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.
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.
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.