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Followup: Was Cecil wrong to claim high-speed rail between Chicago and St. Louis makes no sense?
February 11, 2010

Dear Cecil:

I'm surprised at you! Your column on high-speed rail showed little of the care or deep investigation that we've come to expect from the Straight Dope. I think you overlooked two things that would probably change your analysis of high-speed trains in the midwest.

1. You let Robert Samuelson's assertion that the central U.S. is too sparsely settled to support high speed rail go unchecked. You can run a few numbers for yourself that give lie to that assumption. The St. Louis-Chicago route is a useful comparison to the first TGV line in France, Paris-Lyon. Let's check the numbers.

Chicago metro population: 8.1 million
St. Louis metro population: 2.8 million
Paris metro population: 11.6 million
Lyon metro population: 1.4 million

Chicago-St. Louis total populations: 10.9 million
Paris-Lyon total populations (today): 13.0 million

St. Louis-Chicago distance: 260 miles
Paris-Lyon distance: 246 miles

Chicago-St. Louis comes off a little worse, but not much. (Also, keep in mind that both Paris and Lyon had lower populations 30 years ago when the TGV was being designed and built.) But the TGV has been a runaway success for France. Even a line that was half as successful would still be a win for the Midwest. The density along this route is, in fact, comparable to that of highly successful high-speed lines elsewhere, Robert Samuelson be damned.

2. You don't factor in the cost of doing nothing for intercity transportation. Neither O'Hare nor Midway can absorb much excess capacity; O'Hare is already notorious for delays and congestion. A high-speed line (or better yet, multiple lines to different cities) would relieve pressure from our airports. In fact, airlines could cut back short-haul flights in favor of more long-haul ones, leaving short-haul service to trains. Sure, you could build another airport (like Peotone), but for the money invested you might as well improve the trains. Money has to be spent
— is it better going to roads, airports, or trains? I love cars and planes, but my money's on the last.

— Benjamin Recchie, Chicago

Cecil replies:

You'll excuse my not getting back to you sooner, Ben, but I figured I'd wait till the funding for the first high-speed rail projects was announced. Word came down a couple weeks ago, and sure enough, the Chicago-St. Louis route was earmarked for $1.1 billion. Trains will operate at a top speed of 110 MPH, half the 220 MPH high-speed rail advocates say is needed for truly transformational change. So we all agree the billion dollars will be wasted. What I'm out to demonstrate today is that money spent on 220 MPH trains would be wasted too — and God bless you, you've thrown me a softball that's going to simplify the job.

Comparing Chicago-St. Louis to Paris-Lyon — I'm guessing you got the idea from this web page — is one of those absurd exercises that demonstrates how little grasp HSR buffs have of the transportation realities. In fact, the two pairs of cities are only superficially similar.

Paris and Lyon are much more closely linked than Chicago and St. Louis. They're the largest cities in France and the capitals of the wealthiest regions. Lyon is France's culinary capital and a major business and tourist destination. Even before high-speed rail, Paris-Lyon was the most heavily traveled corridor in France.  The French national railway system began planning a high-speed line following the success of Japanese bullet trains because the existing rail route was approaching capacity. Operating at 168 MPH, the TGV Sud-Est cut rail travel time between Paris and Lyon from 4½ hours to 2. In 1982, its first full year of operation, the line carried 6 million passengers and by 1990 was carrying 19 million. As of 1996, the TGV Sud-Est was carrying 72 percent of all traffic between the two cities (see page 5 of this document), whether by airplane, auto, bus, or rail.

Chicago and St. Louis have nowhere near as close a relationship. The Chicago-St. Louis route ranks 68th on the list of busiest U.S. air corridors. A study conducted for the Midwest High Speed Rail Association (MHSRA) estimates annual traffic between the two cities by all modes — airplane, auto, bus, and rail — is less than 3 million trips (see Table 5). My back-of-an-envelope calculation suggests total traffic between Paris and Lyon by all modes is more than eight times higher than traffic between Chicago and St. Louis.

(The MHSRA study, it should be said, assumes a Chicago-St. Louis high-speed line would make intermediate stops, and that total traffic in the corridor is about 9.5 million trips, but we'll take up that contention later.)

The other big difference between Chicago-St. Louis and Paris-Lyon is in their physical layout. Both French towns have densely populated cores and heavily traveled subway systems that connect to the downtown TGV terminal. The U.S. cities are much more thinly populated with lower transit ridership:

City Central City Population City Area
(sq. mi.)
Daily City Transit Riders
Paris 2,176,243 38.6 56,321 4.5 million2
Lyon 472,330 18.5 25,151 708,0002
Chicago 2,853,114 227.2 12,558 1.7 million3
St. Louis 370,900 66 5,600 173,0004
1Paris and Lyon population given for central-city commune; metropolitan areas are much larger. 2Metro (subway) only. 3CTA bus and rail. 4Bistate Development Agency bus and rail.

Paris and Lyon are ideally suited to rail — they have dense concentrations of potential riders in the urban core and excellent local transit to funnel those riders into the railroad terminals. Private auto travel, in contrast, is impractical in central Paris and none too easy in Lyon (see page 106 of this book). In both cities, the airports are far from the city center — 9 and 14 miles in the case of Paris, 12 miles for Lyon. As a result, rail is the fastest method of travel:

Travel Times Between
Paris and Lyon City Centers

Rail 2 hours
Air1 2 hours 40 minutes
Road 5-6 hours
1Includes 1 hour 10 minute flight plus 45-minute
trip from airport to city center at both ends

Nobody can seriously claim the same would be true of a Chicago-St. Louis high-speed rail route. Unlike their compact French counterparts, both U.S. cities are spread out. In much of the Chicago area, it takes as long to get to Union Station as it does to O'Hare, and I venture to say the situation is similar in St. Louis. Since the flight time from Chicago to St. Louis is a little over an hour whereas a high-speed train would take two hours, the door-to-door travel time for most riders would be shorter by air. Why would anyone switch to rail?

Fact is, even high-speed rail's promoters don't think Chicago-St. Louis service would be much like the TGV. For one thing, unlike the Paris-Lyon route, midwestern high-speed trains would have to make intermediate stops to generate enough traffic. Here's a ridership projection from the MHSRA's study (see Table 8):

City Pairs Current Amtrak Projected HSR
Chicago Kankakee 5,223 63,840
Chicago Champaign 100,668 305,436
Chicago Decatur 0 124,497
Chicago Springfield 97,835 238,480
Chicago St. Louis 119,950 564,650
Other city pairs 14,387 80,736
Total 337,263 1,422,278

As you can see, there's an element of fantasy here:

  • Sixty percent of the traffic would come not from the big cities at either end but from the modest-sized towns in between.

  • Rail ridership from Chicago to St. Louis would supposedly quadruple, mostly at the expense of air travel, even though the rail trip would still be slower.

  • There's no rail service now between Chicago and Decatur (population 108,000), but as soon as some starts, more people would go there than currently take the train to St. Louis, which has a metro area more than 20 times as large.

  • Rail ridership from Chicago to Champaign would triple, even though with transit time at either end (I make this trip often), you'd be lucky to save 30 minutes door to door, assuming there was a train scheduled when you wanted to go. 

Which brings us to one of the fundamental problems of midwestern high speed rail. Even if the optimistic projections above panned out, traffic would be less than 10 percent of Paris-Lyon ridership. A big attraction of the TGV is that trains leave every half hour. A Chicago-St. Louis route would never support that level of service, and wouldn't offer either the convenience of a car or the speed of a plane.  

As for your last point, Ben, about relieving congestion at airports — come now. Surely you understand the futility of spending billions to slightly lower air traffic at one pair of towns. 

Look, I'm not some right-wing ideologue. I like trains as much as the next guy. But we need to be practical. Does high-speed rail makes sense in France? You can see that it does. Here? We might wish it were otherwise, but no.   

— Cecil Adams
Photo by Pat O'Neil

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