It seems that since I graduated from college (10 years ago) there has been talk about high-speed rail across the Midwest. With a network of lines connecting Chicago, Detroit, Indy, Cinci, St. Louis, KC, Milwaukee, and the Twin Cities this would revolutionize travel and bring the Midwest together like a pseudo Europe. Ten years have passed and we are still at the talking stage (maybe some more diagrams and plans have been drawn though). I will admit to this, I love the idea of high-speed rail. However, I am not sure it will become a reality in the next 20 years.
The East Coast has a “high-speed” rail in the Acela rail line that runs between NYC and DC (and sometimes up to Boston). I enjoyed taking the Acela when I needed to go to NYC or Philly – there were no security lines like at the airport, you could use your cell, there were plugs for your laptop, an ample amount of space, and a food car. However, if I would have had to pay out-of-pocket, I don’t think I would have ever chosen that method of travel. It was significantly more expensive than the regular Amtrak, not to mention just simply driving. The issue with the Acela is that it was not really “high-speed” in the way that European or Asian trains are. Due to regulations regarding rail travel and the number of cities that dot the landscape in the East, the train routinely has to slow down and averages less than 80 MPH most of the time.
While the Acela is profitable rail line for Amtrak, one has to wonder if that same financial success would carry over to the Midwest where business travelers are fewer and the distances between metropolitan areas is greater. If the same number of hurdles that occur on the East Coast (such as speed regulations) also pop up when looking at a Midwest rail network, then I don’t see it being feasible. The overall investment to make a true high-speed rail network in the Midwest would be daunting as you would have to, in most cases, lay down new lines to avoid routing through cities and avoid traffic with regular Amtrak traffic and the freight lines.
While there are significant benefits to a high-speed rail network across the Midwest (decreased highway traffic, decreasing air traffic, enabling a higher level of tourism), I do not see the economic costs outweighing the benefits to investors. If the government became involved (as they are with Amtrak) one has to question the validity of spending tax dollars on such a venture when we still are trying to figure out how to pay for the programs we have had in place for years. No, at this point I am going to lump high-speed rail in the Midwest in with electric pickups and free internet – great ideas that are very far down the road.
-Sam the Eagle