Trains For America

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Interview with Midwest HSR’s Rick Harnish, discussing true Midwestern HSR, Obama paradigm shift

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.

Filed under: Passenger Rail Politics, Regional USA Passenger Rail, United States High Speed Rail

10 Responses

  1. Wil S says:

    Any idea what the times would be for a train running from memphis to chicago at 150mph? With obvious stops about 5 mins each for towns.

  2. Rick Harnish & the Midwest HSR have had their act together for some time and it shows that “the vision thing” is an important, really crucial, component to successful big changes. Perhaps, if Amtrak moved from the cloistered halls of Washington, DC to the empty offices of Chicago’s Union Station, some of the reality of this nation’s rail passenger needs would rub off on the Board and senior staff.

  3. Logan Nash says:

    Wil: Rick had an off-the-cuff number, but I didn’t write it down and can’t for the life of me remember what it was. And I think 150mph for the Memphis-St. Louis leg of the trip wouldn’t be feasible, as it would be running on conventional (hopefully upgraded) track. It’s all a pipe dream right now anyway, albeit a very exciting one.

  4. Woody says:

    Illinois has been a leader in improving passenger rail, give them credit for that. Actually, the Chicago-Detroit route has much more potential than the Chicago-St Louis route, because of the greater population of the Detroit metro area, and the string of small cities en route — including Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, Jackson, and Ann Arbor — where rail could capture near 100% market share on some city pairings.

    But Illinois controls almost all the ROW to St Louis, while it has only a small piece of the ROW to Detroit. And Indiana, which has a section of it too, has shown no interest at all in supporting passenger rail.

    That dumped the Michigan project onto underfunded Amtrak and the depressed State of Michigan. They’ve been gradually upgrading a 100-mile stretch of Amtrak-owned track, but it’s not enough to slice much time off the timetable between the big cities.

    Now Michigan has applied for $830 million from the $4 B funds for HSR to upgrade the rest of the route and on to Pontiac. I’m sure Michigan will not get the $830 million in this “ask” but they might get enough funds to cut an hour out of the schedule. Then by adding a few more frequencies, the incremental improvements could result in ridership doubling or more.

    Again, Illinois showed how that works, when the state paid to add two more departures to the exisiting three a day between Chicago and St Louis, and traffic immediately doubled.

    Of course, Amrak suffers a terrible shortage of passenger cars. We need a new order for hundreds, better for thousands, of new cars to expand service on new routes and by increasing frequencies. Then when lines like Chicago-St Louis or Chicago-Detroit are upgraded to electrified, true high-speed rail and need all-new specialized trains, the rolling stock that has been used on those routes can cascade on to other developing routes.

    What these incremental improvements can do in the short term is to build ridership and thereby demonstrate the case for passenger rail, as well as building political support from the new riders and everyone who they tell about their train trips.

    So I don’t see a conflict as yet between the near-term ‘good’ of incremental improvements of existing lines using current equipment and the future ‘better’ of true, European-style, high-speed rail.

  5. Wil S says:

    Sometimes I just wish that some wealthy multibillionaire would say F-it ill build my own. You know like at the mid point of the industrial revolution. I some times wonder why that is not feasible.

  6. Deacon says:

    5. Wil S: I’ve wondered the same thing Wil.

    The only reason I can come up with that might be a big block in the road is the one of right-of-way/Eminent Domain.

    The solution I see could be the government saying/doing something to the effect of – We have this right of way that needs rail infrastructure upgrades or complete new infrastructure, Private investors/companies can lease the right of way for a minimum period, let say 20 years at $5 per track foot adjusted to inflation after the first year for the following 19 years of the lease (Similar to the lease agreement of the Clarian health people mover with the city of Indy), build the infrastructure and develop the areas surrounding. With the option of renewing the lease at the end of the 20 year period.

    The 20 year period will give the feasibilty studies a time period to work with and the business a schedule to prove said feasibilty and eventually turn a profit of the service and transit orientated development. Richard Branson had the idea for the systems in the UK he currently has under lease for his Virgin Pendolino service.

  7. “F-it, build my own.”

    That’s how the midwest got most of its interurbans. But for the nimby-ism of the rich residents, Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, would have been the end of the Milwaukee Electric’s line that got as far as Burlington. There’s a reason for those power lines along the right of way of the proposed extension of the Skokie Swift to Old Orchard. Insull’s United Utilities bought a power line corridor also suitable for an interurban. The McKinley interests that put together Illinois Traction (later Terminal) had power company ties as well.

    I found a post at The Overhead Wire noting that the Public Utility Holding Company Act had been repealed. Perhaps there is potential for rail corridors not tied to the freight carriers.

  8. BruceMcF says:

    The big question is network economies versus economies of speed. Network economies argue for rolling out the full Midwest and Ohio hubs as rapidly as possible to 110mph, then upgrading them in place to 125mph. Economies of speed argue for focusing on the best corridors for 220mph and building those corridors.

    But notice that there is NO CONFLICT BETWEEN THE TWO. Fully rolled out 110mph Midwest and Ohio Hubs could BOTH be the basis for upgrade in place AND be the platform for incremental roll-out of 220mph corridors.

    That is, build the 220mph corridors as the French has done, which is to say, build a segment, then start running services, and continue the services to their ultimate destination on the main electric express interurban system. As additional segments are finished, the service gets incrementally faster, and of course there is no need to wait for all segments to be finished to start building ridership.

    What is critical for this process to occur is for the FRA to define a new Rapid Rail regulatory standard for 79mph-125mph RAPID RAIL ONLY paths, including, of course, acceleration, braking, axle load and other standards that regular heavy freight rail need not comply with.

    So instead of the fiction of one national network, which is violated every time a local rail system or a regional HSR system needs to do so, permit the development of an alternate system of paths.

    Instead of the current “compliant and non-compliant”, there would be three tiers … Heavy Rail compliant, Rapid Rail compliant, and Express HSR compliant.

    If a particular train is both Heavy Rail Compliant AND Rapid Rail Compliant, then it can run on both … that would be the likely norm for the 110mph Emerging HSR corridors.

    This supports the 220mph Express HSR running out onto the portions of the Rapid Rail network that have been electrified, as well as supporting sharing of rail infrastructure to access central urban areas by Express HSR, Regional HSR, Rapid Rail Compliant Emerging HSR, and Rapid Rail Compliant local commuter rail.

  9. Woody says:

    BruceMcF — I think that the first thing is to get better terms than the Obama-Hood team slapped on the white boards, back in April, was it. You are the only one I know who seems conversant with Emerging HSR, Regional, Express HSR. Well, What The F… Can’t we just use the original French instead? And frankly, when you speak the lingo, I have a hard time following along.

    In English wouldn’t we say something like Standard Rail (like Amtrak now), Rapid Rail, and High-Speed Rail. Oh, I guess they think that they have to have four categories? Regular, faster, even faster, and fastest would be too clear and simple, I guess. Bureaucratic minds demand more slots and new incomprehensible acronyms and unmemorable terms. How about Standard, Diesel Rapid, Electrified Rapid, Very High Speed. No? Oh please, I’d rather read timetables in French and I don’t read a step of French.

    Anyway, if LaHood and Obama insist on this gobbledygook terminology I think I will simply have to drop out of the discussion. It’s all a mess of sludge words to me.

    I admire you for being able to converse in this foreign language. It’s a rare skill.

  10. Nathanael says:

    MWHSR’s proposed St. Louis-Chicago 220 mph route is eminently feasible. It involves building parallel tracks next to the CN (former Illinois Central) route out from Chicago. It’s particularly smart because that route needs upgraded service for the New Orleans service and the Champaign/Carbondale services — and it funnels into exclusive passenger tracks in Chicago which would also be used for the Michigan services and all the East Coast services. It leverages the most out of a single really fast section of corridor.

    “But notice that there is NO CONFLICT BETWEEN THE TWO. Fully rolled out 110mph Midwest and Ohio Hubs could BOTH be the basis for upgrade in place AND be the platform for incremental roll-out of 220mph corridors.”

    Absolutely. If the regulatory hurdles can be fixed, there’s no reason we can’t have fast track sections whereever we can get them.

    I really, really wish someone would put the money into the Union Station-Grand Crossing fast passenger tracks. A fast pair of tracks on that route would benefit everything from St. Louis service to Holland, MI service, with a few other rearrangements.

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