WisARP/MHSR Association Meeting

A reserved sense of optimism was the prevailing feeling at the Milwaukee meeting of the Wisconsin Association of Railroad Passengers (WisARP) and the Midwest High-speed Rail Association last Saturday. The meeting gave a small albeit revealing insight into the politics and plans for passenger transportation in the Midwest. With clearly displayed feelings of bitterness, resentment, and in spite of cautious optimism it was easy to think that improving passenger rail in the region remains a nearly hopeless endeavor. However, there is also certainly reason to think that we’ve only reached a brief period of resistance to consistently forward momentum to reinvent the rail networks that was once the backbone of America’s transportation infrastructure.

Participants heard about and discussed the status of passenger rail in the state of Wisconsin, the status of Milwaukee’s fledgling streetcar network, and proposed improvements to the Chicago-Milwaukee passenger rail corridor. Other speakers included transportation journalist Don Phillips, who currently writes for Trains Magazine and formerly wrote for the Washington Post. DePaul University professor Joe Schwieterman also gave a brief introduction to his new book “Terminal Town“, a history of Chicago’s long relationship with transportation. While the presentations themselves were not always exceptionally revealing (most of the information is already available online), the overall process shows extensive work ahead and an obvious need for the transportation planning community to push harder on few things: 1) put more pressure on government to respond positively to transportation planning efforts and get the responsive politicians in office 2) more public engagement is absolutely necessary as there is a clear lack of public understanding about how transportation can function in a socially and economically as well as environmentally beneficial way.

There was definitely some bad at the meeting. The first speaker was the Wisconsin Department of Transportation Secretary Mark Gottlieb. His hour-long presentation and Q&A revolved around the status of passenger rail transportation in Wisconsin. At the moment, only three passenger rail services are available: two are from Amtrak, the Hiawatha between Chicago and Milwaukee and the once daily Empire Builder, which connects Chicago with the Twin Cities and on to Seattle via Milwaukee and LaCrosse. The third is Metra’s UP-North service between Chicago and Kenosha. According to Gottlieb, the priority of the State of Wisconsin is to invest in existing services and includes only short-term and intermediate-term plans for passenger rail. Although there are existing long-range plans and proposals to bring true high-speed trains to Wisconsin (that is >150mph) and connecting Madison, Eau Claire, and Green Bay to the existing passenger routes there was little to no evidence that WiscDOT has any intention of moving forward with these in the near future.

The only concrete projects Gottlieb capably discussed were a proposal to add 3 additional round trip trains on the Hiawatha. Two would be semi-express calling only at Chicago Union Station, Gen. Mitchell Airport, and Milwaukee. He also mentioned a potential addition of one more daily round-trip between the Twin Cities, Milwaukee, and Chicago using Empire Builder infrastructure. While it is hard to fault Gottlieb and WiscDOT on efforts to improve and expand existing service there is no excuse for the blatant antipathy for create a solid long-range plan that includes streetcars in Madison and Milwaukee, high-speed service on a Chicago-Milwaukee-Madison-Twin Cities route, regional service from Milwaukee to Green Bay, and commuter routes between Madison and Milwaukee and Milwaukee to Kenosha. When pressed about why WiscDOT is pushing for more highway infrastructure he cited a need to help ease the pressure on the system and a need to–wait for it–plan for the future. When asked why not ease pressure on the road systems by investing in rail transportation he struggled to find an answer. Indeed, he tried to use autonomous vehicles as reason to invest in roads. He blustered when the fallacy of that argument was pointed out as it is not drivers that necessarily cause traffic, but the number of vehicles on the road and he was additionally reminded that transportation planning is about more than traffic, but also about environmental, social, and economic sustainability.

MHSRA Poster

The following speakers, journalist Don Phillips and Milwaukee Alderman Bob Bauman, gave somewhat pessimistic accounts of the state of Amtrak and transportation politics nationally and locally. While what they had to say was not universal the gist of it was that 1) we cannot trust Amtrak to carry through with its duty to maintain and improve passenger rail in the US and 2) opposition to public transportation has become almost religiously ideological to the point that any effort to improve it is fought tooth and nail. The former remarks are based on what Phillips had to say about his work on Amtrak and its President Joe Boardman in particular. Phillips remarks revealed disappointment and frustration in the management of the country’s passenger rail service. He had little trust in the organization and certainly doesn’t seem overly confident in its future. Strong management is what Amtrak needs and has needed for much too long now, according to Phillips. The latter comments came from Bauman in a 40 minute presentation about that status of Milwaukee’s streetcar. The plan, which for the most part was ready to go years ago was subsequently derailed by opposition from conservative politicians in Wisconsin including Gov. Scott Walker. This is what Bauman described as a stringent ideological opposition to any transportation projects that included rail in some regard. As he put it, a century of laws and precedent designed to help infrastructure be built was abandoned to stop the Milwaukee streetcar and this project alone.

After this, the sense of discontentment had grown. The presentations by the Midwest High-speed Rail Association did good work of improving the feeling that real work is being done to improve passenger rail in the US. They presented realistic goals for the future of rail and high-speed rail in particular. Plans to incrementally develop things like passing tracks, parallel freight and passenger lines, grade-separation, and stations are all underway in different places. There remains confusion about what these types of systems will look like however: some audience members were concerned that the emphasis on rail-air connections to Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. Some proposed using high-speed rail as a reason to make Milwaukee’s Gen. Mitchell Airport a more important international hub, regardless of how unrealistic that is based on the realities at hand. Others couldn’t understand why anybody would want to go from downtown Milwaukee to downtown Madison. That comment was representative where opposition of rail has been strong: places like Waukesha and Jefferson County, Milwaukee’s suburbs. Apparently, the systems wasn’t sold as something that would eventually go to the Twin Cities, which is somehow more appealing than a direct rail link between Wisconsin’s largest urban areas.

A stronger communications strategy is needed to positively push this work forward with the public. Conceptually, the ideas are there. The big and bold thinkers are there. The hope, the examples, the financing schemes are all there. At this point, the biggest problem is going to be selling these ideas to the public.Organizations like MHSRA or WisARP need to develop ways to preach not to their own choirs, but the public.Organizations like MHSRA or WisARP need to develop ways to preach not to their own choirs, but the public.

The pressure politicians, municipalities, and private groups feel to increase investment in multi-modal transportation infrastructure needs to come from a broader base than it does now. The likes of freight companies, environmentalists, proponents of smart urban growth, business people, and the traveling public all have a stake in things like improved passenger rail.  They need to create solid proposals for systems that will serve the needs of as many people possible. Strong recognizable, charismatic, and passionate faces need to be put on this project. Honestly, the issue needs some sex appeal. It’s now time to really think about making the big sell. Without public support and awareness this is all for nothing.

More than ever it is about making the public care–really care.



Sumpin’ Different Saturday: Irish making a come back via… Lorde?

Lorde, the inescapable pop siren from New Zealand, burst onto the scene recently and has refused to leave. Her music offers a breath of fresh air in a sometimes stagnant pop music scene. What made her different was the minimalist artistry she added to pop music coupled with her unique look and sultry but bold voice. Perhaps living in such an isolated country helped add to her music’s one of a kind quality, but regardless of the origin of its sounds it certainly stands out…

I didn’t expect then to find a cover of her hit, Royals, that could stand out even more. The October 2014 issue of The Atlantic features a brief article about an Irish immersion school, Coláiste Lurgan, that started a YouTube channel called TG Lurgan as a way to make Irish a more modern and accessible language. The covers the students are producing are impressive. They are talented singers and producers and have managed to create something that is not only truly unique, but reaffirms the possibility of making Irish more than just a heritage language spoken by a small minority of people, but one that has a real place in Irish society.


Since the 1920s and after Ireland became an independent republic, Irish became a mandatory part of the nation’s education curriculum. The goal was to revive the language after being repressed by British authorities in favor of English during centuries of British rule. The policy remains in place today, but is notoriously ineffective. A decent part of my family hails from Ireland. They all spent years in schools where Irish was taught, but never as a primary language, always as a second language. None of them speak more than a few phrases and some even complain that time spent learning Irish would be better utilized learning modern languages like Russian, Arabic, or German. Until recently it doesn’t seem like there was much hope for change either. Ireland would remain the country in the world where the national and first official language was spoken my a small minority of people with English persistently dominant.


Slowly, in the last few years things seem to be changing though. First, the reality of the failing education program has becoming obvious enough that, as is pointed out in The Atlantic even an Irish speaking member of the Oireachtas (national parliament) called the long standing Irish program in schools the “highest form of torture known to humankind.” The irony of this failure to teach Irish is that the government requires proficiency in the language for a number of jobs across the country, including for the police force and education at almost every level. Indeed, residents of Ireland should be able to use Irish in almost every aspect of life according to national law. The question is how many do or can?

In a four part documentary produced for Irish language TV channel TG4 in 2008 called No Béarla (or No English) Manchán Magan tests the Irish on their native language skills and embarks on a journey across the country speaking only Irish–or as much Irish as humanely possible. He discovers it is a difficult task and reactions to his experiment are mixed. The first part is linked below from where you can view the rest.


Irish is in all honesty an heritage language. There is no question that English would always play a huge role in national life in Ireland even if a majority of the population suddenly began to speak it on a daily basis. Irish culture itself is infused with English so much that it, as much as Irish, is a deeply engrained quality of Irishness. Some of the English language’s greatest writers are of Irish stock and Irish accents are certainly some of the most beloved and identifiable in the English speaking world. International business would remain an English language undertaking in Ireland as would a lot of media. But that isn’t too far off from what life in places like the Netherlands or Denmark is like. In many smaller European countries English is the primary language of international commerce still and little foreign media is translated or dubbed. But vernacular languages still survive and indeed thrive. English isn’t replacing them; it finds its own place in national life in these places while the native tongues bind people with place and identity and history and add necessary diversity to our lives.

The call to save threatened and endangered languages is propelled by these relationships. From a cultural standpoint, languages are often what define culture and individual human communities. In a rapidly globalizing world, preserving these unique cultures and identities may be a key tool in maintaining levels of diversity in human life. Language is a body of knowledge that has accumulated over time and preserves information that may be either unacknowledged or still undiscovered. As a BBC article on the topic points out, Cherokee is a great example of the pooled knowledge a language can hold about the human and natural world. Culturally, languages reveal lots about a people. Cherokee for example has no word for ‘goodbye’ just a term for ‘see you again’. It does however, have words for a plethora of natural elements in the eastern United States that reveal whether they are edible, toxic, or medicinal in value.

The state of the Irish language is certainly much better than Cherokee or numerous other threatened languages in the world today. It has government support and is spoken by a larger number of people and is taught in schools across the country. It still struggles to burst onto the scene as a language spoken equally within Ireland alongside English. That is going to be the great struggle of the next generation or Irish people seeking to raise the status of the language. In the last century, the primary battle was saving the language from total annihilation following centuries of repression by the British, the loss of huge numbers of speakers due to emigration and death during the Great Hunger, and the concurrent struggle to establish the language as part of a new national identity while also trying to build a republic from the ground up.

The role of schools like Coláiste Lurgan is going to be invaluable in re-establishing Irish as a daily vernacular. It is one of over 180 new immersion schools popping up where Irish is the primary language of instruction, not English. Significantly, this makes Irish less a dreaded mandatory subject in school, but just the language of instruction. Student’s dread can be refocused on other horrible things… like math. What Coláiste Lurgan is doing with its YouTube channel though is taking Irish and rebranding it as a language with value for young people. It provides a connection to the past, honors those who died for Irish independence and linguistic choice, while also revealing its ability to function in popular culture. After the YouTube channel premiered, the school’s website even crashed during the next round of enrollment so many parents were scrambling to get their kids in. Symbolically, this shows even people who no longer use the language functionally on a day-to-day basis see value in speaking Irish and want their children to learn and most importantly speak(!) the language. In a speech given at New York University in 2008 the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs Éamon Ó Cuív mentioned a statistic claiming 90% of the Irish see an importance to speaking the language. A common sentiment I experienced in Ireland was a saddened sense that fewer people spoke the language.

Irish will ultimately be saved by people using the language and reviving it on the street, in the home, in school, and in their everyday lives with other Irish people. Much like French in Canada or Hebrew before the establishment of Israel, Irish is a language that is neither on brink of death nor widely spoken enough to necessarily call thriving. It has potential though. Young people are showing that potential and challenges to the Irish themselves are putting them on the stand for the language’s status. The government has made its support for the language clear enough over almost a century. Now is the time for the Irish people themselves to take on the challenge of reinvigorating a language many of them apparently see as an important part of their national character and cultural health. English will be a dominant force in Ireland, but that shouldn’t be seen as reason for resisting making Irish the primary language of daily life for the Irish. Ireland would simply be a bilingual nation like so many existing today.

The revival of the Irish language though would be a symbolic gesture to the global community indicating that despite the dominance of a few global languages, be it French, Spanish, English, or Chinese there is both a place in the world for heritage languages and a value in saving them from death. It would also be representative of successful systems of saving languages that other communities could take examples from. The role media has played in making the world smaller is inadvertently one of the best tools out there to preserving endangered and heritage languages. Dispersed speakers have an easy means of communication, small time musicians, journalists, and writers have a free platform on which to market themselves in their native language, and those interested in exposure can easily find it.

Looking at it this way, the role of Irish seems much bigger than previously. Ultimately though, it is up to people making real choices about how they live their lives that will instigate change. In any case, I’m excited to see what songs the students at Coláiste Lurgan cover next.

Chicago absolutely needs CrossRail

Chicago absolutely needs CrossRail. The city in its ambition to be taken more seriously at the international level needs a direct, express rail connection between O’Hare, Union Station, and the South Side. Chicago would be miles ahead of other American cities if such a system were built. In fact, the only comparable system being built at the moment is the Union Pearson Express in Toronto. This connection would put the city on par with places like London; Johannesburg, South Africa; or Oslo, Norway. In a recent column in the Chicago Red Eye, transit columnist Tracy Swartz pondered the need to build such a system. Perhaps a good intentioned effort at playing devil’s advocate, the fact of the matter is Chicago needs CrossRail.

CrossRail Chicago is a campaign, modeled on a project in London of the same name, to build a high-speed, high-quality rail link between Chicago’s Union Station, O’Hare International Airport, the South Side, and McCormack Place running uninterrupted through the city. The project is proposed by the Midwest High-speed Rail Association. Although it is neither part of the Go To 2040 or Transit Future campaign, the project is part of a larger melange of ideas that organizations have presented in the past few years to improve the transit and logistics infrastructure in the city and across the region.

CrossRail Chicago Map

This map shows the CrossRail Chicago project being discussed. It is technically phase one of a much larger effort to bring high-speed rail to the Midwest.

In her consideration of the need for CrossRail Chicago plan, Swartz refers back to former CTA President Ron Huberman’s track improvement program along the Blue Line and his desire to get trains to travel upwards of 70 mph. This is considered a potential alternative to the Midwest HSR plan and one with more widespread and positive outcomes for the Northwest Side of Chicago. Nobody could really challenge how fantastic it would be to see trains on the CTA traveling at speeds 15 mph more than they do (or should) now. This is great thinking on her part, but is also highly unrealistic thinking though. The spacing of stations along any CTA ‘L’ is simply to small to allow for such speeds to be reached, and if possible it would occur for such brief periods as to provide little benefit in the long run. The argument presented in the Red Eye at its root misunderstands the long-term reasoning for CrossRail and really just undercuts the whole effort.

Superficially, CrossRail Chicago would be a service competitive with the CTA’s Blue Line ‘L’ and taxis for passengers traveling between the Loop and O’Hare, and it would be quite competitive to say the least. People arriving at O’Hare now seeking to get into the city via public transit options can choose between the Blue Line and taxis. Taxis cost upwards of $50; while the Blue Line costs $5 for a one-way trip from O’Hare ($2.25 from all other stops) it takes roughly 40 minutes to get into the Loop. Even after the four-year Your New Blue modernization project is done a Blue Line trip calls at all stops and will still take roughly 30 minutes. The express trains along the route proposed for CrossRail would be approximately 20 minutes (perhaps even less) in new trains outfitted specifically for travelers between the Loop and the airport. If it is modeled anything like the Heathrow Express in London, which runs from Paddington Station to Heathrow Airport in 15-20 minutes, riders will pay a premium, but for premium service.

It would certainly help make Chicago a more attractive place to hold conventions, but also help make it a more attractive city for multi-national businesses. The importance of comfortable and convenient international travel shouldn’t be underestimated: in a world where cities, not nations, are competing with each other for influence, the city can’t cut short on positive infrastructure projects. Civic institutions, cultural institutions, infrastructure, and business are all important to the health of a city. Projects like CrossRail build into this combination.

Deutsche Bahn high-speed trains arrive at the spacious and modern Flughafen Bahnhof connecting practically the entire country to one airport.

Deutsche Bahn high-speed trains arrive at the spacious and modern Flughafen Bahnhof connecting practically the entire country to one airport.

And let’s not forget that it would make for much more comfortable rides for everybody too. No longer would travelers have to compete for space with commuters on the ‘L’, nor would commuters have to contend with luggage crammed on cars badly equipped for that. Travelers could then make much easier connections to commuter trains headed south and intercity trains and busses. It not only provides a high-quality option for travelers, but improves alternatives too: the program would require a new station which would likely improve the connections to the airport for people using Metra and the CTA or regional busses.

Most importantly, the project is a major albeit small piece in a larger puzzle aimed at bringing high-speed trains to the Midwest. This is really the impetus behind the whole project; the project really comes down to making sure trains can get into and out of Chicago’s Union Station as easily as possible. This would make Chicago not just comparable to London, but also Frankfurt, which is essentially the airport to all of Germany. The high-speed rail connections available mean air passengers can easily board a train in any part of Germany and get off right at the nation’s primary airport and Lufthansa hub. Chicago could become that for the Midwest. In fact, this would offer travelers even more alternatives. High-speed trains could replace short connecting flights from cities like Madison to Chicago and make travel easier at busy times of year or during inclement weather… which Chicago and the Midwest gets plenty of.

This is the point that is most important to take home about the CrossRail plan. Yes, Swartz makes a good argument for looking into better financing the already existing rail infrastructure in Chicago. The problem is that this is done by questioning the validity of another highly valuable project, one that has the best potential to be a successful public-private partnership; also, it doesn’t address the real issue of underfunded coffers for municipal services, the paper trails to which all ultimately end on LaSalle Street or in Springfield. Projects like this shouldn’t be seen as the problem, rather government ineptitude should get that blame.

The CrossRail proposal on the localized scale in Chicago gets much of its strength by recognizing the city’s importance as a global transportation, business, and convention hub. It builds and expands on that in a way that is trying to position the city’s infrastructure planning thats secures the city’s place in what its good at, hopefully to grow from there. These are the things that should get broad support even when they are just ideas being thrown around.

So, if you were thinking let’s just invest in the Blue Line a whole lot after reading the Red Eye critique remember CrossRail shouldn’t be seen as a hindrance to other projects, but complement it… Chicago needs CrossRail.