19.1.10

TONIGHT'S RAILROAD READING. The four busiest passenger train stations in the midwest are Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Louis, and Normal, Illinois. (Those figures probably reflect only Amtrak loadings: does the new commuter rail service in the Cities call at Midway Station?)

Normal Mayor Chris Koos traveled the approximately 135 miles to Chicago on Friday to participate in a conference that Gov. Pat Quinn called to improve passenger and freight rail operations in Illinois, and to be prepared to get off on a fast start when $8 billion in federal stimulus grants for high-speed rail are awarded to the states sometime before spring.

The meeting offered Koos the opportunity to spread the word about a downtown renewal program in Normal that includes building a modern transportation terminal in the town's central business district and surrounding it with office-residential redevelopment that is designed for people to walk, ride a bus or pedal a bike to where they are going instead of drive a vehicle.

The centerpiece of the Uptown Normal Renewal Plan is a new transportation center that will offer multiple travel choices -- Amtrak on the Lincoln Service and Texas Eagle routes; interstate and regional buses to other Illinois cities as well as destinations in Indiana, Missouri and Iowa; local cabs serving the town as well as the Central Illinois Regional Airport; and shuttle buses to O'Hare International Airport and Midway Airport in Chicago.

A new Marriott hotel and conference center opened late last year about 100 yards from the Amtrak stop. When the transportation center is built, "the walk from the hotel will be 50 yards," Koos said."It gives people the opportunity to come into a community for a conference, get off the train, go to the hotel, spend two or three days in a lively business district and never see a car the whole time," he said.

But the redevelopment program, which was started in 1999, is only about one-third complete. It needs an economic lift that a statewide rail modernization program can help provide, officials said."One hundred ten mile an hour trains would cut the travel time from Normal to Chicago to 1 hour 45 minutes," Koos said. "It's so important to getting us closer to the Chicago region."

That's not much of an improvement on the two hour timings the Gulf Mobile and Ohio's Abraham Lincoln and Alton Limited, which called only at Joliet, offered in 1954. Because much of the potential Bloomington - Normal traffic might originate in the southwestern suburbs, better connections between Metra and the Amtrak service, and more frequent service, will help, particularly if the plan is to provide a network of trains making possible, for example, easier movement between Bloomington and Kalamazoo or South Bend or Milwaukee.

Then comes Paul Kennedy, with more ambitious ideas.
This artery-clogging phenomenon of millions of cars stuck on so-called highways is also to be observed in many other cities across the globe; but that is hardly a consolation. It simply suggests that, as the world’s population rises from around 6.5 billion to around 9 billion by mid-century, existing assumptions about dependency on the automobile will need to change.

The growing difficulties of traveling by air within one’s own country are even more obvious, and were so even before the latest terrorist incident, even before the 9/11 attacks. The challenge of getting to the airport, checking in two hours early, going through security, learning of delays and cancellations, retrieving one’s luggage afterward, then collapsing exhaustedly at one’s destination, seems to rise holiday by holiday, year by year.

So, why not think more ambitiously? And start with some obvious routes, such as Chicago-New York (1,160 kilometers.)? A proper high-speed-train system would give hard-pressed air travelers a real alternative to the car and the plane. It is being done elsewhere. Domestic flights between Hamburg in northern Germany and Munich (612 kilometers) are shriveling because the high-speed trains do it better.
That's an old proposal, perhaps made better by the provision of direct service to Cleveland and Buffalo or Pittsburgh (there is the little problem of the Alleghenies, something that Hamburg - Munich doesn't have to contend with). Professor Kennedy is going the Chicago - New York Electric Air Line better, however, suggesting a five- or six-hour trip, and he sees the utility of such a service in China. The highway congestion is something that matters. But Passenger Rail advocates must understand that railroading, North American style, is the best in the world at hauling goods, something Coyote Blog (via Photon Courier) spells out for his readers.

The US has not been “asleep” — at least the private individuals who drive progress have not. We have had huge revolutions in transportation over the last decades during the same period that European nations were sinking billions of dollars into pretty high-speed passenger rails systems for wealthy business travelers. One such revolution has been containerization, invented here in the US and quickly spreading around the world. Containerization has revolutionized shipping, speeding schedules and reducing costs (and all the while every improvement step was fought by the US and certain local governments). To the extent American businesses are not investing today, it has more to do with regime uncertainty, not knowing what new taxes or restrictions are coming next from Congress, than any lack of vision.

I would argue that the US has the world’s largest commitment to rail where it really matters. But that is what private actors do, make investments that actually make sense rather than just gain one prestige (anyone know the most recent company Warren Buffet has bought?) The greens should be demanding that the world emulate us, rather than the other way around. But the lure of shiny bullet trains and grand passenger concourses will always cause folks like [Huffington Post contributor Joel] Epstein to swoon.

We've been consistent advocates for the freight railroads, and regular readers know the story of containers. We will note, however, that a railroad network capable of moving 618 containers in a 3.5 mile long train at speeds of up to 70 mph is a network with a great deal of potential for moving people. The advantage, however, might be in relatively short trips in metropolitan areas where the expressways are clogged and the cost of additional highway capacity is great, and between medium-sized cities subject to the tender mercies of hub-and-spoke air carriers.

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