A need for more speed from high-speed rail?

(The following story by Mike Kaszuba appeared on the Star Tribune website on May 12, 2009.)

MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. Plans are moving fast to spend more than $1 billion on high-speed rail between the Twin Cities and Chicago.

But the trains themselves will not be as speedy as people may imagine.

As politicians and others jump on board, rail experts in the Midwest say the public's blurred image of high-speed rail -- based on Japanese and European models that streak across the landscape at 200 miles per hour or more -- exaggerates what the Obama administration is initially trying to achieve.

Planned high-speed trains to Chicago would top out at 110 mph, with an average speed of 78 mph. That compares with the 54 mph average of today's Amtrak trains between the two cities.

"There are people that have expressed a concern that we're not making that big leap into what more people would call true high-speed rail," said Mike Schadauer, director of transit at the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

Officials in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois need to be more aggressive, said Rich Harnish, executive director of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association in Chicago. "We had trains running at faster than 100 miles per hour ... in the 1930s," he said.

But to go much faster would also mean accelerating costs. Once a train reaches 125 mph, safety requires tunnels or overpasses at all road crossings. One estimate by the Illinois Department of Transportation pegs the cost at $50 million to $100 million per crossing. Trains going that fast also would be unable to share track with slower freight trains, requiring that new tracks be built.

The cost of what some see as true high-speed rail can be staggering. Estimates of infrastructure costs for a 220-mph train running entirely on new tracks between Los Angeles and San Francisco -- roughly the same distance as Chicago to the Twin Cities -- have risen to $33 billion.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009


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