Trenitalia and The Real Possibility for High-Speed Rail in the Midwest

This past Friday at the Midwest High Speed Rail Association’s fall luncheon Marco Stegher, Americas Area Manager for Italferr S.p.A., the international consulting arm of the Italian railway company, discussed the Italian high-speed rail (HSR) network and how its development and successful and continuing implementation could be replicated in the Midwest. Progressively introduced since the 1970s, the Italian HSR network now connects most of Italy’s major cities and is one of the most modern, technologically advanced systems in the world.

If a Midwestern system got built in one fell swoop the costs would easily climb to $80-90 billion. It’s unlikely that money is forthcoming. The U.S. government is unlikely to provide more than $500 billion in total infrastructure spending in the coming years let alone 1/5 of the total transportation spending to one project. Looking at it this way the likelihood of HSR in the Midwest seems like a preposterous proposal. But it need not be so.

Enter the Italians!

Never would I ever have thought we’d look to the Italians for infrastructure inspiration. Within my friend group of Europhiles, the Italian experience remains a running joke, most recently expressed in this quote from a NY Times Magazine posted on Facebook:

In his history “The Italians,” Luigi Barzini writes that one of the basic pleasures Italy reliably provides for visitors is “that of feeling morally superior to the natives.” I sometimes felt this pleasure myself. The inefficiency of the Italian bureaucracy, whether selling you a postage stamp or fixing a street, was often marvelous to behold.

When it comes to HSR though, they’re about the best example we might have to work from.


The Italian HSR network is still growing with a mainline serving Milan, Florence, Rome, and Naples. (Source:

In spite of the jokes, the Italian rail system has managed to build an impressive HSR network that is effective, but small compared to the total rail network, and also overcame impressive engineering odds due to terrain and an ancient built environment. Over 320 out of 700 some odd miles of the Italian HSR infrastructure is viaducts, bridges, trenches, and tunnels because of Italy’s mountainous terrain. That is in addition to the need to engineer around centuries old cities and sites. That is a staggering accomplishment to consider. Overcoming this is not what has makes the Italian system such a strong example for the Midwest however.

The Italian network was not built at once. Incrementalism was and continues to be the best path forward for Italian HSR. The approach is simple: build a network that integrates true high-speed rail infrastructure with varying types of conventional rail infrastructure. By not clearly segregating trains by type a greater number of connections can be achieved and travel times can be cut by taking advantage of higher speeds when possible. The network is still incomplete, but the original plans are coming online; meanwhile plans for expansion domestically and internationally continue.

This results in what Stegher calls a “blended network”. It can dramatically improve the passenger rail experience regardless of whether HSR goes directly to a destination or not. For example, the network doesn’t directly connect Rome to Venice, but since the Italian HSR service can run on dedicated infrastructure and conventional rail infrastructure, a significant portion of the journey can be speed up ultimately cutting travel times by 90 to 120 minutes from previous travel times even when trains only run as true HSR (> 150 mph) for a portion of the journey.

In the context of the Midwest, the current Amtrak Empire Builder from Chicago to Minneapolis-St. Paul takes approximately 7 hours, 45 minutes. Even if the only segment of this route to get an upgrade to HSR was the Chicago-Milwaukee segment, that would still bring the trip to under 7 hours. At current average speeds on conventional tracks, a proposed route between Chicago and the Twin Cities via Milwaukee, Madison, and Rochester would take 8 hours. Upgrade just the Chicago-Milwaukee-Madison and Twin Cities-Rochester segments to true HSR and total travel time drops to around 5 hours.


The Midwest High Speed Rail Association envisions a blended network connecting Midwestern cities, with a core express network radiating from Chicago. Current projects including improvements in Illinois, Michigan, and Minnesota. (Source:

In total, there are less than 700 miles of dedicated high-speed rail lines in Italy. That constitutes less than 10% of the over 10,000 miles of rails in the country. Yet, this comparatively small network has dramatically changed how Italians move around the country. Since the Milan to Rome route became fully functional roughly 70% percent of trips between the two cities is by train with the other 30% by plane. The proportion used to be reversed almost exactly according to Stegher.

This is truly impressive and it speaks for the ability to develop HSR at a managed yet meaningful rate. According to Stegher, there is real possibility for the Midwest to replicate this. He points out that the region is like Italy in the 1970s when HSR was first planned. The basic infrastructure exists, but there are a variety of challenges: electrification is necessary, but this can happy in cities as part of intracity rail operations. Branding is important as is the purchasing of train sets that can utilize a variety of infrastructure. Indeed, a blended network can be used to increase the speeds of all train types from conventional to regional passenger trains to freight trains.

The ultimate challenge is bringing together the capital and political will. That may be easier said than done, and it’s not even that easy said these days. The upshot of going for a blended network however is that the initial costs are lower since it is more about complete a variety of small projects over time; they’re a gradual means to an end.

Getting the Detroit People Mover Going


After a friend came back from a trip to Detroit we go on the topic of transportation, which led us eventually to one unique, if quirky, piece of transit infrastructure: the Detroit People Mover. Built in 1987, it probably wasn’t the best transit investment in the beginning (let’s face it, it was a shoddy attempt at urban revitalization); and the introduction of the Q-Line street car will pivot the city’s transit priorities in a different direction. It’d be a shame to see the Detroit People Mover go to waste however and be removed like the Sydney Monorail after barely three decades in service. It still posses worth as a piece of the city’s transit infrastructure.

From even casual observation it’s quite clear urban people movers have been a less than successful form of urban transportation. The sheer dearth of systems is evidence enough. On top of that the type service they provide often does little to actually make getting around the cities any easier. Like in Detroit or Jacksonville, another U.S. with a downtown people mover, systems are spatially limited to a core central business district and specifically to sites that would most likely appeal to casual visitors: convention centers, casinos, or stadiums.

Detroit has an opportunity to make its people mover really work for the city. As the Southeast Michigan Regional Transit Authority moves forward with a ballot initiative to fund the construction of a transit master plan–on top of the soon-to-be-open Q-Line streetcar–an integrated, multi-modal network could help bring more use to the People Mover.

True success for the People Mover doesn’t line in how well it connects to other transit modes entirely, but also to what other areas the DPM directly connects riders. That’s what will make it a viable transit system. Although people movers (which are coming into their own as automated subway systems become more common) have limited success, the examples of the Lille Metro, Miami Metromover, and the London Docklands Light Rail show how successful these simple transit systems can be.

What I propose for Detroit is using the people mover, in conjunction with the Q-Line, as the primary downtown transit mode. This means expanding it into the surrounding neighborhoods and also to places that are attractive destinations to visitors and tourists. The DPM will never become the backbone of Detroit’s transit system, but it shouldn’t be left behind as new plans move forward.


The people mover expansion would include approximately 12 miles of new route composed of four extensions from the Downtown loop connecting to Belle Isle, Eastern Market via , Windsor (Downtown, Windsor Viarail, and Windsor University), and (a hopefully refurbished and functional) Michigan Central Terminal. The expansion would cost somewhere in the range of $500 million dollars. This is a very vague estimation however based on the cost of the Miami Metromover and taking into account the inflation rate from 1995 when it was completed, but also recognizing that construction costs in Detroit could be very different. However, the operating costs of the Metromover are rather low and could apparently be covered by a $1 per ride fare, which indicates the recovery on investment could be rather easy.

A key element of my plan is connecting Windsor and Detroit better with the people mover. Part of this is accomplished by building two “international routes”, which would be built with stations modified to account for the complexity of having customs offices essentially all over Downtown Detroit and Windsor. The idea is that the international routes would have limited stops supplemented by more frequently stopping local routes on either side of the boarder. Another option is to use the tap-on, tap-off fare payment method that prevent you from exiting non-customs exits if you entered on the other side of the boarder while allowing riders to enter and exit the system as leisure if they remain on the same side.

The upshot of using the DPM for international mass transportation however is that the automated vehicles remove the need for employees to constantly deal with boarder crossings as well. The only concern would be with passengers. Additional precautions can be made by designing stations so that if passengers end up on the wrong train and thus wrong side of the boarder, they can return hassle free to the appropriate side. Regardless, it would be interesting as an experiment in developing international mass transportation.

Any similar steps are ones in the right direction though. It makes no sense to let the DPM go the way of the Sydney Monorail when it still has potential as part of Detroit-Windsor’s larger transit network.

**A guilty conscience forces me to admit I haven’t been to Detroit in awhile and most of this post is based off conjecture from a brief visit three years ago, what I know from other published sources, and my friend’s account of his trip (for the record he’s an urban planner too). I would absolutely love to know locals thoughts on this, what the general option of the people mover is, transit in Detroit, what I got right, and what I totally got wrong.

A Bus Oriented Transit Future

The Center for Neighborhood Technology and the Active Transportation Alliance’s campaign for a dedicated source of transit dollars in Cook County, Transit Future, is impressive in its scope and its ability to present a program of transit improvements with a realistic funding mechanism. It incorporates a variety of potential projects from the Red Line South extension to more ambitious projects like a Brown Line west extension. What I don’t like about it though is how much it (publicly) prioritizes rail lines over improvements at all levels. By that I mean buses.

What I like about LA’s transit system is how it has successfully created a brand to represent the four levels of bus services provided by LA Metro: Metro Liner (BRT), Metro Rapid (regular service express, limited buses), Metro Local (regular service local buses), and Metro Express (express buses). This is a model I would like to see employed in Chicago and combined with more modest rail investments compared to what is outlined in Transit Future.

Using CNT’s and Active Trans’ idea for a dedicated funding system, I think the CTA and Cook County could create such a system easily and rapidly. This, I think, would be a more impactful first step in dramatically improving travel times on transit (anywhere from 20%-50% decreases in trip times by some of my own estimates) and drawing more people onto transit, which in its own right is a key step to increasing transit mode share.

Doing so would require deciding on what such a bus system would look like.

I propose one with three levels of service: local service, ART (arterial rapid transit) like that proposed by Pace, and BRT and/or LRT (depending on the route).

Local service would run identically to what is provided now perhaps with some enhancements (better shelters or priority signaling at busy intersections). The ART routes would be like the type proposed by Pace. They would include priority signaling along the entire route (keeping lights green until buses pass), prepaid boarding when possible, bumped out stops (so buses don’t have to leave the main traffic lanes), fewer stops (every 1/4 mile versus every 1/8 mile like local bus routes), and high frequency all day long (every 10-12 minutes). BRT would be a step up from this including higher capacity buses, dedicated lanes, prepaid boarding at all stops, and even higher arrival frequency (every 7-10 minutes). In some cases light rail (LRT) could be developed instead of BRT, particularly on east-west routes, which aren’t as well-developed as north-south routes.

Fully building out an ART and BRT/LRT system at the scale I propose would cost on average $2.5 million per mile for ART, $33 million per mile for BRT, and $57 million per mile for LRT. Or, more specifically: $4 billion for 68 miles of LTR, $1 billion for 30 miles of BRT, and $450 million for 180 miles of ART. In total, this is about $5.5 billion in bus and arterial improvements.

Combined, additional rail projects (Yellow Line north extension, Orange Line south extension, Silver Line O’Hare-Midway, and Green Line east extension) cost cumulatively about $5 billion for 18 miles of new rail lines. Additionally, the conversion of the Metra Electric South Chicago and Blue Island Branches would add about $200 million to this total sum.

All together, this set of improvements costs roughly $10 billion, half of what the CNT/Active Trans Transit Future plan calls for. Part of this is because it cuts out a number of rail projects, such as the high-profile Red Line south extension (approximate cost $2 billion). These would be supplemented by better bus service, or specialized routes (such as a Devon Avenue special bus service to O’Hare). Another part of this is because Transit Future would (could?) include funding for projects like improvements to Union Station, which surely pushes up the official price estimates.

The Transit Future plan doesn’t discount the role of buses in creating a world-class transit system, but I do think it underplays that role. Look at London: buses in the British capital are just as important and iconic as the Tube, and if you’ve ever used them you know they’re efficient and vital for ensuring the efficient movement of people throughout the metropolis. That is why I do put an emphasis on arterial bus-based transit with some LRT; the majority of transit riders in Chicago take the bus and not the ‘L’ and thus it makes sense to look at how to improve how most riders get around and improve the services most residents have access to. Showiness can only go so far if people aren’t being served in real life.

It would also improve speeds throughout the entire transit system: an LRT on Western from Lincoln Square to the Western Orange Line would cut that trip almost in half end-to-end from 50 to 30 minutes. A BRT on Ashland Avenue from Irving Park Road to 95th Street would go from 1 hour, 45 minutes to an hour. Even a modest improvement such as making the Pulaski 58 bus an ART would cut the 16.5 mile trip from Peterson to 79th street from 1 hour, 50 minutes to 1 hour, 20 minutes.

Such changes are less likely to draw wide-eyed commentary, but they’re practical and would collectively represent a huge improvement in how people get around the city. They would make the transit network we already have a more reasonable option for more residents and hopefully act as a cheaper catalyst to bigger improvements.

The map attached shows what those improvements look like. This includes the above mentioned services, as well as what I called the Silver Line (an ‘L’ parallel to Cicero Avenue from O’Hare to Midway) and a western branch to the conversion of the Metra Electric to an ‘L’ service. The two branches of the Gold Line would be supplemented by the Metra Electric commuter service to University Park and South Shore Line to South Bend.


The new ‘L’ lines are depicted with the boldest lines, BRT and LRT are shown with heavy red lines (not specified which routes would use which mode, but emphasis is on LRT for east-west routes), blue lines are ART routes, and grey lines are local buses. Purple lines are either specialty routes or mixed service of some sort.