May 19, 2024

Build High Speed Rail in the Midwest


Since 1996, nine states in the American Midwest have been gradually inching forward on a proposal to establish a 3,000-mile high speed train network linking 100 of the region’s big and small cities. Chicago would serve as the hub of the The Midwest Regional Rail System. Spokes would include Detroit, Indianapolis, Minneapolis, St. Louis, Columbus, Des Moines, and many other large cities served by trains capable of traveling 110 mph, which would make the travel time and ticket prices downtown to downtown more competitive than on an airplane.  In 2004, a feasibility study found that purchasing the 63 train sets needed to operate the system would cost $1.1 billion, and upgrading the existing tracks to accomodate high speed rail would cost a little more than $2 million a mile or $6.6 billion. The expense of building the system would be 80 percent federal and 20 percent

In essence, for the same cost as building less than 120 miles of new Interstate freeway, the Midwest could design, construct, and operate a 21st Century passenger rail network that would make the region’s transportation system competitive with that of western Europe. Moreover, the feasibility study predicted that the system would generate so much passenger traffic, over 10 million riders a year, that annual revenue by 2014 ($528 million) would exceed the operating and maintenance expense ($453 million). 

The Midwest Regional Rail System represents what is arguably the most economically, environmentally, technically, and culturally sound public investment under discussion in the nine–state region. But for more than a decade it’s been almost entirely just that, a discussion. No surprise. The barrier that prevents the idea from doing much more than creep forward is money. Neither the Federal Railroad Administration, nor any of the Midwest states have $700 million a year laying around for passenger rail in the Midwest. When it comes to big transportation investments, the region and the Federal government are still wedded to energy-wasting, environment-damaging, culturally dislocating highway construction. 

Proponents of the regional high speed rail network, particularly the departments of transportaton in Ohio and Wisconsin, are not giving up. This month, the Wisconsin DOT published a reader-friendly economic analysis that takes into account the systems’ Mode Shift benefits. The study by the Frederick, Maryland-based Transportation Economics Management Systems found the system would reduce energy use and global climate change emissions, conserve land, and improve the ability of cities to design new communities and job centers around train stops. The system would generate 15,000 jobs a year during the decade of construction, and produce more than 57,000 related permanent jobs in the region, said the study’s authors. The high-speed network also would add $22.2 biilion in new economic activity. Almost $5 billion of that figure comes from transit-oriented development around stations.  In other words, the Midwest Regional Rail System could produce a convenient, efficient, job-producing passenger rail network that replaces the slower and less robust Amtrak system, and prepares the country’s heartland to speed out of the 20th century. 

Judging from how Americans are flocking to trains, and developers are surrounding station stops with new transit-oriented housing and business construction, the Midwest is likely to be just as  eager to invite high speed rail into its midst. Texas is considering a high-speed rail system that would link San Antonio to Ft. Worth and Dallas, and Killeen and Temple to Houston.  Southern California is experiencing record ridership on its rail lines between Los Angeles and San Diego. The Boston to Washington corridor continues to attract ever larger numbers of riders.

Last month I was in Salt Lake City for the New York Times and found ample evidence of the market’s embrace of rail transportation and transit-focused development. More than $1 billion in new housing and retail development is planned or under construction around the Salt Lake Valle’s rail stops.  Salt Lake City and its closest suburbs in 1999 finished the $520 million, 19-mile, 23-station TRAX system, which carries more than 55,000 riders a day, well ahead of ridership projections. Voters have also repeatedly passed sales tax increases, including one approved last November, to spend $2.5 billion more in the next decade to complete 26 additional miles of light rail, 88 miles of heavy commuter rail line and nearly 40 extra station stops. The only American metropolitan area that is building more regional rapid transit capacity is Denver, which is constructing a 151-mile system.

Last year, Amtrak ridership reached a record 69,000 riders a day on 300 trains. The greatest growth rates occurred among the 23 short-distance routes where states contribute money to Amtrak and dictate routes. Of the 11 routes that saw the fastest increase in ridership, three were in the Midwest, including the Blue Water train that links Chicago to Michigan (10.9 percent increase), the Chicago to St. Louis train (8.3 percent) and the Hiawatha that ties Illinois to Wisconsin (10.5 percent).

Summed up: High speed passenger rail is a smart investment for this century. Every candidate running for statewide office, and every presidential candidate that campaigns in the delegate-rich Midwest ought to be asked their position on constructing a regional high speed rail network. The Midwest Regional Rail System, more than any highway, needs to be built.   


22 thoughts on “Build High Speed Rail in the Midwest

  1. I like this a lot on its own, and what makes it even better is it provides another compelling reason to bolster local public transportation alternatives in many of the destination cities like my hometown, Cincinnati.

  2. Well done op-ed on high-speed rail. This is an essential transportation investment that we (as a region and a nation) must make if we are to preserve our mobility, grow our economy (and jobs) and truly reduce our consumption of oil and address the issues of air quality and global warming.

  3. Thanks for publishing the cost figures in terms of building rail vs. road. This certainly helps my arguments. What I’d like to know about them is roughly how many tracks would this $20M per mile build. I hope they’re talking at least four tracks across in most areas, with exterior tracks at stations, giving the system flexibility to support both high speed intercity and commuter rail.

    If the network begins being built, I’d hope that the Feds, Maryland, and Pennsylvania could be convinced to join in and help establish HSR along the Capitol Limited line to offer an HSR alternative to the midwest from the East Coast.

  4. In 2001 Myself and Andy Andres won the Smithsonian Institue Advanced Transportation Award for our design and white paper concept of highspeed light rail to serve the state of Michigan. this also included the Upper Peninusla..yes the entire state! As not only an advanced transportation caoncept, but a study in lowering the impact we have on the environment that we the travelling public have have everyday.

    This plan incorporated the rejuvination of state and municipally owned rail corridors and the laying of new, state of the art light rail system.
    We realized do to the wide rights-of-way, you can be on the jogging trail that once was the domain of commerace all over the state and still have room for a high speed rail to wiz buy all un emcumbered and unbothered.

    The corridors also led us to see that new emergin “hubbs” of commerace and tourism could be realized. When you look at the state you see the growth areas and then the areas eveyone would like to be if it wasn’t such a long drive after 5:pm on a Friday evening. Realizing a destination of Marquette from the Detroit area would only be a 2 1/2 hr jaunt instead of the 7 that it turns into. Done through direct linking to master hubs and never changing a train or a car along the way. The concept became quite simple when you looked at the state of Michigan and saw that most destinations were lineal from most major urban and many popular rural points.

    By hubbing at places like Lansing, Mt Pleasant, Galylord and then Mackinaw City… shuttled across the bridge to St ignace as another destination hub and then on to Marquette as an example destination, or vise versa. We saw that the areas once only noted as places on map and yet starving for some contact with outside world and a slice of tourism dollars, (or any dollars for that matter), would be new points of exploration, commerce and creation of new emerging micro-economies along the way.

    When you can jump on a high speed point to point rail system and be in say Ontanogon in 3 hours from Traverse City or 5 or less from Detroit; your tourism/expendable dollars just went a much longer way in the enjoyment of a weekend get away. The revolving return quotient of that money within the state as a whole has just grown expotentially. As those that hop on and take their “weekend-vacation” farther away from a traditional 4hr drive radius to what would have been an eight or nine hour trek, the same in reverse happens as those wanting to enjoy the diversity away from their under 5,000 in size town. We have created a whole new vacation, wekend-getaway-new economy paradigm.

    As for the technology that will get you there…. The train: is mix of mag-lev propulsion and regenerative onboard energy. Using the forward motion and wind created from the train itself. On-board turbines on the roof of the engine car will capture and re-generate power into the grid/propulsion nodes on the rails. The trains magnetic induction, or repelling factor, compliments by turning the magnetic force into an electrical conduction that makes energy as you go. Not a pure perpetual motion machine, but very very close in the terms of energy derived from its use.

    Once at your destination, your trek will continue to be low impact when you load your gear in electric ‘compound’ propulsion vehicles. Okasy, a car or truck. Readily available at the terminal thru a regular rental agency Or one that you have left or leased for the year to be there when you need it. When not in use others are “sharing” the ride. Kind of like the time share condo idea of the present day. These vehicles are more of a midsize type and get a long range charge from their onboard refractory for making hydrogen and powering your fuel cell. Which also doubles as your campsite gen/set power supply if you are taking to the woods or camp grounds for the weekend or week, The need for larger combersome vehicles is not needed since most of use travel within a reasonable distance ( 10 to 15 miles) of our eventual destination point.
    However you have the power saupply and resouse to go out long range adventuring if you choose to do so.

    This is just a brief smattering of the plan that was noted worthy by the Smithsonian a few short years ago. The design boards and our concept platform made sense then.. It’s as fresh a concept and now more plausible than ever before.

    Towns like Houghton, Sidnaw, Cedar and Alpena have a renewed purpose on the weekends. And the locals that may bitch about all the “fudgies” in town are headed in the other direction buying Tiger caps, being inspired by the DIA or having acold one near the waterfront in Grand Haven. Or discovering that Northport is a quick jaunt to someplace slow and fun.

  5. Love the detail in that last comment. We’re working hard in Detroit and Grand Rapids to establish the civic will to build new rail systems. Check out and search “regional rapid transit” with the quotation marks included and youll see that Grand Rapids has really embraced a street car concept and Detroit, what’s new, is having trouble getting its mind out of the front seat. Keith

  6. Great post and important summary. A reminder that we can easily afford to re-invent ourselves as a forward-looking and industrious people if we choose to do so.

    However, I will say, you can’t have high-speed trains running alongside jogging paths. Even a pokey trolley is a significant safety risk, and high-speed trains generate considerable wind blast and suction effects.

  7. Serial Catowner, your post makes me imagine a Trails to Rails organization. Talk about an uproar… 🙂

  8. Great piece by R. Mervau; sounds like the dynamic duo or Mervau and Andres need to be on some planning boards and/or be the concept, design and planners. I love the forward thinking. As to Serial Catowner, you can have both on the same rights-of-ways, there is enough room and trails to rails is not that bad if we begin acting now. You can always move a bike path here and there. But the train corridors are established. Lets use them.. Great post R.M.

  9. Agree with R. Mervau and Mr. Catlin. The ability to make this happen exists now. We truly need to move forward on this subject. Other areas of the country have such fine transportation connections. But here in the mid-west, and Michigan in general we seem so far behind the curve.

  10. Nolan,
    When it comes to Amtrak, Michigan is doing okay. We have service from Chicago to Detroit and Port Huron, and from Chicago to Grand Rapids, and several dozen cities between all three destinations. When it comes to rapid transit we’re years behind and each day that passes lose ground to the roughly 30 American metropllitan regions that have invested in regional rapid transit systems since the late 1980s. Denver is building a 151-mile system, Salt Lake City, a 133-mile system. See my piece on Salt Lake City light rail development on Thanks for writing, Keith

  11. Why not an elevated approach with even faster trains, ala France and Japan? Could not these trains run along current interstate routes? If trains could carry the cars of the people as well, would that not eliminate the rental approach at the terminals? This would make the trains more like current ferries, except more efficient.

  12. Mdd:
    Don’t know how this costs out. Seems like we have existing corridors in the United States, those that are active and those that are remnant from the 19th and 20th centuries, that make it a lot easier (and probably less expensive) to operate fast trains on the ground. France’s trains operate on ground-level tracks, for instance. But maybe there’s an engineer out there that can give us an answer. Best, Keith

  13. This is exactly what I expected to find out after reading the title Build High Speed Rail in the Midwest. Thanks for informative article

  14. Reading some of the above

    R. Mervau Says:

    “As for the technology that will get you there…. The train: is mix of mag-lev propulsion and regenerative onboard energy. Using the forward motion and wind created from the train itself. On-board turbines on the roof of the engine car will capture and re-generate power into the grid/propulsion nodes on the rails. The trains magnetic induction, or repelling factor, compliments by turning the magnetic force into an electrical conduction that makes energy as you go. Not a pure perpetual motion machine, but very very close in the terms of energy derived from its use.”

    Wind created – use turbines to generate … what ? drag?
    Part of the need for energy is to overcome wind resistance.
    This is a major part of the energy consumed by … cars.
    Rolling resistance is not all that great, but wind resistance is.

    Electrical conduction making energy … double huh?
    Where is the orginal energy coming from ?
    A power plant
    Coal – I would hope not, but likely.

    From all of the nonsense in this post, it would be better to just stay put, read a book
    I’d suggest Hiawatha

    As for your electric ‘compound’ propulsion vehicles at your destination
    There will be a fleet of dozens of these, and a like number of passengers on the train.
    They will all want to same thing at the same time.
    When the train doesn’t run, they will sit waiting.

  15. I have to admit, I was laughing out loud by the time I got to the part about how making Marquette ‘only’ five hours away from Detroit would encourage tourism.

    I like Marquette, and aside from the fact that it would ruin the town, it should be a tourist draw like Reno.

    But it never will be.

  16. Well, and this is just my own tastes, if I lived in Marquette I would essentially be on vacation. But that’s just since the internet and big-screen tv changed the face of entertainment. Since I got well settled in out in the woods I just don’t feel like going to the city the way I used to. Most rural people have a sunk cost in a vehicle, but OTOH, who wants to take it to the city? That’s where bad things happen to good cars.

    Maybe a little confusion here about high speed rail. First, in France, high speed is around 170, with the eventual goal of upgrading to 225.

    To do this, you need a dedicated right-of-way (ROW). A passenger train averaging 150 mph can’t share track with freight traffic. The track needs to be very straight with mild grades, and quite a bit of noise is created so it needs to be away from most towns but connect with enough to provide ridership (the classic problem).

    The track also needs to be entirely grade-separated. Because America always had many crossings at grade, old ROW that’s now in the rail-to-trail bank usually won’t work for TGV.

    However, because almost all passenger trains need to run on their own track if they want to stay on schedule, building a new ROW is not a dealbreaker. When you’re getting ten times as many passenger-miles-per-gallon, and you have a problem like global warming, you save money in the long run by doing the right thing.

    AFAIK, all the existing Amtrak locos could run at 92 mph today if the FRA let them, so a target of 110 mph should be easily do-able on a new ROW. My guess is that “incremental” attempts to share track with freight will eventually be replaced with larger investments building new ROW. It’s the right thing to do.

  17. Serial

    Big screen and Internet – right
    We live “rural” and the “Entertainment” factor is important (esp in Dec-Marc)
    Wife got me Apple iTV for my birthday (G), otherwise Netflix (talk about broadband)

    Good analysis on rail, and my perception is urban corridors, not Detroit to Marquette!
    As for need for straight track and mild grades, I’d add high quality rail and welds and gentle turns (banked). Turns may be more of an issue than grade in Michigan.

    Interstates built, I believe, for about 80MPH traffic, so not too far off in terms of bends. Note that roadbeds have often not been kept up to 80+MPH quality.

    TGV and the like in Europe works because of lower level of auto ownership and, in general, smaller cars, combined with shorter distances between destinations.

  18. I think one of the big goals for trains in the US would be to knock out the 300-mile air hop. The short flights are expensive, dangerous, and clog airports with small commuter craft. Because trains can go to the city centers, they can beat the air journey on time alone, even up to 400-500 miles.

    Just about everything under the sun has been tried in terms of making trains go around curves and up and down hills. Any discussion of this in conjunction with the Midwest must call to mind the Air Line.

    The Air Line was a dream of the interurban era, so persuasive that over a period of 20 years people from all over the region and the US invested in it.

    The idea was that the Air Line would be perfectly straight and level, from the midwest to NYC (or somesuch), and thus able to achieve speeds over 100 mph, and incredibly short travel times.

    Construction was actually begun at the western end, but as anyone who has driven through Ohio or Indiana knows, making a straight level road there involves an incredible amount of cut and fill. Almost all the money was spent building an embankment to cross one valley.

    The irony here is that the electric trains they planned to use, with Sprague’s multiple-unit controller, easily handle fairly stiff grades. In SF the Muni runs up one grade that just about makes you dizzy to look at it. They spent their money solving a problem they didn’t have.

    Just one of a thousand stories from the Railroad City.

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