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Bullet trains to Chicago in less than three hours? High-speed rail alliance launches study

A man looks at the bullet trains serving the new high-speed railway linking Shanghai and Hangzhou in China.
A man looks at the bullet trains serving the new high-speed railway linking Shanghai and Hangzhou in China.

Last month’s elections delivered a serious setback to prospects for faster passenger trains between the Twin Cities and Chicago, but now comes word of a new study touting even a speedier connection between the two metropolitan areas.

The Midwest High Speed Rail Association (MHSRA), a privately-funded rail passenger alliance based in Chicago, is examining a plan that would use “bullet trains” — comparable to those in Europe, Japan and China that exceed 200 miles an hour.

The group has retained one of the world’s leading engineering and architectural firms to study bullet train service linking the Twin Cities and Chicago.

The MHSRA believes that if a single bullet train could come on line in the Midwest, it would demonstrate the popularity of such service and lead the public to push for more of these trains. The Obama administration has given large grants to California and Florida for passenger trains approaching the speeds of bullet trains abroad. However, its grants for speeded-up service in the Midwest are essentially for “Amtrak modernization” that doesn’t envision trains faster than 110 miles an hour.

Even those plans, however, were derailed in recent weeks when Wisconsin’s Gov.-elect Scott Walker rejected an $810 million federal grant that would have built out a key section of the route.

That service, which had been projected to begin by 2016, would clip roughly two hours from the eight-hour-and-twenty-minute journey Amtrak’s Empire Builder now offers between Chicago and St. Paul.

Rick Harnish, director of the association, says AECOM Technology Corp. is examining possible routes to link the two regions. The firm’s study, which will also look at the costs of developing the service, could be done by early next year and followed up with a look at the benefits.

Harnish outlined the study early this month in Minneapolis, in a presentation to a small gathering convened by the University of Minnesota’s Center for Transportation Studies, and in a later interview. His talk was titled “A Train to Chicago in Three Hours — or Less.”

Seeking support for the concept
When he was here, he also met with Twin Cities public officials to discuss the idea of bullet trains. He said that by February, he hopes to persuade elected leaders here to endorse the concept of Chicago-Twin Cities bullet trains, much as the association enlisted support from public officials in Illinois and Missouri for the idea of bullet trains linking Chicago and St. Louis.

The association’s work on Chicago-Twin Cities bullet train service echoes a similar study it commissioned to examine possible routes, costs and benefits for such service between Chicago and St. Louis. That work was done last year by a Kansas City transportation consulting firm, TranSystems.

The firm found that bullet trains could make the journey from downtown St. Louis to Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport via Champaign-Urbana and downtown Chicago in about two hours. Currently, Amtrak’s passenger trains take about five-and-a-half hours to make the trip between the two downtowns. There is no heavy-rail passenger service now between downtown Chicago and O’Hare.

Huge obstacles vs. offsetting advantages
Enormous challenges would face any serious attempt to turn the dream of bullet trains into a reality in the Midwest.

The most obvious of them is cost, particularly daunting given today’s harsh fiscal climate of opting for spending cuts to get various governments’ fiscal houses in order.

TranSystems estimates the price tag for building a St. Louis-Chicago-O’Hare bullet train infrastructure at $12.6 billion, roughly three times the cost now envisioned by rail planners for increasing the speeds of Chicago-St. Louis trains to up to 110 miles an hour.

Harnish says early indications are that costs for a Chicago-Twin Cities bullet train system — about 400 miles vs. about 300 for St. Louis-Chicago-O’Hare — could reach $25 billion.Up to half of the cost could go for carving out a new passenger rail corridor along tracks that run just west of Amtrak’s existing line between Chicago and Milwaukee.

AECOM has been looking at a route that would parallel Interstate 94 coming from central Wisconsin to St. Paul’s Union Depot, Harnish says. However, complexities involved in getting into the depot from the east could lead the firm to examine other possible routes.

Harnish notes that initial proposals for bullet trains in Japan, France and Spain were dismissed as too costly. But eventually, these countries went on to build the infrastructure needed for such trains, and today they are heavily patronized.

He says that as a step toward eventual Chicago-Twin Cities bullet trains, Amtrak should increase the frequency of its once-a-day Empire Builder service between Chicago and St. Paul.

Harnish argues that soaring gasoline prices ultimately will make auto travel too expensive for many. He adds that passenger trains are much more energy-efficient and less environmentally degrading than auto travel and that hassles with air travel are making that option increasingly problematic.

Competitive with air travel?
Chicago-Twin Cities passenger rail service in less than three hours would likely be competitive with air travel times, if the time spent getting to and from airports and through security is considered.

Given all of this, Harnish concludes, it makes sense to plan now for bullet trains, although they would be many years away from reality.

AECOM, based in Los Angeles, specializes in transportation consulting. The company has clients in more than 100 countries and 52,000 employees, including more than 200 in the Twin Cities. Last year, the firm acquired Ellerbe Becket, a longtime Minneapolis architectural and engineering firm that has designed many showcase projects in Minnesota and elsewhere over the years.

Comments (13)

  1. Submitted by Craig Westover on 12/20/2010 - 10:42 am.

    Instead of a “setback,” couldn’t one also objectively say “a victory for fiscal sanity”?
    Just asking, objectively, how you arrived at the term “setback”?

  2. Submitted by andy on 12/20/2010 - 11:29 am.

    “Setback” because building a transportation infrastructure more suited for our energy-poor future now while we still have the resources to do it makes sense. The fact of the matter is a mile of track costs less than a mile of road (and is more durable to boot)- and as it is we’re currently unwilling to maintain the highway infrastructure we have.

  3. Submitted by James Hamilton on 12/20/2010 - 12:37 pm.

    Round-trip airfare, MSP to O’Hare, is $160-190 at the moment. It’s a 1:30 minute flight. Amtrak is an 8 hour trip, at about $160 round-trip. I can’t imagine that a bullet train would cost less, given the capital costs. So, what exactly is the advantage? Are we to expect that bullet trains will not be subjected to the same type of security procedures used for air traffic? What will the energy and pollution costs be for construction of the system?

    Not every part of the country is suitable for bullet trains. I suspect Chicago-Minneapolis is not and that some are simply suffering from a feeling of inferiority, again.

  4. Submitted by Stephan Flister on 12/20/2010 - 02:00 pm.

    Mr. Hamilton wonders about advantages.

    Here’s one (

    BTU/passenger mile, 2008
    air (domestic): 2,931
    Amtrak: 1,745

    Here’s another: Some rail technologies (e.g. maglev) are designed so that the train does not need to transport its own fuel, thereby increasing payload and allowing power generation to be done in a controlled environment.

    Here’s another: downtown to downtown (unless you want to go to O’Hare)

    Here’s another: busy day? add more passenger cars.


  5. Submitted by Glenn Mesaros on 12/20/2010 - 03:07 pm.

    SPAIN: The government has approved a project to build what it describes as the largest railway test circuit in the world, a 55 km loop designed for trials of 1 435 mm gauge rolling stock at speeds up to 450 km/h. Work on the facility at Bobadilla, between Córdoba and Málaga, is expected to start in 2011 and take four years to complete.

    Construction of the test centre is expected to draw more railway suppliers to Andalucía, creating a total of 7 000 jobs and unlocking some €60m of private investment.

    Source: Railway gazette

    The entire world is laughing at the stupidity of the United States in not developing high speed rail. The Libertarians and Republicans are so ignorant of basic economies of scale in mass transportation that they make Abraham Lincoln turn over in his grave.

  6. Submitted by Bob Quarrels on 12/20/2010 - 03:28 pm.

    This is good news. It makes far more sense to build the faster system instead of one that is obsolete when built. At least, sense to those who have the capacity to imagine public investment in a positive future.

    My question–much of the appeal of trains is that they go to the heart of a city. Stopping in St. Paul without continuing to Minneapolis nullifies that. If only it had taken a few decades longer to put the ice rink in the Milwaukee Road depot.

  7. Submitted by Mike Hicks on 12/20/2010 - 04:07 pm.

    It’s been clear for decades that true high-speed trains would work well in the Twin Cities to Chicago corridor. The Empire Builder which currently plies the route is Amtrak’s best-performing long-distance train (except for the slightly oddball Auto Train). Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Illinois first studied high-speed rail in detail in 1991 and basically recommended that a 185-mph train would be a great idea. Unfortunately, I don’t know what happened between that study and 1996 when the Midwest Regional Rail Initiative decided that 110 ought to be enough for anybody.

    Passenger fare revenues climb as trains go faster. Around 90-110 is where most trains begin to cover year-to-year operating and maintenance costs through fare revenue, so it’s a reasonable target for a cost-constrained government. Costs go up as train speeds go up, but that increase is more than offset by increases in fare revenue. A 110-mph train will cover its operating costs, but a 185- or 220-mph train will eventually cover its capital costs somewhere between 10 and 30 years down the line (generally too slow for a business to be interested in the idea, but definitely something that a government would see as worthwhile). France’s TGV trains operate with significant profit margins. Much of that excess gets funneled into operating slower money-losing trains that connect locally and feed into the high-speed network.

    Of course, Amtrak’s current service is made worse by the fact it only comes through town once a day in each direction. I actually think Amtrak could run a profitable and popular conventional-speed service between the Twin Cities and Chicago if only they ran 3 or 4 round-trips per day. It’d be nice to take an overnight train, for instance — Sleep most of the way and arrive early in the morning.

  8. Submitted by Willie Green on 12/20/2010 - 07:41 pm.

    Although this proposal connects Chicago to the Twin Cities, camparison to air flights between the two should be avoided. Rather than flights connecting the endpoints of the route, the real advantage is displacement of the short-hop commuter flights servicing smaller communities between the two metro areas: Rochester, La Crosse, Madison, Milwaukee.

    People traveling the longer distance from Chicago to the Twin Citites may still opt to fly. But to shuttle to the smaller cities located in the corridor between the two, even conventional passenger rail is more competitive than commuter airlines.

  9. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 12/20/2010 - 08:47 pm.

    Actually you can get Amtrak tickets to and from Chicago for $58.00 if you book in advance.

  10. Submitted by Francis Ferrell on 12/20/2010 - 11:06 pm.

    To the naysayers who always fight change;

    America always love winners and firsts.. No matter what the feats, inventions, politics, sports, and ingenious personages there are always a famous American idea or person at the forefront of progress.

    For example, though railroads or steam locomotion were developed first in Britain, America took and progressed rail technology to 20th Century global heights.

    It was the Wright Brothers and then other Americans who broke into the heavens with aviation that the world followed suit.

    The Interstate Highway System was only a dream in the 1950’s but it was built and served as a model for other countries.

    Though the Russians started the space race, the United States followed suit with ingenuity and technology surpassing the USSR and reach for the moon and beyond.

    Now the US has fallen behind global transportation technologies related to air, land, or sea. But times they are a changing. With US air travel and aviation infrastructures operating at full capacities; with land travel and related road infrastructures operating at overloaded capacity; and, with rail travel limited by archaic ponderous infrastructures and rolling stock the time for progress and drastic upgrading and future planning is upon us. Rail can lead the way.

    Why is America falling behind in progressing technologies with the rest of the world? Why are we against progress that will make our lives better? What happen to the American ethic that states when the dream or plan sounds impossible; then why not take up the challenge gauntlet and do the impossible? The Midwest has a chance to put this country on the transportation map again.

    High Speed Rail {HSR} could be the beginning of reconnecting quickly our country. HSR would relieve the overburdened and congested roads and airways. Yes, the national and/or states’ economies are broke. The average John or Susie Does are barely making ends meet. Yes, Congress is gridlocked in ignorance, politics, and self promotion. The country is basically in default. So, what! This country has historically been in a financial pickle barrel before and come out above it all a better place.

    With HSR development and construction, a technological stimulus and national self-esteem/pride could be the ticket for this country to get “back on the tracks” to national recovery. That’s the American Way of doing things. It’s a winning way.

  11. Submitted by Sue Halligan on 12/20/2010 - 11:50 pm.

    I took the Bullet Train from Tokyo to Nagano during the Winter Olympics in 1998. Fabulous experience. Building one here sounds like a wonderful idea!

  12. Submitted by Jeff Klein on 12/21/2010 - 01:19 am.

    I know it’s been pointed out already, but just to make it quantitative: to a 90-minute flight you have to add the minimum of 45 minutes that one must arrive early at an airport, plus the fact that both airports are 35-40 minutes away from their respective downtowns. It seems reasonable that train security wouldn’t need to be as aggressive nor the baggage system as complex, and arriving fifteen minutes in advance would be adequate. Accounting for all of this makes the times comparable.

  13. Submitted by Charles Bassett on 12/21/2010 - 05:52 pm.

    Bullet Trains – What an amazing machine. We rebuilt Japan and Germany after WW II and that is the ingenuity of our Asian and European counterparts. They had the guts to move forward and look at their country from the economical point of view. What great business people these countries have. In the U.S. greed and more greed runs this ship. We are concerned with the bottom line suppossedly so instead of trying to increase our economy by adding new jobs the politicians and the top ten percent take the money and invest in themselves. Big business is not creating jobs the way they used to, there’s not profit in hiring people. They have to pay for the workers Social Security and possibly some contributions to their health care plan. We should feel sorry for these people and give them tax breaks for doing nothing to help keep up with the rest of the world in our transportation infrastructure. Wisconsin just elected a junior politician as Governor. He has no idea of how to govern except to say that working men and women are bleeding our state dry because of the labor contracts. They have no problem giving large tax cuts to the corporations who support these guys with large corporate donations. This move by Wisconsin just set the state back twenty years or more. We need to make our transportation infrastructure a top priority in the midwest. Good jobs have been lost because of lousy political decessions. This has got to stop. Put the people first, not the corporations who need to step up and begin to be a model citizen again like they were during WW II. Where’s their patriotisum?

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