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MnDOT's high-speed rail vision is worth rallying around

The recent news that the Minnesota Department of Transportation (Mn/DOT) has selected its preferred high-speed rail route connecting the Twin Cities to Chicago is great news for Minnesota businesses and travelers. Mn/DOT’s decision to put high-speed rail down the Mississippi River corridor means Minnesotans could be riding a high-speed rail passenger train to places like Chicago, Detroit and St. Louis within the next 15 years. This is a bold step in the right direction.

For years, local government and business leaders have known that America’s current connections by airlines and automobiles between major regional cities are outdated and inefficient. While the rest of the world invested in new ways to move people and products, our country’s highways and airports became more crowded and continued to crumble.

The facts are just astounding. Today, more than a dozen countries have high-speed rail trains operating, and two-thirds of all high-speed rail trains operate in five countries: France, China, Japan, Germany and Spain. The United States’ only high-speed rail line connects Washington, D.C., to New York City and Boston, and though it only averages 80 miles per hour, it controls 69 percent of the air/rail market between New York and Boston and 53 percent between New York City and Washington, D.C.

China continues to lead the high-speed rail race. Five years ago, high-speed passenger rail accounted for less than 10 percent of China’s rail infrastructure spending. Today, China has dedicated 60 percent of its spending to high-speed rail. Now other countries are following China’s lead.

Turkey, Brazil, others planning projects
Within three years, at least 10 more countries will add high-speed rail lines. In Turkey, work has begun on an ambitious plan to build 358 miles of high-speed rail between Istanbul and Ankara, a distance comparable to the 400-mile Twin Cities to Chicago corridor. The 155 mile per hour train will decrease the travel time between the cities from six hours and 30 minutes to three hours. In Iraq, country officials are looking at connecting Bagdad to Basra by high-speed rail. New high-speed rail projects are planned in Brazil and operating in Russia and South Africa. If the United States doesn’t make an investment in high-speed rail now, the rest of the world will continue to pass us by.

Some in Washington, as well as in St. Paul, say America cannot afford to build a high-speed rail system. Imagine if President Dwight Eisenhower had decided that America could not afford the Interstate Highway System. It took more than 35 years of planning and debating before final approval was given for America’s largest public works project to become a reality. It takes vision and leadership to take an idea as bold as high-speed rail and turn it into a reality.

California moving ahead
While Congress and other states debate the merits of high-speed rail, California is leading with a modern high-speed rail line connecting San Francisco to Los Angeles. The new passenger rail line will have 800 miles of track with 24 stations. When complete, riders will be able to travel from the state’s two largest cities in under 2 hours and 40 minutes. That’s bold leadership.

Mn/DOT’s route announcement helps position Minnesota as a future leader for high-speed rail. While we are still years away from seeing high-speed rail trains traveling along the Mississippi River, now is the opportunity for our leaders to rally around a bold vision for connecting Minnesota to other parts of the Midwest and beyond.

Jerry Miller is chairman of the Minnesota High-Speed Rail Commission.

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Comments (8)

Keep up the fight, Jerry. we are wasting billions on useless wind turbines when we could be upgrading our transport system. Each Vestas V90 wind turbine has about 250 tons of concrete and steel - consider the GHG emissions producing that thing .
Then there is the destruction for the roads and land needed to house each one.Then there is the equivalent gas generation needed to back the thing up. And don't live within a mile of a wind farm. The noise will drive you up the walls that those low frequency sounds penetrate.

Will 125 mph really be "high speed" in the 21st century? I doubt it. The European minimum standard for new rail lines, according to Wikipedia, is 155 mph and most are faster than that. They only consider 125 mph "high speed" on legacy tracks.

This is a plan for the 20th century, as its starting point at the Union Depot in St. Paul demonstrates. It will not make rail a real competitor for air travel. To do that requires that it be far faster with direct connections to popular destinations and other transportation hubs, like downtown Minneapolis, the Mall of America and the Airport.

And, no, this is not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. It is preventing high speed rail being defined by failure.

OK. Read the whole article before you comment. Setting a target of 155 mph is still too low for a line running mostly through rural areas. It ought to be the minimum. The problem with connections to destinations and transportation hubs remains.

This is a good, informative and thoughtful piece on an important issue for all of us in the Midwest. Important structural elements for the continued well being of our area of the country are mostly ignored these days, and that imperils all of us who need good transportation and access. Thanks for the article Jerry, and keep up your good work!

As a Japanese-English translator, I once translated a history of the Shinkansen "bullet train," from its earliest development to the present day.

As I translated, I was struck by how much the opponents of Japan's project in the late 1950s and early 1960s sound like the opponents of high-speed rail today: "It's nineteenth century technology, and highways and airplanes are the wave of the future." "Nobody will ride it." "It's too expensive." Even the World Bank refused to finance a high-speed rail link between Tokyo and Osaka (about 350 miles) on the grounds that Japan should build a freeway instead.

Today, there are a couple of freeways between Tokyo and Osaka, as well as scheduled air service, but the Shinkansen carries 1/3 of all passenger traffic between the two cities, making the journey in about 2.5 hours, downtown to downtown. The seats are comfortable, vendors keep walking buy with food and drinks, you can get up and walk around, there are smoking and non-smoking cars, and if atmospheric conditions are right, you'll even enjoy an extended view of Mt. Fuji from the north side of the train.

For many reasons, we Americans need to tell the oil industry and the auto industry that they don't run the show anymore and that we want to catch up with the rest of the world in the area of convenient and comfortable transportation.

Let's compare apples to apples.

Istanbul has a population of 13.6 million. Ankara has a population of 3.5 to 4 million.

Baghdad: 3.7 million.
Basra: 1.7 million.

These nations have not invested in the automotive infrastructure we have, for good reason. The majority of their citizens can't afford motor vehicles or airfare. High speed rail makes sense for them in ways it doesn't for us.

High speed rail works in CA, in part, because it has 3 of the 15 metro areas larger than the Twin Cities: L.A. 12.8 million; San Francisco, 4.3 million; and Riverside-San Bernadino, 4.2 million. The areas in between are not as sparsely populated as is Wisconsin.

The Twin Cities metro is the 16th largest in the U.S., with about 3.3 million residents. Chicago, the third largest metro area, has 9.4 million residents. Milwaukee is home to fewer than 2 million.

We are on the fringe of civilization when it comes to transit. Seattle, the 15 largest metro area in the U.S., lies 1700 miles to the west, with no metro area of significance between here and there. Clearly, any high speed rail that comes to Minnesota should end in the Twin Cities.

If you want to make the case for building a high speed line between Chicago and the Twin Cities, have at it. But be careful what you use for comparisons and give us some numbers on where the passengers are going to come from (the air or the interstate), how many people are going to use it, and how much we're going to pay per passenger for the first 10 years of operation. From where I sit, it looks like just another case of fly-over envy.

Personally, I hope that one day I would be able to take a train to and from Chicago that does not take 8+ hours to go one way. But I do have to ask a question.

Has anyone--ANYONE--asked Amtrak if they would ever consider bringing back the old Hiawatha Line? And if so, under what preconditions? In the Twin Cities, we have exactly one Empire Builder eastbound daily and exactly one westbound daily.

We can restore Union Depot to its previous grandeur, lay down mile after mile of new railbed that can accommodate higher speeds, but if Amtrak doesn't have the resources to add additional equipment, then what?

The top speed of 110 mph, with slower speeds through the River Route area between LaCrosse and Red Wing, will mean an express route from Chicago to the Twin Cities will take 5 1/2 hours. An EXPRESS route. How long will a trip with stops take? 6? I can drive to parts of Chicago in 6 hours and don't need to take secondary transportation once I get there. Using the existing Amtrak line saves money but it's not the most direct route, and therefore don't be surprised if people don't use it except for the intermediate routes (Chicago-Milwaukee, Milwaukee-Madison, LaCrosse-Minneapolis).