High Speed Rail

Sam Newberg - Joe Urban's picture

CNU believes high-quality intercity rail service is part of a complete transportation system, and is bemoaning the election setbacks for high-speed rail, notably in Wisconsin and Ohio. Notable among the press releases from incoming governors in those two states is not that they don’t want the federal money, but that they don’t want the additional burden of rail operations on their state budget. What is lost is the existing burden of operating and maintaining state highways, a much greater cost than the rail operations. Perhaps investing in rail now can lead to savings on roads or other road-related costs later.

The New York Times and USA Today both provide good coverage on the issue of the election and its impact on high-speed rail. Perhaps most interesting is an article in the Infrastructurist. The striking aspect of the Infrastructurist article on high speed rail discusses the opening of high-speed rail between Madrid and Barcelona. It shows, on a quarterly basis, that air traffic declined from 1.2 million passengers to around 700,000 after high speed rail service began.

So let’s look at one of the proposed high-speed rail routes from Chicago now threatened by the recent elections. (The Milwaukee to Madison rail service is but a small link in the connection between Minneapolis and the Twin Cities.) Take the 40 to 45 scheduled flights between Chicago and Minneapolis each day.  At 100 seats per plane and 80% load factor, that is at least 3,000 passengers per day. Hourly high-speed rail service, at least 10 trips per day, between the two cities, in trains with a 400 passenger-train at 70% load factor could nearly offset passenger demand. Conservatively, perhaps a 50% offset. Multiply that with the eight or so cities considering a high-speed rail link to Chicago and you could eliminate perhaps 150 to 200 flights per day at O’Hare, a reduction of nearly 10%.

According to an NPR story in 2009, connecting Detroit, Milwaukee, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Indianapolis, Kansas City, and Des Moines, with Chicago using 110 mile per hour trains would cost $12 billion (faster trains could cost significantly more). Meanwhile, we’re spending $15 billion to expand O’Hare alone, according to the Chicago Tribune. Factor in land use and “the last mile” trips upon each city, and the savings is greater because passengers arrive by train in transit-served downtowns rather than distant suburban locations.


State officials must consider the high costs of roads and airports when considering long term economic development and benefits of high-speed rail as part of a comprehensive transportation system in the future.

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