Regional planning study identifies high-speed routes

September 22, 2017

We recently attended the latest gathering of the Midwest Regional Rail Plan. We’re optimistic about this FRA-led process because it’s evaluating opportunities for high-speed and conventional rail across the Midwest in a comprehensive network. Too often, planning studies focus narrowly on a single corridor or geography, missing the cumulative effects that an integrated, connected network offers.

The study’s CONNECT model has broken the Midwest into subregions, each with many different route and network configurations connecting back to the region’s hub in Chicago. The model evaluates the cost and benefits of different speeds and levels of rail service on each segment, from the relatively slow and infrequent service that is often considered normal today, to true high-speed rail with trains every hour traveling at more than 150 mph.

At this point, the study is starting to prioritize certain network and route configurations over others. For instance, the northwest subregion is Chicago to the Twin Cities, plus intermediate destinations throughout Wisconsin and Minnesota. The model concluded the best route is via Milwaukee and Madison, possibly through Rochester, but not through Green Bay or Fond du Lac, which are instead connected by a spur service to Milwaukee. Importantly, the model determined the service must be truly high-speed, making the trip from Chicago to Minneapolis in about 3.5 hours, to be competitive with flying or driving and recoup the most costs. This meshes with our basic assumptions about high-speed rail: it must be truly fast and frequent.

In some cases, the model produces less clear results about one route structure over another. This is where the human element comes into play, and stakeholder input is used to help make decisions the model can’t. For instance, we were surprised to see the model recommend a slower, 4-hour service from Chicago to St. Louis, when true high-speed rail would make it only 2 hours. Midwest High Speed Rail Association will continue to be engaged with the FRA and other stakeholders to address concerns like this.

QLINE Detroit streetcarThe meeting was held in Detroit, and included a presentation about the new QLINE streetcar. Downtown Detroit has definitely come to life in the last five years. Throughout the day, even at night, there were people in the streets, enjoying the benefits of urban life. This success in the core bodes well for the rest of the city and region.

Naturally, what excites us the most is how rail transit is an integral part of Detroit’s plan to grow. QLINE was funded primarily with private and philanthropic money. The businesses and foundations of Detroit felt a streetcar was a good investment for their city, and went all-in on it. Instead of simply laying rails down, the streetcar partnered with the city to do a curb-to-curb rebuild of Woodward Avenue along the 3-mile route: new water and sewers, new electrical and fiber optic, even new street lights. Where the city was unable to fully fund certain parts, the streetcar stepped in. In many ways, it’s a return to the privately-oriented models that originally built most of our nation’s railroads and urban transit systems. It will be interesting to see how QLINE can be a model for other U.S. cities in the years to come.

Detroit photo by Alex Brisbey.

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