Urban Politician, noted that Indiana had no political demand for high speed rail and accused me of showing favoritism to Indy. Plus, I think there is reason to believe that this route has more going for it than you might think. Lastly, one reason this route has gotten less attention is that there is no longer an existing high quality rail connection between Chicago and Indianapolis. Running in parallel with this would be a less detailed study looking at the connections from Indianapolis to Columbus, Cincinnati, and Louisville. The easiest way to reduce journey time is to speed up the terminal approaches, which often feature several miles at low speeds. On the Indianapolis line, I noted the lack of a quality existing connection between the cities. I believe the best technology for this corridor would be a European style, 200MPH service along a new terrain routing for most of its length. The benefit of the new terrain route is that it enables dramatic increases in speed and service quality without any freight interference. There would be intermediate stops at Lafayette (possibly on the outskirts to avoid the urban construction issue) and Lake County (just south of Crown Point). Option A involves utilizing the Crawfordsville Sub to a point just beyond Brownsburg, where the new terrain segment would begin. Option B involves upgrading the Crawfordsville Sub, creating a better connection to the Indianapolis Line, then routing all freight traffic that way from the crossing point, possibly also utilizing an upgraded IU Belt around Indy which some local leaders have wanted anyway.
In Chicago, we take advantage of the fact that we are no longer treating the city as an interchange hub to avoid the messy route to Union Station and do something much simpler instead. The Illinois Central line is largely separate from the rest of the Chicago rail network, which means it does not have all of the crazy grade crossings and such that the CREATE program is designed to reduce. We have to connect, and the map looks like the logical way to do it is to turn west just south of Crown Point (hence our station), then connect with the Illinois Central around University Park. I do believe there are some rush hour slot problems north of Kensington where the South Shore connects. I’m not going to say this is the right answer, only one answer that I think should be studied. Anon, could you name a single book that sold over 50,000 copies without being published by a trade publisher? I find it almost impossible to have just read through this amazing comment section that not a single person has mentioned that by building HSR, there will likely be a reduced strain, or slowed growth, on highway traffic and airports.
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RennThe first installment in my series on ideas for reconnecting Chicago with its natural expanded region in the Midwest focused on what could be enabled by linking Milwaukee and Indianapolis to Chicago via high speed rail. The rationale in Europe is often about replacing air on short distance, high density travel corridors with rail for environmental reasons. Rail has worked in places like Europe and Asia, but the conditions in the United States are very different. To me, the goal is economic growth for our cities, and helping them to achieve success and broad based prosperity in a 21st century economy that will be very different from the 20th. I did try to offer two examples of where rail would accomplish this with regards to linking Chicago to Milwaukee and Indianapolis – the labor force benefits and the sub-division of labor benefits.
High speed trains, slow speed trains, bus, local transit, street cars, regional rail, national rail, overnight rail – the MWHSRA is in favor of all of them. If you are traveling from Detroit to Minneapolis, are you likely to endure a multi-hour rail journey to Chicago, transfer, and take another multi-hour train to Minneapolis? One implication of this model is that it eliminates the need to terminate all traffic at Chicago Union Station, which is a benefit I’ll explain later. Again, the drive time is much closer to the true door to door time than the flight or train time only is to the journey times for those modes. Selected other cities could be selected where we have reason to believe there might be some benefits. In most cases, if we want to accomplish something meaningful, it involves significantly higher level of service than envisioned in the current proposals. Keep in mind what attracts riders to the system: competitiveness in terms of cost, end to end journey time, and quality of experience. To repeat again, a high speed rail system can’t be positioned simply as an environmentally friendly substitute for what we already do today.
Indiana has a reputation for conservatism, but it is actually on the leading edge of practice in many respects. This starts the process of determining if those corridors are worth it, and provides some information on potential through routing of traffic to Chicago. Articulate the basis of value, find out what you have to do to get it, decide if there is a willingness to do so, and look at the ROI. You get much more bang for your buck upgrading the segments close to the terminals than you do the already fast segments in the middle. The Milwaukee Road line used by this service has well-patronized Metra service and is also used by freight trains.
I believe the Glenview stop should be relocated to Lake-Cook Rd., where the Shuttle Bug service will connect it to the many area employers. Also, a new terrain route can bypass all the towns the existing lines pass through, so those Main Streets don’t have high speed trains blowing through them and all the attendant noise and danger and such.
The route could be single tracked with passing sidings or double tracked as the need warrants.
Then the passenger service uses the Indianapolis Line tracks west to the Crawfordsville Sub crossing (near Country Club Rd), and uses a newly constructed second track along that route for a few miles to north of Brownsburg again.

We cut over on our new terrain route into Illinois and use the Illinois Central tracks into a downtown terminal at Millenium Station.
But the good news is that with hourly service, you only need to squeeze one or at most two trains through during each peak period. It would require concessions on multi-mode intergration by the FRA and a host of other things. Even 10,000 would be fine – the largest vanity publisher, PublishAmerica, can barely handle anything over 1,000, and topped at 5,200.
We've burned through an enormous amount of cash in roughly a half century of spending on roads and airports.
What we have are pathetic excuses for corridors that are balkanized, archaic, and have a Paul Bunyan-sized piper handing us a bill for fifty (50) years of neglect. Renn is a Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and an opinion-leading urban analyst, writer, and speaker on a mission to help America’s cities thrive and find sustainable success in the 21st century.
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There’s a lobbying organization pushing it called the Midwest High Speed Rail Association.
It is treated as a self evident good backed up by only rather generic arguments and appeals. If Detroit were better connected to Chicago, one could imagine Detroit having a better reason for existing. Immediately you see the political nature of such a construct and the key challenge to ever implementing something that achieves real benefits. There’s probably some of this, especially novelty, leisure, and perhaps student type travel.
The MWHSRA supports using corridor appropriate technology, which is right in line with the above. How many of those towns are going to be excited about super-fast trains barreling through at 110MPH, particularly if they don’t stop there? It’s based on an extended labor force model and enhanced hierarchical subdivision of labor. This doesn’t necessarily mean spending a lot of money, but it does mean more than bare bones. There is no way that states and local governments are going to be able to pay for this, so it has to be a majority federally funded program.
Major Moves was a very creative way to fund the highway program and only a few places have done anything like it. There is $9 billion for high speed rail in the stimulus and Indiana isn’t getting any of it because it has nothing to spend any of it on. This is in contrast to say Milwaukee where there is a already a 79MPH rated double-track line between the two cities. The respective governors and mayors would charter a feasibility study and tier one EIS for the corridor. Actually, if there’s a logical hub in this system, meaning a traffic interchange point, then it is Indianapolis not Chicago. This is a route that I think, given the distance, is perfect for the incremental improvement to existing rail technology approach preferred by the MWHSRA. Though I do think the middle segment north of Rondout probably could be upgraded to 110MPH operations fairly easily.
One problem is the A-2 interlocking where the Milwaukee Road trains cross the Union Pacific lines on the near west side at grade. The Siemens trains are already working in Spain at the high service levels I mentioned previously. There are two lines extending from downtown to the west, the double-tracked CSX Indianapolis Line to St. Among other things, there is a project called CREATE that proposes spending $2.5 billion to relieve Chicago rail bottlenecks. Nothing about the amount of auto dependence in Kentucky or Tennessee says that Chicago-Detroit HSR won’t be successful. I would be afraid to read an HONEST report on historical spending on mobility (roads, rail, water, air) because the numbers might be enough to make me puke. A collection of Gauge Layouts at the London Festival of Railway Palace sit railroad Exhibition.
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But the problem with the Midwest is that far too much of it is slowly dying economically and hasn’t adapted to the global economy.
We can’t predict what new things it will be leveraged for, but we know it is a disruptive technology. Amtrak survives today because it maximizes the number of states and Congressional districts in which it offers service. What’s more, this implies that we should study each route separately, to identify the pros and cons and specifics of each in terms of the benefits, technologies, etc. But what this means in practice is that for the routes shown in purple and in green, existing railroad tracks would be upgraded to support 110MPH, non-electrified service on lines shared with freight. Virtually no city in the proposed Midwest system will have times like this other than Milwaukee and Indy. This means #1 Milwaukee, which is already starting to function as a sort of part of the Chicago economy.
In Spain, the high speed rail network promises arrival within 5 minutes of the scheduled time or your fare is refunded. It’s about being very rider focused and adopting a hospitality industry type mindset. I’d say something like hourly service would be preferred, including at least one late night train for people departing after attending an evening event. We need a new federal authority to own the capital stock and oversee the operations of the system. First, I believe we need to figure out how to create political demand behind the routes that make sense, not rely on progressing randomly on projects of unknown quality just because there’s some people who like them.
Given the MWHSRA approach of incremental improvements, focusing on cities where there is already a decent quality line in place makes sense.
This would also have top level sponsorship from President Obama’s Office of Urban Affairs as well as involvement from the FRA.
All traffic from the southeast should be aggregated in Indianapolis in order to proceed to Chicago. Wisconsin has already invested in station upgrades on the Hiawatha line, so I’m sure the governor and mayor would be all in favor here. In this case, the poor routing and condition of the current line more or less takes the inferior upgrade existing approach off the table. By all means have a bake-off on the vendor, but I would suggest that EMU versus a TGV-style separate power is better.
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So we should look to justify rail based on tangible economic benefits we hope to achieve, sustainable competitive advantage we can create with it, and solid mobility based reasons people will ride it.
It’s not just whether or not you can convince someone to take a train instead of a plane or auto. While there is some interconnect traffic, I don’t believe that is the basis of justification for the route. The idea seems to be that we want high speed rail, so however we have to define high speed rail or however we have to structure deployment of the system to get there is the way we should go. Most cities with successful high speed rail service also have excellent ground transport once you arrive. The lack of train frequency is a big limitation, for example, on the existing Hiawatha service to Milwaukee. Amtrak’s brand in most places is terrible and the politics around it have been poisoned.
For example, we should have maximum flexibility to run light European style trainsets without having 100% dedicated trackage.
In Indianapolis, it can take the community leadership a while to come to consensus about something, but once they do, watch out. This would include significant involvement from the business leadership of both cities to make sure the business case is there.
I’d suggest a similar effort to Indianapolis here to focus on how to use rail to drive economic growth and benefits, and to flesh out the technology a bit. Metra is well aware of the problems here and anything that improves this situation could also dramatically better commuter service. I think it is reasonable to ask for some cooperation on passenger rail in return for this large investment of public funds that benefits their network. It is easy to see how one of these could be given over exclusively to high speed operation, at least outside of rush hour, enabling a very rapid terminal approach.
Passenger rail in this country has long been in the position of Oliver Twist – namely getting laughed at when asking for a second helping of slop.
Now think back to our transcontinental railroads and how they were lured into their herculean labors.
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Unlike with local rail transit systems, where there is often significant opposition rooted in tax policy, I don’t see a lot of organized opposition to high speed rail. However, it’s not realistic to expect everyone to take transit, so rental car facilities should be included at the station with very easy access.
I believe some level of operating subsidy would be required, just like with most transit systems. Why would we want to saddle our brand new state of the art high speed rail system with Amtrak’s old school operating practices, antiquated work rules, and legacy costs like retiree pensions? Similarly, high speed rail is for large urban centers and perhaps a very limited number of places in between. Perhaps President Obama could establish a high speed rail program within the Office of Urban Affairs to ride herd on the FRA and make sure regulatory red tape doesn’t kill the program. But we should avoid structuring this with traditional railroad operating practices that date to the 19th century and equally avoid the civil service type structure of 30 years to retirement with a defined benefit system for life. Rather, it’s about spending a relatively small amount of money to do planning studies and environmental work, and building consensus around a solution that can be implemented.
Once the armada is in formation, Indianapolis is a city that almost invariably accomplishes what it sets out to do.
If the industrial siding could be upgraded, freight could be diverted to it, then the remaining segment to Brownsburg could be double tracked. Similarly, the internet has generated huge benefits for some, but has also been an enabler of offshoring that put a lot of people out of work. One, 110MPH service is the fastest the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) allows you to go and still maintain grade crossings. With slower speed terminal approaches, there is no way you are going to get less than 3.5 hours on these lines, probably worse. Indeed, if you can get the trip time to 90 minutes, you start to see some very interesting opportunities for game changing interaction.
And while you can get grand visions almost anyplace, if you want to get something done, call Mitch Daniels.
Even with the feds picking up 80%, that’s still around $800 million in local matching funds for construction. That is, rather than a mesh of point to point lines, you fly everyone to a central location, have them switch planes, then fly to the destination. Two, this, along with using traditional technology, dramatically reduces the cost of the network.
With collection and distribution times on the end, is this going to be competitive with air travel?
The new Indianapolis airport is the all around best in the country, and the most environmentally friendly in the world. If high speed rail takes off or there are major federal dollars behind it, the state is positioned to succeed.
The long overdue departure of Blago means the state of Illinois can finally start engaging seriously at the state level. About the types of game changing things it could enable and the willingness of the respective business communities to invest in making them real. And of course we need to absorb this into the new rail operator, so as not to rely on Amtrak and the subsidies that the state of Wisconsin is currently giving for operations. On the other hand, the $9 billion just approved in the stimulus would have easily paid for this line.
This is very efficient which is why companies like FedEx and UPS make such heavy use of it for freight.
I believe it is theoretically possible to justify point to point links without regards to this. Previously, it was said that this network could be constructed for a little as $1 million per mile. And I don’t believe that this 110MPH network satisfies the objectives of the system as I defined them because the journey times will simply be too long. The Indy Cultural Trail is re-imagining the pedestrian and bicycle experience in a downtown.
And indeed often the debate over things like high speed rail is really just a proxy battle for deeper conflicts of values that we don’t want to talk about openly. I believe it would also look at a system that offered true high speed service with the attributes I laid out above.
It’s always easier to try to justify our position based on purportedly technical criteria rather than to make our case for why our goals and objectives are good in and of themselves. Three, it lends itself to incremental implementation over time, something that I have long supported in many other areas. And I also think we need to be creating policies that are tailored to the unique needs of those places. I think President Obama should fund this via discretionary transportation grants from the stimulus.
Even looking purely technically, is it reasonable to assumed the same results for our system as for Europe’s when the operating characteristics and technology are proposed to be radically different? Incremental deployment reduces risk and gives you speed to value, which can give it a huge surface appeal in this case.

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