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.

italy_tav

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

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.

map_vision

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: midwesthsr.org)

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.

detroit-people-mover

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.