Trains For America

More choices for better transportation

The wrong place to put high-speed rail

airports

I drew it out for everyone.

Conde Nast’s Joe Brancatelli has a few suggestions to Obama about transportation. One of them involves building a high-speed rail network (yep), but he gets something wrong.

What the nation needs is a titanic investment in high-speed, short-haul rail service between heavily populated major cities. What we need is inter-modal solutions that create express rail links between major airports, nearby suburbs and city centers. Recreating the 20th Century Limited between New York and Chicago isn’t the answer. Creating a 21st Century Amtrak that links Chicago’s O’Hare Airport to tens of millions of travelers in Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa and Indiana is.

Okay, I realize that lately some airlines in Europe have actually been supporting HSR and even getting into the biz themselves, like Air France. This is great. What we can’t do, however, is make the mistake of seeing high-speed rail as merely some replacement for short-haul connection flights. Trains [probably] won’t ever be as fast as planes, so it’s critical that we don’t remove from them one of their best advantages over flying: being able to leave and arrive right from the city.

For one thing, this makes things easier for travelers. Airports are generally located in the far-flung fringes of an urban area. The trip to and from the airport after the plane has landed can be long, expensive, and cumbersome for travelers. This is true for drivers and doubly true for users of mass transit. If you’re lucky, the city has a rail transit connection to its airport. If you’re not, get ready to put up with a more confusing bus ride or a pricey cab fare. Even if there is a connection, like the CTA’s Blue Line at O’Hare, those trains are usually neither suited for luggage nor the long suburban distances. It’s much more practical to have our trains arriving and leaving in the cities themselves, where they are well served by local transportation and close to urban amenities and destinations. The UK is looking at having Heathrow be the hub for a national HSR scheme, but Heathrow already has an express rail connection to London, and as part of the plan will be getting an even faster one. I don’t envision the political will ever materializing for something like that in the United States. Transit connections will always be “good enough.”

This also dips into the realm of urban policy. Focusing our tax money on airports will encourage more development in those far-flung suburbs. Conference centers and hotels will thrive out there while struggling in the cities. More subsidized sprawl is the least thing we need when we should be weaning ourselves off of oil and heading towards a greener economy. Missing the forest for the trees is part of what got us into our current transportation mess. We can’t afford to let that happen again.

And the right-of-ways for bringing trains into the city have existed for a long time. Improving these existing links and giving Amtrak the improved capacity is desperately needs should be our first priority. Refocusing our rail system onto the airports is a foolhardy waste of money. A better suggestion for Obama would be to get to work on improving the extensive infrastructure we already have and making it look at least a little bit like it might be the rail system of a first-world country. The Midwest HSR project would, as always, be a very very good place to start.

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Filed under: Travel Woes, United States High Speed Rail, , , ,

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