Progress of the Midwest High-Speed Rail

June 10, 2011
Last week I was at the US High Speed Rail Association's conference in Chicago where people came together to discuss the progress of HSR development in the Midwest, the U.S. and a look at the international scene.
Last week I was at the US High Speed Rail Association's conference in Chicago where people came together to discuss the progress of HSR development in the Midwest, the U.S. and a look at the international scene. Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) opened the conference stating that better days are ahead and railroad service is just beginning to develop. One of the points he also talked about was how much time senators spend talking about airports and then when you look at the sheer economics, any thing less than 300 miles should be serviced by train. Andy Kunz, president and CEO of US HSR talked about the five serious problems the US faces: peak oil and energy security, climate change, mobility paralysis, failing economy and job loss, and crumbling infrastructure. Transportation is at the root of all five problems he stressed, and that HSR is at the heart of all five solutions. By 2050, the U.S. population will grow the equivalent of adding an entire California, New York, Texas and Florida, Federal Railroad Administrator Joe Szabo said.  "If you think it’s hard to move around now, just wait," he stressed. He also pointed out how California is a good example of not moving, now. And, in just 10 years, 3,000 highway miles and two airports are going to be needed; $100B to maintain the current level of mobility. With some of the highest gas prices and some of the worst congestion, high-speed rail could transform their system. Szabo also made it clear, “We’re not advocating high-speed rail instead of other modes, it’s about improving connections between modes.” During the conference, Governor Quinn announced the partnership between the University of Illinois, the Illinois Department of Transportation and a special advisory group to study the feasibility of 220-mph passenger rail service between Chicago and various cities in the Midwest.  At the conference, he stressed, “We have to have balanced transportation, planes, trains and automobiles.”  He also stated, “Sustainability is indispensable to prosperity in the 21st century.” The Midwest High Speed Rail Association announced the release of a study to define the benefits of building a 220-mph bullet train network on four corridors radiating from Chicago. Siemens sponsored the first step in the initiative, an engineering study conducted by Aecom and an economic impact assessment of the Chicago Metropolitan region conducted by the Economic Development Research Group Inc. As Midwest High Speed Rail Association Executive Director Rick Harnish said, “We know how the trains will perform, we know what the trains will cost and we know what the economic impacts will be.” With state boundaries not matching up with economic boundaries and assets and major universities spread throughout the region, HSR can bring centers closer together to be connected to compete with the global competition. Just looking at the Chicago metro area alone, 220-mph service would add $3.8B in business sales with new visitor spending alone nearly $160M per year. Discussing the concerns of opponents, Armin Kick, director, high speed rail development, Siemens Industry Inc., Mobility Division, stressed that a lot of infrastructure doesn’t make money and asked, “What makes money and what makes sense? A county road doesn’t make money.” Just like with other infrastructure, the government can build it then private companies can run on it and make money, just as they build roads and trucking companies run on it and make money off of it. He also asked, “Do you disregard billions of dollars of economic growth?” The session he moderated stressed that it’s not about whether we can make money or not, it’s about economic development; $3.8B in economic development outweighs the costs. That’s what makes sense, that’s where HSR makes sense. The Rev. Jesse Jackson spoke at the conference and shared some insight from those not directly connected to HSR. He said, “There is a disconnect we need to address. There are allies that belong in this place but they don’t know how they’re connected. Dr. King had a car, so why did he care if Rosa Parks went to the back of a bus? “Because he had a vision to see how he was connected. Most of our allies have a car but they don’t see the connection.” The people that stand to benefit from this have not been aroused, he said. “There are too few of us involved in the fight to make this happen.” He also stated, “We’re struggling against irrational forces. They complain about no jobs, high gas prices, but they don’t want rail. Last week was high-speed rail and now the Mass Transit team is getting ready to head to Boston on Sunday for the American Public Transportation Association’s Rail Conference.  The sessions focus on best practices and lessons learned for all facets of the rail industry, including security, HSR, commuter rail, intercity rail, sustainability and operations. Tuesday from 7:30 -2:00 is the Rail Products & Services Showcase and if you’re there, be sure to stop by our booth to say Hi and to share your thoughts on the industry.