High-speed rail is a system that serves many destinations, both large and small, by adding new segments of high-speed track to our existing railroad network. High-speed trains take you from your "point A" to your "point B," not just the biggest or most popular destinations.
A successful high-speed rail system:
- Gets you where you're going as fast, or faster, than driving or flying
- Offers very frequent service, such as an easy-to-remember "clock face" schedule where trains leave every hour, on the hour
- Serves many markets and numerous political constituencies
- Offers a variety of service levels, from non-stop express to all-stop commuter, with well-coordinated connections.
Most successful high-speed rail systems around the world are built using the Phased Network Approach, integrating new high-speed tracks with the existing rail network.
What makes high-speed rail successful?
Successful high-speed train systems combine high speeds, high frequencies, high reliability, convenient station locations, competitive prices and comfortable amenities.
Taking a train makes more sense if the travel time is competitive with flying or driving. What exactly "competitive" means depends on the distance and type of trip. The faster the train, the more sensible it is for more people in more places.
For a trip from a small town to a big city, a trip time comparable to driving is sufficient, especially if trains are reliable, frequent and comfortable.
For trips between two major metros, travel to the train station must be taken into account. If your starting or ending points are far from the city center, the train trip itself must be faster to make up for the time required to get to the station. For most trips in the Midwest, such as Chicago to St. Louis or Chicago to Minneapolis, this means the train trip must be 3 hours or less.
High speeds alone do not make an effective passenger rail network. The train needs to depart when you’re ready to go. For big cities, this means trains should depart every hour. In smaller towns, you need at least four trains each day. Time spent waiting for the train is perceived as part of the trip time, so more frequent trains effectively reduce travel times.
A variety of departures throughout the day makes the train useful for different types of trips. Business travelers may need to leave early in the morning or late in the evening, while leisure travelers probably want to ride in the middle of the day. Frequent trains also make it easier to connect with other trains, planes and buses.
Higher speeds allow for higher frequencies, because the same number of trains and crews can make more trips over the course of the day.
The train is only an attractive option if it arrives and departs when you expect it to. Luckily, the same investments that allow higher speeds and frequencies also make trains more reliable.
Trains can often proceed safely through weather that grounds air traffic and brings highways to a halt.
The same train can serve stations in a dense downtown, a leafy suburb or a rural town, putting you much closer to your actual starting or ending point than the airport on the edge of town.
Price and amenities
Trains offer more space (and time) to relax, work or socialize. Just like planes, a train can offer both low-cost seating and first-class accommodations.
Successful high-speed trains connect with other forms of transportation: local trains and buses, intercity buses, and major airports.
How do we build successful high-speed rail?
High-speed rail systems around the world provide 50 years of valuable lessons for the Midwest. Most successful high-speed systems use the Phased Network Approach: building new segments of dedicated high-speed lines that connect to the existing railroad network. Modern, high-performance trains travel very fast (125 to 200 mph, or faster) on these new lines, then transition seamlessly to the conventional tracks to finish their journey.
By integrating the new with the old, a single high-speed segment allows faster travel to and from a variety of destinations. As each new segment is built, the network gets incrementally faster and broader. We don’t have to wait for an entirely new network to be built to start enjoying the benefits. (This is one of the critical flaws of maglev and hyperloop.)
Our interstate highway system, which complemented our existing road network, and was funded and built in the same incremental manner.
A high-speed rail network doesn't happen overnight. It's built in segments that connect to and enhance our existing rail network.
Getting faster and more frequent trains to places like Cincinnati, Louisville, Bloomington and Muncie doesn't mean waiting until we can build high-speed track to all those towns. Instead, we start with one targeted investment, like a high-speed line from Chicago to Indianapolis. Trains cover that distance at 200+ mph, then connect to our existing rail network to finish their journey.
Over time, these branch lines are also upgraded to allow higher speeds and more frequent trains. With a network like this, funding a high-speed trunk line through Illinois and Indiana receives political support from Ohio and Kentucky.
In the Midwest and around the United States, we limit ourself to thinking about rail service as primarily between two cities, or as a single chain of cities in a corridor, often limited to a single state.
This narrow evaluation of market segments makes it difficult to design new infrastructure that serves multiple purposes, as one link in a web-like network. As a result, many potential markets and political constituencies are missed, and it's impossible to reach the necessary threshold of political support to build high-speed lines.
The Phased Network Approach combines new high-speed lines with existing railroads and feeder buses to offer a variety of service across a regional network.
- A comprehensive, detailed business plan for a regional high-speed rail network. The Midwest High Speed Rail Association has begun the research necessary to craft this plan.
- CrossRail Chicago: Chicago is the hub of the Midwest’s high-speed rail network, and it needs a high-volume, dedicated passenger line. Luckily, we can do this by upgrading existing tracks.
- New segments of new high-speed track that connect to and enhance our existing railroad network.
- Upgrades to existing track to allow more trains and faster trains.
- A variety of services, from non-stop express trains to all-stop commuter trains, that take advantage of the interconnected network to offer mobility between cities big and small throughout the Midwest.
- Modern, comfortable, safe trains that connect seamlessly from high-speed lines to existing track.
- Policy changes to enable broader-based planning and funding, as well as better cooperation with the freight railroads that own most of our nation’s tracks.
Illinois is upgrading its conventional tracks from Chicago to St. Louis to increase speeds from 79 mph to 110 mph. This is a good start, and will reduce the trip time from five and a half hours to two and a half. Annual ridership is expected to nearly double from 660,000 to almost 1.1 million.
We can do much better, though. Chicago to St. Louis is 280 miles, about the same distance as Paris to Lyon, or Madrid to Sevilla. New high-speed tracks between these cities have revolutionized travel. With hourly TGV and AVE trains making the trip in less than two and a half hours, ridership soared.
A University of Illinois study suggests that offering equivalent hourly, 220 mph service from Chicago to St. Louis would attract nearly 10 million riders, compared to the 1 million expected with 110 mph trains. In effect, traveling twice as fast makes the train useful for 10 times as many people.
The benefits would extend beyond Chicago or St. Louis: trips to intermediate destinations, as well as those continuing to places like Kansas City or Milwaukee, would also take advantage of the 220 mph line.
Reaching these speeds reliably and safely requires building new electrified, high-speed lines that are dedicated to passenger trains and completely separated from roads and freight trains. Read more about the type of tracks required to allow trains to travel at 200+ mph.
Our white paper goes into depth on the Phased Network Approach, including examples from around the world.
The Phased Network Approach white paper was produced in partnership with the North American Railway Foundation.
What needs to change?
Building Midwest high-speed rail with the Phased Network Approach requires that we change some of the long-standing policy assumptions that have hampered passenger rail in the United States.
Today, high-speed rail and conventional passenger rail are seen as two separate things. Instead, we should think of high-speed rail as an evolution of the same infrastructure and practices that have helped railroads build our country for the last 200 years.
The financing and institutions needed to build segments of high-speed line are largely in place. Funding will come when there is a belief that enough people will benefit from the system. From a business perspective, it needs to be demonstrated that many people will ride the trains. From a political perspective, a diverse range of constituents—and their elected officals—need to see the value.
We need a new approach to planning that will represent more riders and constituents. Private railroads, as both the primary supplier and a powerful constituency, need a more productive financial partnership. And, we need new rolling stock to add new service and lower operating costs on existing service.
Transportation planners at all levels need to change their planning approaches and look at broad networks, rather than individual routes. This comprehensive view is necessary to serve as many people as possible on an interconnected network of new high-speed lines, existing branch lines and other modes like buses and ride share.
Look beyond city pairs
Today, planning, funding, and promotion of passenger rail service in the U.S. is preoccupied with pairs of cities. By restricting planning and modeling to two cities, or a corridor of cities along a single line, we ignore large markets of potential travelers that could be connecting from other parts of a network. Can we justify building a high-speed line between Chicago and Indianapolis for only the riders between those two cities? Probably not. But once we include travelers from Milwaukee and Kalamazoo passing through Chicago and Indy to destinations like Cincinnati and Louisville, we start to get a critical mass of riders, political support, and funding.
This limited thinking stems from established planning practices surrounding the dominant transportation systems in the U.S.: highways and air travel. These practices are focused on facilities—an individual stretch of road, or a single airport—with little attention to the broader network. While there may be detailed traffic counts for each segment, there is little to no information on where people are traveling to and why. Planning models assume that demand will continue to grow and that funds will be available for construction. These models often conveniently forget to account for the ongoing maintenance costs.
As a result, there is no precedent and little incentive for transportation planners in the U.S. to think about passenger rail systems as networks.
Planning and funding our railroad network through a snarl of disconnected committees and agencies makes it difficult to build the broad-based constituency needed to properly invest in high-speed rail. Where we should be combining markets we are instead splintering them.
American railroad planning is split between four types of service: daily work commutes, intercity trips under 750 miles, intercity trips over 750 miles, and freight. Even though the lines between these types of passengers are blurry, and these trains share the same track, the planning and funding for each happens separately.
With this division, the demand models used in planning often ignore the multiple types of riders a single train may serve: people may ride a commuter train for non-work purposes, while others commute on longer-distance regional trains. They also assume conservative ridership growth and thus limited available funding.
The Federal Railroad Administration has taken a first step in the right direction by leading multi-state planning sessions in four regions, including the Midwest. The Midwest High Speed Rail Association's business plan will complement and enhance this effort. CrossRail Chicago, which involves multiple markets, agencies and funding streams, would be an ideal test case for the Midwest. Meanwhile, California is creating its first regional master plan, a draft of which is expected in 2017, and which could serve as a template for a Midwest plan.
Unlike Europe and Asia, most of the rail infrastructure in the U.S. is privately owned. Amtrak, a quasi-government entity, and publicly-owned commuter railroads must negotiate with privately-owned railroads for use of their lines. Current policies and incentives have encouraged the railroads to reduce track capacity to its barest minimum. Most lines longer have sufficient track capacity to operate frequent passenger trains at competitive speeds.
Even with new, publicly-owned high-speed lines, achieving broad network coverage will require extensive use of private freight lines. We need a new arrangement between governments and railroads that gives railroads incentives to build and maintain passenger-grade trackage and to be proactive with potential service improvements that could increase passenger rail market share. The new bargain should persuade railroads to become advocates for increased government funding, just as highway contractors lobby strenuously for public investment in roads.
We need new policies that make operating passenger trains profitable for the railroads so that they will invest in the infrastructure needed to run them.
There are several strategies, many of which have been proven successful on individual routes in various states:
- Increase the rate per train mile
- Give the host railroad a share of the revenue increase
- Make incentive payments route-specific
- Reduce property taxes on railroads hosting passenger service
- Provide direct capital support for track work
- Provide more support for highway grade crossing separations
- Employ a dedicated track maintenance gang
- Use the right type of train equipment and keep station stops short
A train’s locomotives and coaches affect every aspect of service delivery: travel time, safety, operating costs, ridership and revenue. U.S. passenger trains have not changed much since the 1950s. Meanwhile, train designs have evolved in other parts of the world.
The United States needs to learn from overseas experience and update its passenger train fleet to modern equipment that can deliver high performance not only on dedicated high-speed track, but also on existing and sometimes rough freight track. That would include all trains, not just ultra-fast trains running exclusively on high-speed lines. Even on older freight track, regional routes would be better served by modern equipment that can help reduce travel time.