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Does high speed rail in the midwest make any sense?
October 22, 2009

Dear Cecil:

A few years ago I somehow got on the mailing list for the Midwest High Speed Rail Association, which is promoting a network of Japanese-style bullet trains fanning out from Chicago to places like Detroit, St. Louis, and the Twin Cities. This seemed like a railroad buff's fantasy until President Obama included funding for it in the economic stimulus package he sent to Congress earlier this year. The latest blast from the MHSRA includes a link to an article by economist Robert Samuelson, who thinks the whole thing is a boondoggle. What's the story, Cecil? I'm all for green technology, but the notion of spending billions to shave an hour or two off the train trip to Cleveland seems goofy. Does high speed rail make any sense?

— Bob Y., Evanston


Cecil replies:

Two questions we need to deal with here. The first is whether what currently passes for high speed rail in the U.S. — which really isn't all that fast — makes any sense. We'll get to that in a minute. The more interesting subject is whether truly fast trains, the kind seen in Japan or Europe, would work in this country, and in our region in particular. The Midwest High Speed Rail Association, for example, has proposed a 220 MPH line that would take you from Chicago to St. Louis in just two hours. Here's the best spin I can put on the idea: it's not completely crazy. That doesn't mean it's entirely rational. I'm not convinced genuinely high speed rail would be worth the investment anywhere in the midwest, but if I had to pick one corridor where it seemed even remotely plausible, Chicago to St. Louis wouldn't be it.

Before we get into that, let's indulge in that railroad buff's dream for a moment.

If you're a Chicagoan, you have to love high speed rail, even if you could care less about trains. With its central location, dense existing rail network, and dominant position in the regional economy, Chicago is at the heart of every plan I've seen for midwestern high speed rail (the map above shows a typical scheme; the Federal Railroad Administration has a similar one). The web of lines radiating away in all directions looks like a giant CTA map. It's easy to see high speed rail in just that light, as the basis for a sort of super-Chicago, a metacity with its tentacles spread out over eight states.

The system's backers put the issue more diplomatically, but clearly they've had similar thoughts. On a Web page entitled "Reinventing the Midwest Economy," the Midwest High Speed Rail Association offers this vision:

[T]he Midwestern economy is failing to achieve its potential. Our cities and towns are too far apart to function together as an efficient economic unit. Drive times are too long and airfares are too high. Only high speed trains can draw our cities into commuting distance, transforming the entire Midwest into a virtual metropolis with more dynamic cities and rural towns, with quick connections to worldwide markets.

The midwest isn't the only part of the country proposed for high speed rail. Regional networks have been touted throughout the U.S. Last summer states submitted nearly 300 applications for their share of high speed rail funding. (The stimulus bill appropriated $8 billion, and Congress is currently considering whether to add at least $1.2 billion more.) The Federal Railroad Administration is expected to award grants this winter.

Few of the lines currently proposed, and none in the midwest, would be considered high speed by world standards. The most ambitious project in Illinois involves upgrading tracks from Chicago to St. Louis to allow trains at operate at up to 110 miles per hour, up from the current top speed of 79 MPH. For comparison, Japan's Shinkansen trains run at speeds up to 186 MPH.

The Chicago-St. Louis scheme has its points. It's mostly within one state, simplifying matters politically, and at $2 billion it's relatively cheap.

But it's no game-changer. It would reduce rail travel time between the two cities from 5½ to 4 hours, which hardly puts St. Louis within commuting distance of Chicago. Here I agree with Rick Harnish, executive director of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association: rail service would have to be much faster to truly transform the midwestern economy. I'm dubious that even 220 MPH trains would fuse Chicago and St. Louis into a virtual metropolis; Milwaukee, only 1½ hours away via Amtrak now, is hardly a Chicago suburb. Still, would slicing rail travel time by close to two-thirds fundamentally change the way Chicago and St. Louis interact? I concede it probably would.

The question is whether the steep investment needed to achieve that transformation can be justified economically. Many think the whole notion of high speed rail in the U.S. is absurd. As you'd expect, the concept has been harshly criticized by conservatives such as Randal O'Toole of the Cato Institute.  But high speed rail has also been attacked by some whose ideological bent is less conspicuous, most prominently Robert Samuelson. His reasons for opposing it are familiar to anyone who's followed this debate in the past: unlike Japan and Europe,  the U.S. is too thinly settled to support an expensive passenger rail system. Given the country's vast distances, air travel is the only practical means of long-distance mass transportation.

Whether the U.S. should invest in high speed trains at all we can debate some other time. The issue before us now is whether it makes any sense here. A recent report from the Brookings Institution, Expect Delays: An Analysis of Air Travel Trends in the United States, suggests that at best just one high speed rail route in the midwest is worth a serious look. 

Mind you, the report doesn't say that in so many words. On the contrary, although it's nominally about the problems of air travel, one of its goals clearly is to build a case for high speed rail. The starting point for that discussion is an analysis of the most heavily traveled air corridors, on the theory that the best places for new rail investment are routes where the planes are already full. Here's an abridged version of the "Top 100 Corridors" for air passenger traffic as computed by Brookings:

Rank City #1 City #2 Distance
10-Yr Chg
1 Miami New York 1,067 8.7 30
2 Los Angeles San Francisco 347 6.3 –18
3 Atlanta Miami 574 5.0 10
4 Chicago New York 733 4.7 –4
5 Atlanta New York 768 4.5 14
6 Los Angeles New York 2,458 4.3 14
7 New York Orlando 955 4.0 39
8 New York London 3,468 3.8 1
9 Las Vegas Los Angeles 229 3.7 –16
10 Los Angeles Phoenix 358 3.4 –10
11 Chicago Los Angeles 1,739 3.3 –4
21 Chicago Denver 892 2.5 –4
24 Chicago Washington 593 2.4 15
30 Atlanta Chicago 598 2.2 –16
31 Chicago San Francisco 1,848 2.2 –9
33 Chicago Miami 1,174 2.1 3
35 Chicago Las Vegas 1,518 2.1 49
36 Boston Chicago 852 2.1 5
39 Chicago Minneapolis-
St. Paul
342 2.0 –10
49 Chicago Philadelphia 673 1.9 55
52 Chicago Phoenix 1,442 1.9 19
53 Chicago Detroit 232 1.8 –24
54 Chicago Dallas-Ft. Worth 800 1.8 –17
59 Detroit New York 500 1.7 –2
65 Chicago Orlando 997 1.6 30
68 Chicago St. Louis 255 1.6 –22
78 Chicago Kansas City 404 1.5 –26
80 Chicago Seattle 1,727 1.5 30
90 Chicago Houston 931 1.4 9
94 Chicago London 3,953 1.4 20
99 Minneapolis-
St. Paul
New York 1,019 1.3 46

Several things to notice:

  • The midwest accounts for 22 of the top 100 air traffic corridors in the U.S. Of these, 20 have an endpoint in Chicago.

  • Only four routes, all originating in Chicago, have both endpoints in the midwest. The four destinations, indicated in bold on the table, are Detroit, Kansas City, Minneapolis-St. Paul, and St. Louis. These are the region's most likely high speed rail corridors.

  • Passenger traffic in all four corridors has declined over the past 10 years, markedly so in three cases: Detroit, Kansas City, and St. Louis.

Here's another table from the Brookings report, this one listing the 10 busiest short-haul air corridors in the U.S., and thus the likeliest candidates for high speed rail. (For longer cross-country routes, even the fastest trains would be so much slower than airplanes that for most travelers they're not a realistic alternative.)

Rank City #1 City #2 Distance
2 Los Angeles San Francisco 347 6.3
9 Las Vegas Los Angeles 229 3.7
10 Los Angeles Phoenix 358 3.4
13 Dallas-Ft. Worth Houston 232 2.9
16 Boston New York 185 2.7
25 New York Washington 222 2.4
32 Los Angeles San Jose 318 2.2
34 Dallas-Ft. Worth San Antonio 248 2.1
39 Chicago Minneapolis-
St. Paul
342 2.0
40 Austin Dallas-Ft. Worth 190 2.0

Boston, New York and Washington already have something approximating high speed rail service ( the Acela Express, capable of up to 150 MPH, although actual speeds are much less). That leaves eight projects. Four have endpoints in Los Angeles, three in Dallas, and one in Chicago. The politicians undoubtedly would want to distribute rail dollars equitably among regions, and Chicago has plenty of clout, so if anyone around here were serious about high speed rail, we could undoubtedly get a Chicago-Twin Cities route on the list. Travel time would still be long — I'd guess close to three hours — so no one can seriously claim the two cities would be drawn within commuting distance. Still, Chicago and Minneapolis-St. Paul are among the midwest's few urban bright spots, and a high speed rail line connecting them arguably makes some sense.

Except for the cost. Using Harvard economist Edward Glaeser's estimate of $50 million a mile, we're talking $17 billion to connect just two major cities plus a few smaller towns en route. It's hard to imagine political support ever materializing for a project on that scale, much less a network of 220 MPH lines connecting Chicago to places like St. Louis or Detroit, where even air traffic is contracting.

Might a few 110 MPH lines might get built? Sure, although the economic impact is likely to be modest. If it were left to me I'd invest Chicago's share of the money in our scandalously underfunded local train system — every indication is that metropolitan Chicago, and the city in particular, will become increasingly dependent on rail for basic commuting. άber-Chicago as a modern Rome where all trains lead is a beautiful vision, but it distracts us from more important things.

— Cecil Adams
Map: Midwest High Speed Rail Association

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