Conference next week will include update on a promising regional plan

August 01, 2017

Earlier this year, the FRA began a Midwest Regional Rail Planning Study. This effort is exciting because it breaks free of the narrow route-based or corridor-based planning models we're used to. Instead, this study is taking a big-picture, network-based approach. With Chicago as a hub, this study is evaluating the thousands of variations of a network that will connect the entire Midwest.

Using a model called CONNECT, it evaluates what trip times and frequency of service are needed to shift a significant portion of travel from driving and flying. With this high-level, comprehensive plan, individual projects can then be identified and prioritized. This is what we're calling for with our Phased Network Approach, and we plan on doing additional, more specific research to complement the FRA's study.

This new study largely aligns with our assumptions about what is necessary for true high-speed rail: high speeds and high frequencies on dedicated passenger tracks. The FRA's effort defines a "core express" level of service on dedicated tracks with top speeds in excess of 150 mph, and average speeds of at least 110 mph.

The next notch down is "regional" service on existing freight tracks, with average speeds from 75 to 110 mph. This is an overly optimistic assumption about what is possible on freight tracks, at least given current conditions. Even with our recommendations about how to sweeten the deal for freight railroads, top speeds on shared track cannot reliably exceed 90 mph, which implies an average of 65 or 70 mph.

Finally, the study is also tackling the governance problem we've identified: railroad planning today must go through a snarl of disconnected committees and agencies. The study aims to produce a 40-year strategic framework to streamline planning, construction and operation across the various states and other levels of government.

Those attending the Midwest Rail Conference next week in Kalamazoo can look forward to an update on the study and a preview of the group's next workshop. There's also an option to call in to the technical session, but an advance RSVP is required.

Last week at Midwest High Speed Rail

While traveling in the Seattle area, we checked out the progress of the Point Defiance bypass, which will re-route Amtrak Cascades service onto a more direct line shared with Sounder commuter trains. While the old line was scenic, it was slow and unreliable. Not only was it shared with freight traffic, it was often closed by washouts and rockslides. A new station in Tacoma will make it easy to connect between intercity trains, commuter trains, light rail and buses.

While there, we enjoyed a smooth, quiet and comfortable ride on a Talgo Series 8 train, assembled in Milwaukee for the Cascades service. Compared to our aging Amtrak equipment in the midwest, it was like a train from the future, and it made it clear how badly we need modern train equipment here immediately.

Washington state is studying the feasibility of true high-speed rail from Portland to Vancouver through Seattle, and the study is funded in part by Microsoft.

Articles we enjoyed

As a court ruling makes California High-Speed Rail vulnerable to a litany of environmental suits, China is tunneling high-speed rail under the Great Wall and Forbes discovers the pleasures of France's new high-speed extenstion to Bordeaux. Students in the U.K. can now get a degree in high-speed rail, in anticipation of the workforce that will be needed to build Britain's second high-speed line.

We're going to Italy!

We won't be publishing any blog updates for the next few weeks, as we'll be out doing some summer exploring, including a trip to ride high-speed trains in Italy! You can follow us on Facebook or Twitter for dispatches from our adventures.