The Need for High-speed rail in the Midwest
Between January 2005 and January 2006, the federal Department of Transportation recorded 9,805 flights from Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport (MSP) to O’Hare International Airport in Chicago (ORD), a distance of 334 miles (Bureau of Transportation Statistics, 2007). While air and automobile travel dominate the regional market of the Midwest, an intercity high-speed rail (HSR) service with speeds of 200kmh/125mph or greater could feasibly compete with or substitute for regional air carriers and automobiles in fixed travel corridors with distances of up to 650 kilometers/400 miles or less (Gimpel & Harrison, 1997). This paper describes the reasons for renewed interest in passenger rail in the upper Midwest, the history of passenger rail service in the region, and the plans currently under consideration for implementing high-speed rail in the upper Midwest.
A Point of CrisisIn a speech to the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, Skinner (2000) stated that a major crisis is needed to galvanize the public and force a policy change in transportation. Since 2000, two major crises, the destruction of the World Trade Center by terrorists who hijacked airplanes and Hurricane Katrina, have made our need for new transportation options apparent.
In the closing chapter of his book: New Departures: Rethinking Rail Passenger Policy in the Twenty-First Century, Anthony Perl (2002) described the effects of September 11th, 2001 on the transportation industry. Immediately after the attacks, all air travel in the United States and Canada was grounded in the hope of preventing any further attacks. Many travelers on the East Coast, stranded from grounded flights, rediscovered the nation’s intercity rail system. Perl writes “For the five days following the attacks, Amtrak’s ridership was up 17 percent to around 80,000 passengers” (p. 265). Perl and others have argued that passenger trains have an important role in developing “a more robust, integrated network that can provide redundancy and multiply the available mobility options” and to not just be a fall back for a “vulnerable air transport network” (p. 266).
The second crisis, Hurricane Katrina, struck New Orleans, Louisiana on August 29, 2005. Hurricane Katrina engaged the USA in a discussion of the impact of unpredictable climate disasters associated with global warming. Writing pre-Katrina, Perl’s (2002) argument that passenger rail adds redundancy to the national transportation systems provides insight into what might have occurred had passenger rail been available as a tool for use in evacuation. Hurricane Katrina crippled Louisiana’s auto infrastructure and prevented large-scale evacuation. If a high-speed rail connection had been in place, in theory, multiple cars could have been brought to Louisiana and people could have been evacuated en masse before the massive flooding began.
The threat of increasing severity of storms associated with global climate change is challenging politicians, business leaders, planners and architects. For example, architects are being challenged to design more storm resilient houses for residents of the upper Midwest (Minneapolis Star Tribune, 2007). The nation was also reminded of the impact winter storms can have on travel when air travel in the northeast was shut down in February 2007 and passengers on JetBlue planes were stranded on runways and airports (Newsday, February 15th, 2007). Railroads are less susceptible to complete shut down due to winter storms (New York Times, January 23rd, 2005) because railroad companies use special trains and chemicals to keep rails clear of ice and snow. Had a more extensive rail system been in place, air passengers could have been transferred or rerouted from New York to other airports for international destinations or intercity rail stations for domestic and regional destinations. However, delays due to severe weather are common across all modes of transportation, including trains. I observed this first hand in November 2006 when a snowstorm significantly lengthened my train trip from Oslo Norway to Stockholm Sweden. Despite delays I was able to reach my destination, which probably would not have happened had I been traveling by air.
Just as our increasingly congested regional highways and other automobile infrastructure have resulted in the familiar experience of “gridlock”, congestion of major regional and international airport infrastructure is resulting in “wing lock”(Harrison, 1995). Billions of dollars would be needed to expand existing infrastructure to accommodate increased flights; new runways, new terminals, and storage facilities. The Rochester Rail Link Feasibility Study (2003) suggests that investment in a high-speed rail line could provide service to regional destinations eliminating the need for regional air carriers and reducing the need for costly airport expansions.
The crises of the early 21st century have pointed out the weaknesses of our transportation system. Improving passenger rail services would provide redundancy to our transportation system.
Current Proposals for High Speed Rail in the United StatesThe current demand for high-speed rail projects in the United States can be partially attributed to the success of high-speed rail in other parts of the world. For example, China completed construction of a Maglev train that runs from Pudong International Airport to Longyang Road station in Shanghai and has been operating at revenue service since January 1st, 2004. China’s Maglev operates at a maximum speed of 430-kmh/267 mph. Alan James states that despite the recent collision involving the Transrapid Maglev at its test facility in Germany, that China’s “exceptional performance (with Maglev) makes it not only the fastest, but also the most reliable transport in daily service on the Earth” (James, 2006). The French Consortium Alstom systems recently unveiled the V150 TGV that achieved a speed record for wheeled rail vehicles in April 2007 reaching 574.8kmh/357 mph (Bernard, 2007) making it the fastest conventional railed vehicle in the world. Through the success of the demonstration, Alstom hopes to break into new markets such as Argentina, Asia, and the United States. While the Japanese JR-Maglev train still holds the speed record for non-railed vehicles at 581-kmh/361 mph as of December 2003 (Xinhua News Agency, 2003).
The plan that holds the most promise for the Western regions of the United States has been proposed by the California High-Speed Rail Authority. Their planned system will link major city centers from San Diego to Los Angeles to San Francisco (700 miles) with modern trains traveling at sustained speeds of 220mph/354kmh.
The California High Speed Rail Authority created a video presentation describing the proposed plan. In the video, Quentin L. Kopp, Chairperson of the High Speed Rail Authority, states that with California’s population estimated to reach 50 Million people by 2030, the demand on existing transportation infrastructure will overwhelm and exceed capacity. Fran Florez, the Vice-Chair of the authority, states “there has never been a greater need for this (high speed train)” and that it will be the best way to address the challenges created by a dramatic increase in population. According to Anthony Daniels, the Project Director of the Authority, high-speed rail presents an opportunity to “tie California together, look after our environment” and keep California as the leader in sustainable practices for the 21st Century. Advocates hope to make this project a ballot measure in the 2008 elections.
Support is GrowingThe Hiawatha line, Minnesota’s first light rail line, has been proclaimed across the 7-county metro as a smashing success, exceeding ridership estimates in the first year of operation and spurring redevelopment along the Hiawatha Corridor (Louwagie, 2006). Another major success is the approval of federal funding for the Northstar commuter rail line and the beginning of preliminary engineering for the Central Corridor light rail line. Included with the Central Corridor is the planned restoration of St. Paul’s Union Depot that was awarded $50 Million over the next 5 years in the federal transportation bill (Ramsey County Regional Rail Authority, 2003). These local rail transportation projects have renewed interest in regional rail including high-speed. On April 24th, 2007 Lori Sturdevant, a columnist of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, wrote an editorial describing two bonding bills passing through the Minnesota legislature. Both bills include $2 Million to plan for high-speed rail service between St. Paul’s Union Depot and Chicago’s Union Station.
-Representative Jim Oberstar, photo from MPR, speaking to the State Legislature encouraging local funding for transportation projects.Minnesota’s Representative Jim Oberstar, chair of the U.S. House Transportation committee, was quoted in the article stating “that there has never been a better time in 30 years” to seek federal funding for rail passenger renewal in the upper Midwest. Minnesota’s contribution of $2 Million is small compared to those of Wisconsin and Illinois, but according to Oberstar it will show that Minnesota wants to be included in the project. Overall, Minnesota’s expected contribution to the Midwest Regional Rail Initiative (MWRRI) was $325 Million (Sturdevant, 2007). In the article, Sturdevant envisions a spur between the University of Minnesota Twin Cities campus and the Mayo clinic in Rochester, which will be covered in the next section.
Current Plans for High Speed Rail in the MidwestThe Rochester Rail Link Feasibility study
The Rochester Rail Link Feasibility study was commissioned by the Minnesota Department of Transportation and the City of Rochester to evaluate options for a multimodal transportation link between the city of Rochester and Minneapolis St. Paul International Airport. The study, created by the firm Transportation Economics & Management Systems, Inc (TEMS), “focuses on the concept of Highway 52 as a multimodal corridor and a key connector for the 21st Century” (TEMS, 2003, p. 2). In the study, TEMS outlines three options for high-speed service shown below. The speed and class dictate important elements of required infrastructure such as track, signaling systems, and the different equipment options available.
• Maximum commercial speed of 150+ mph (FRA class 8 track) using Gas-turbine trainsets. This option has higher commercial speeds and acceleration rates than diesel electrics. The majority of Amtrak’s existing rolling stock is diesel electric. Gas-turbines have not been widely used due to higher fuel consumption rates. An example of a gas-turbine is the jet train manufactured by Bombardier, a Canadian manufacturer of rolling stock.
-The Jet Train from Bombardier, uses a 3,750 kw gas turbine instead of the overhead caternary. The train was to be the featured trainset of the Florida Overland Express.• Maximum commercial speed of 180+ mph (FRA class 9 track) using electric trainsets. Electric trainsets use either AC or DC electric power fed directly to the train through an overhead wire caternary system. The advantage of electric power is that it provides very high peak power inputs, allowing for rapid acceleration rates and high maximum speeds. The disadvantage is the added capitol and maintenance expenses associated with the power transmission system. Electric trainsets are available from a variety of large manufacturers including Siemens, Alstom and Bombardier.
-The InterCityExpress (ICE) of Deutsche Bahn top speed of 330kmh/205mph. Other examples of electric systems are Amtrak’s Acela, the French TGV, and the Japanese Shinkensen.• Maximum commercial speed of 250+ mph (Maglev) using Magnetic Levitation trainsets. Rather than relying upon steel wheels and rails, Maglev vehicles are magnetically levitated and propelled along their guideways. Currently there are two kinds of magnets; electromagnetic and superconducting. Electromagnetic vehicles have magnets located on the undercarriage and are attracted to reaction rails attached to the guideway, while superconducting magnets interact with conductors embedded in the guideway which creates a magnetic force that levitates the vehicle. Two companies manufacture maglev trainsets; JR maglev, a Japanese company and Transrapid International, a German transportation consortium.
(TEMS, 2003, p. 5-6)
-I never grow tired of this image. It is a modified JR-Maglev trainset in Maroon & Gold paint job including emblem leading to the phrase; "Even Maglev trains love Maroon and Gold" ;-)
One of the advantages of option 1, the 150+ mph technology using gas turbines is that it can run on upgraded but existing infrastructure, allowing for an incremental approach to investment, “while the two higher speeds require new dedicated systems built from the ground up” (TEMS, 2003, p.5).” Options 1 and 2 were projected to be cost effective, returning a cost to benefit ratio of about 1.4, while the maglev option was projected to have a cost benefit ratio of .56, which is less than 1(TEMS, p. 34). The infrastructure costs of maglev are estimated to be $70 million per mile (TEMS, p. 27). This suggests that while maglev may have high ridership and revenues, they are not high enough to offset the higher costs of infrastructure and maintenance associated with maglev’s high tech guideways. Detailed figures from the report and the route alignment can be viewed in the Appendix.
The Midwest Regional Rail Initiative Study
The Midwest Regional Rail Initiative (MWRRI) is a “continuing effort to develop an improved and expanded passenger rail system in the Midwest” (TEMS, 2004, p. 4) The initiative was supported through the cooperation of the nine Midwest states and their Department of Transportation (DOT) offices along with a steering committee of key staff from each state agency and Amtrak. This report updates prior reports describing infrastructure and capital equipment costs as well as ridership and operating costs for the expansion of passenger service in the Midwest.
The MWRRI describes potential passenger rail service between a variety of cities including the Twin Cities and Chicago. In this plan, Chicago would be the hub of increased passenger rail service in the region. The plan suggests that efficiencies in the use of equipment and employees could be achieved by cooperation (between states) and that increased ridership could create opportunities for volume discounts. The potential for improved service with lower costs provides attractive alternatives to current travel options.
The elements of the MWRRS plan are to: use current rail right-of-ways to connect rural, small urban and major metropolitan areas; to introduce modern train equipment operating up to 110 mph, and improve reliability and on-time performance. The MWRRS projects that 13.6 million passengers per year would use this system, which is four times higher than the current level of service delivers (TEMS, 2004, p. 9). A fully implemented system would provide 6 trips per day between the Twin Cities and Chicago. The travel time would be 5 hours and 31 minutes. The route is projected to deliver a positive cost benefit ration of about 1.4. The report assumes that the service would make use of gas turbine technology, which could be replaced by electrification at a later date if ridership is high enough to justify the higher costs. The Federal Railroad Administration estimated in 1997 that a Midwest rail passenger system would provide the highest level of economic benefit associated with rail investment, second only to the Northeast corridor.
Rails Contribution to a Sustainable FutureSustainability “refers to economic development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2007). Tied into this is Sustainable Development- that follows the same principle but emphasizes “using renewable natural resources in a manner that does not eliminate or degrade them- by making greater use, for example, of solar and geothermal energy and recycled materials” (Knox & Marston 2004, p. 258).
Currently in cities around the world, the focus of sustainable development is on buildings and the companies that create them. Rating systems, such as the U.S. Green Building Councils (USGBC) Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) guidelines, are designed to “promote a whole-building approach to sustainability by recognizing performance in five key areas of human and environmental health: sustainable site development, water savings, energy efficiency, materials selection, and indoor environmental quality.” The benefits of a LEED certified building are:
• Lower operating costs and increased asset value
• Provide a healthy and comfortable environment for their occupants
• Reduce waste sent to landfills
• Conserve energy and water
• Reduce harmful greenhouse gas emissions
• Qualify for tax rebates, zoning allowances, and other incentives through municipalities
(U.S. Green Building Council, 2007)However, transportation continues to be a major user of energy and contributor to pollution. Sustainable transportation planning contributes to sustainability by “reducing automobile dependence, increasing use of public transit, and encouraging more reliance on nonmotorized modes such as walking and biking” (Bae, 2004, p. 363). In 1991, Congress passed the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA). This Act introduced the sustainability paradigm into transportation planning. ISTEA broadened transportation policy from increasing mobility to addressing the issues of energy consumption, air pollution and economic competitiveness. Next, in 1998, Congress passed the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21). ISTEA and TEA-21 allowed funds that previously would have been allocated to highway construction to be used to develop walkways, bikeways, and public transit. Regional transportation planning agencies gained influence, and public participation was integrated into the transportation planning process of metropolitan planning organizations such as Minnesota’s Metropolitan Council (Hanson, 2004).
Smith (2003) states that a significant environmental advantage of railroads is their ability to run on clean forms of electricity, thus reducing emissions and conserving hydrocarbon fuels. He uses Switzerland as an example where all trains are electric, and 97% of their power comes from renewable hydropower. However, Electrified high-speed rail systems such as the TGV, ICE, and Shinkensen provide incentives for continued investment and development of better renewable energy sources and further reduction of the United States dependence on fossil fuels. Alstom Systems, a major transportation manufacturer and service provider, is joining the green bandwagon as well. One of their latest rolling stock brands, the Coradia Lirex: X-60 commuter train, was manufactured to reduce environmental impacts by being composed of lightweight materials thus reducing energy for movement. In addition, 95% of the material used to manufacture the train cars is recyclable (Alstom, 2004). Since 2005, Sweden’s Transport Company SL has begun to implement the X-60 and steadily replace its current fleet of commuter trains.
Investment in transportation infrastructure presents an opportunity to influence land use patterns in cities and metropolitan areas. In recent years, urban planners and policymakers have looked at rail transportation to achieve “smart growth” or transit-oriented development guidelines that provide higher densities, mixed-use developments, and increased transportation accessibility. Linked to these investments is the promise of economic revitalization for central cities and limiting the effects of “urban sprawl” often characterized by low-density and dispersed land use patterns and associated with the construction of express highways in metropolitan areas (Giuliano, 2004). By locating stops in existing urban areas, high-speed rail provides an opportunity to reconfigure land use patterns surrounding central stations and specific suburban growth areas. High-speed rail can also connect to local transportation systems such as light rail, commuter rail, and bus services creating regional multimodal transportation hubs that ease passenger transfers from regional to local and from one mode to another.
The Sierra Club includes these benefits in its reasons for supporting high-speed rail:
With successful rail renewal in other industrialized nations of the world, passenger train stations are no longer just places to pass through to reach a destination. Rather, stations have become the center of activity for communities; with grand common areas for travelers, opportunities for vendors to set up small shops, and connections to other modes of mass transit in the community (Thorne, 2001). A project that ties into California’s high-speed rail plan is the redevelopment of the San Francisco Transbay Terminal into an intermodal hub for bus and rail systems including the high-speed plan, and a new neighborhood featuring San Francisco’s next super tall skyscraper. Advocates claim that the project has the potential to become the “Grand Central Terminal of the West”. The Transbay Joint Powers Authority (TJPA) hopes to begin construction of phase 1, the transit center, in 2008 and have the entire project complete by 2019 (TJPA, 2007). Plans for Minnesota include an intermodal station for Minneapolis next to the planned Twins Stadium that provides a connection between the Hiawatha line and the Northstar Commuter rail line (Meyer Mohaddes Associates, Inc, 2002) and redevelopment of St. Paul’s Union Depot that was mentioned earlier in the paper.• HSR terminates at convenient downtown stations and also serves carefully selected suburban train stations
• HSR stations strongly encourage the redevelopment of pedestrian & transit-friendly office districts
• HSR stations are often shared with earth-friendly commuter rail trains that serve numerous far-flung suburban points
• HSR stations often feature direct connections with equally earth-friendly urban transit systems
Conclusions and RecommendationsBased upon these findings, high-speed rail is needed in the Upper Midwest to add redundancy to the national transportation system, reduce congestion on our over burdened airports and expressways, limit transportation’s impacts on emissions, and continue to encourage sustainable development in our region’s major Metropolitan Areas.
However, Minnesota should be cautious in its pursuit and implementation of high-speed rail with both the Rochester Rail link (RRL) and the Midwest Regional Rail Initiative (MWRRI). A rail connection should still be considered between Minneapolis International Airport and Rochester. Rochester is the third largest city in Minnesota and home to the Mayo clinic, a major international destination. With high costs and limited land associated with expansion of Minneapolis International Airport, a rail line to Rochester would allow for Rochester to expand its airport facilities while reducing the number of cars on highway 52.
However, rail advocates that hope for Maglev trainsets zooming across Southeastern Minnesota at high speeds (including myself) should not hold their breath. Based upon the cost to benefit ratios for the Rochester Rail Link feasibility study by TEMS in which Maglev was below 1 at .56 (did not break even), Maglev remains an alluring but expensive mode choice with the majority of the cost in the construction of the guideway. However, in a few years if a new study results in a more positive ratio due to lower implementation costs as the technology becomes more readily available then the mode could be considered. However, until such time Maglev and Minnesota does not make financial sense.
For the Midwest Regional Rail Initiative, there are several changes that should be implemented. These include the creation of a high-speed rail authority for the region, the establishment of dedicated passenger rail right-of-way alongside existing transportation corridors, and eventual electrification of the entire network.
Due to the uncertain future of Amtrak despite continued federal subsidies and increasing ridership on specific routes, high-speed rail in the region could potentially be better served by a unified high-speed rail authority with the ability to contract out services such as operations and maintenance but with oversight by the involved states. This would allow the passenger service to be more entrepreneurially focused and limit the amount of annual subsidy.
Currently, Amtrak’s passenger trains share railroad rights-of ways with freight trains. Due to this, passenger trains must yield to passing freight trains that often results in significant delays or worst-case fatal collisions. Due to this interaction, the Federal Rail Administration requires strict weight regulations for crash safety standards. If the Midwest Regional Rail Initiative were to acquire dedicated passenger rail rights-of-way, passenger and freight rail interactions would be reduced if not eliminated completely. This would allow for faster travel times between stations as well as offer a wide variety of lightweight, fast, and energy efficient trainsets. Grade separation from roads could also be tied into dedicated passenger right of ways.
Lastly, railroad rights-of-way should be electrified through renewable energy sources allowing for rolling stock that draws power directly through overhead caternary systems rather than use gas-turbine trainsets that can only reach speeds up to 150 mph. Electrified trainsets possess the power to sustain high speeds of up to 350 mph, a speed that a few years ago could only be reached with maglev systems.
Almost all of these recommendations result in higher capital and maintenance costs, however, some of these changes would allow for true passenger rail renewal and allow the United States and Upper Midwest to catch up to what the rest of the industrialized world has enjoyed for 40 years. Come the revolution, let us bring high-speed rail to the Midwest.
And so there you have it, I thought about adding in Modifiable links to make it shorter, or to have people jump to or through different sections, but I am afraid I don't have the HTML know how to do it.
Man, 3 AM, time to get to bed.
Nighters Blogoshpere and hopefully these trains will be rolling soon.