In contemporary parlance, high-speed rail may be serving the function of the limited trains, without the necessity of trundling through city streets or sharing the elevated with rapid transit cars, generating traffic and enhancing property values to boot.
“The bullet train offers the possibility,” [UCLA economist Matthew] Kahn said, “that they effectively become suburbs of those communities. And become desirable to a subset of people who live there.”Not to count rivets, but Amtrak's trains don't average 150 mph on The Broad Way. There are enough Clockers and Acela Expresses running between New York and Philadelphia to make possible a day of business in one city by a resident of another city. There's also enough Hiawatha service to turn Milwaukee into a suburb of Chicago, even without the 100 mph speeds and 75 minute timings of the 1930s, and some of the wealthier banlieus of Chicago have non-stop service to and from the Loop (Naperville Zephyrs every 20 minutes for two hours each weekday morning, most notably, and the down Elburn 400 just after 5 pm.) In New Jersey, Trenton, Princeton Junction, New Brunswick, and Metuchen enjoy enhanced property values from the presence of New Jersey Transit and its limiteds capable of speeds that don't delay the Acelas and Clockers. Faster service between Cleveland and Chicago: possibly beneficial to property owners in Cleveland, but look for enhanced property values in Toledo or Elkhart and South Bend.
Small cities need to be too far to drive to but too close to fly to the nearest “megacity.” Kahn used Philadelphia as an example. Right now, he said, a trip to New York City takes 80 minutes by high-speed Amtrak, which averages 150 miles per hour.
“If that became a half hour away because of the high-speed rail, I think Philadelphia home prices would jump sharply,” Kahn said. “There’d be much more demand to live there.”
Kahn and his co-author Siqi Zheng found bullet trains unintentionally created new suburbs called “sweet spots” about 60 to 470 miles from mega cities. Bullet trains provide big-city benefits despite the distance without “downsides like high housing costs, overcrowding, or air and water pollution,” Kahn said.
“It really comes down to," Kahn said, "is there a train that moves at 150 miles per hour" and are there good local connections to it? "Then there's certainly some potential there."
For instance, he added, “if the train moved fast enough between Cleveland and Chicago, I think there’d be similar gentrification in Cleveland.”
The same report notes that relatively modest increases in speed and frequency pay off.
In Illinois a portion of Amtrak’s 284-mile corridor linking Chicago and St. Louis is undergoing a $1.1 billion overhaul to bring train speeds up to 110 miles an hour. The Federal Railroad Administration is funding the project. Instead of five-and-a-half hours, passengers will make the trip in four hours.We'll know the Passenger Rail improvements are working when dual-career academic couples will deal simultaneously with Illinois State in Normal and De Paul or Loyola or any of the other universities in Chicago.
Given the Chicago-St. Louis corridor’s speed, Kahn expects cities along the line could experience revitalization of downtowns and add multi-family units near Amtrak stations.
Some of those cities are already seeing benefits.
Normal, Ill., which is about 130 miles from Chicago and 170 miles from St. Louis, received $22 million from the federal government to build a transportation center as a result of plans to upgrade the line. Since then, City Manager Mark Peterson said, development in the uptown area has taken off. A new $80 million conference center sits across the street. A $30 million development near construction will include a hotel, luxury apartments and retail shops.
Peterson said that just “the possibility of high speed rail helped us attract private investment to our central business district. We think we have just scratched the surface on what is the potential economic development implications of being right on that high-speed rail corridor.”
Peterson said corporations may not move in and real estate prices won’t grow until high-speed rail service starts. He predicts Normal will become an attractive place to live for people who work in Chicago but like the “downstate lifestyle.” Or perhaps the high-speed service will attract Chicagoans to commute to work in Normal.
“If I could, I would be buying anything I could get along the corridor,” Peterson said. “There is no question in my mind that property values are going up once this service is up and running.”Regular readers will understand why I added boldface in that closing sentence.
In Lincoln, Ill., about 167 miles from Chicago, 20,000 passengers get on and off every year, according to Mayor Keith Snyder.
In preparation for additional traffic, Lincoln is partnering with the Illinois Department of Transportation to buy and renovate the city’s historic depot.
“It’s going to be a great gateway for people who are coming into town,” Snyder said. With added streetscaping, Snyder hopes it draws passengers downtown to do some shopping or dining or enjoy local entertainment.
Lincoln hasn’t seen a spike in housing construction but Snyder thinks that could happen down the road. On-time performance and better departure times are key in making the line a more reliable form of transportation.
Although enhanced frequency, connectivity, and speed have promise, the expected benefits, whether in Lincoln, or in Brussels, are not guaranteed.
A look across the pond suggests that some of these “model” high-speed rail systems aren’t doing so hot. Consider the Netherlands, which is now dealing with the fallout of its own botched high-speed rail project.I'm going to have to do some research into what went wrong. At such short distances, there's not much reason to put a lot of money into a train that will spend about a third of the journey accelerating to and decelerating from 300 km/h -- and then throw in a few stops in the banlieus.
The Dutch plan began modestly, as an attempt to increase travel speeds between Amsterdam and Brussels, two important cities that are only 127 miles apart. When the system was unveiled in late 2012, however, it immediately became an “utter debacle,” in the words of one labor leader. After less than a month of operation, the service was shut down due to repeated mechanical failures, software malfunctions, and poor maintenance which frequently left passengers stranded in the middle of the route.
If high speed rail isn’t working in one of the most densely populated and affluent corridors on Earth, and if Europeans with decades of experience can’t keep the service running, what does this tell us about California’s chances?That conclusion is also premature, absent further research.
The Cold Spring Shops position, however, is that incremental improvements -- where incremental can mean getting rid of those post-war Interstate Commerce Commission regulations that ended 110 mph running on block-signalled railroads with jointed rail -- will build ridership in such a way that subsequent upgrades to bullet trains make more sense. Although the Elburn 400 or the Naperville Zephyr look slow by European standards, a dependable 35 minutes from Naperville to the Loop, plus a little driving time at one end and a walk on the other end, beats the "convenience" of a commute that's 50 minutes one day, two hours the next, and if it snows ...