Yesterday I had the chance to talk with Rick Harnish, Executive Director of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association. As frequent readers probably know, both Pat and I are big proponents of bringing faster trains in the Midwest. Along with California, it’s currently one of the most promising regions for high-speed rail.
But when TFA praises the Midwestern HSR plan, it’s often because of its proposals to incrementally upgrade existing routes to “high performance rail” 90-110mph standards. Rick made sure to remind me that the true goal of the organization is implementing so-called “European-style” routes that will connect the region’s major cities to Chicago in less than 2.5 hours. High performance routes are necessary, but they’re not the total solution.
It’s an issue of missing the forest for the trees. Rick pointed out that politicians, journalists, and rail advocates often see plans for 90-110mph “high-speed rail” as a huge accomplishment and are losing sight of getting truly fast trains into our largest cities. The problem is often terminology. High-speed rail is an exciting term that has obtained wide usage in the public (the loose federal definition helps). High performance rail? Rapid rail? Not so much.
Of course, the fact that high-speed rail is now such a desirable thing to have mentioned in your political speech or your newspaper is surprising and wonderful, but Rick makes the good point that confusion and low standards are a threat to the radical change we should be striving for.
He said that MWHSRA’s recent successes on incremental speed and service improvements in downstate Illinois had been a recent focus because of the unfriendly federal political climate at the time. But with Obama’s new outlook on rail, he thinks the time is right for a more ambitious proposal that will show the capabilities of true HSR, such as the 220mph Chicago-St. Louis route his organization proposed earlier this summer.
Besides the obvious windfall of funding, a friendly federal executive could have some other rather exciting possibilities. Rick talked about Spain’s Alvia trains, which can run on both the standard gauge Ave lines and the wide gauge track used on Spanish regional rail lines. This means that regional trains can take advantage of the high-speed lines when traveling down a main corridor. And though FRA regulations currently prohibit such a system here, reforms could mean that a 220mph line to St. Louis would also be able to bring cities such as Memphis and New Orleans much closer to Chicago.
It was a good discussion, and thanks to Rick for taking some time out of his schedule to chat. The Midwest High Speed Rail Association clearly has a lot going on these days, with the Chicago-St. Louis route in Illinois, plans for incremental improvements in other states, and goals for well-connected station areas, especially in Chicago. They’re all necessary parts if we want world-class high-speed rail in this country’s future, and in the current favorable climate we have to, as Rick said, “aim high” in our ambitions for better passenger train service.