Trains: They Bring Us Together

As the Munich bound train from Venice neared the Brenner Pass and the Austrian border, I could tell the woman across from me was growing nervous. She fidgeted and was noticeably more anxious when the conductor announced the train would be standing at Brenner station, the border control. For this woman, a Syrian refugee traveling with her daughter and husband, every moment on the Italian side of the boarder increased the chances of getting stopped and derailing a journey that is unimaginable for the vast majority of us.

Since moving to Vienna, many of my encounters with refugees have occurred in train stations and on trains. They’ve come to remind me of two things. One is that there is a certain egalitarianism to train travel that is one of its great virtues. The other, which is related in a way to the first, is that train travel creates spaces for unexpected personal interactions between strangers that are absent from other forms of transportation.

In the discourse about rail travel and its benefits, the focus remains on the most tangible benefits: improved urban environments, sustainable transportation, better connectivity, better travel times. It’s easy to overlook some of the more subtle benefits, especially since they’re less tangible and can be fleeting. Some of these–helping others carry luggage on and off trains, shared seating arrangements and compartments, even the bar car–radically change our relationship to travel and those we’re traveling alongside in dynamic ways, which isn’t an overlooked benefit of rail travel, but is certainly under appreciated.

When debating the value of air versus rail based travel, aspects like the bar car or private seating compartments on trains are sold as comforts that benefit passengers on a individuals basis. We don’t discuss the communal benefits that also result. These are immense. They manage to bring people together in unexpected ways. Traveling within Austria and Germany, I’ve had fantastic conversations with people who could only happen, because of seating arrangements you don’t see on buses and planes. On one occasion, an unexpectedly overcrowded train resulted in more people piled into the bar car than was probably allowable. Rounds of beers and some vivacious drinking songs resolved any frustrations with a train well over a comfortable capacity.

Starting in September these rail based encounters changed dramatically. The swelling numbers of refugees fleeing to the safety of Northern Europe dominated trains international trains. A trip to Oktoberfest from Vienna was a logistical battle (closing even on border within the Schengen Zone, Europe’s barrier-free travel area, creates huge problems), but also a moment when the full humanitarian weight of the refugee crisis came crashing down. Staking out a place in the bar car (an always reliably beer filled alternative to an actual seat) I became a de facto translator. I’m convinced word spread that there was a German-speaking American on the train who could translate; over the course of two hours I found myself on phones talking to people’s families Hamburg, looking up train connections, translating tickets, ordering food, and, most importantly, hearing people’s stories.

The bartender was nice enough to give me a free beer for all of this, but it was the experience of seeing and hearing what was happening that became my impetus to help even if it was in the most minuscule manner possible. I don’t think such encounters would have or could have happened on any other form of transportation. This speaks to something vital about what makes rail based travel so valuable.

On my way from Venice back to Vienna, I found myself sitting with a Syrian family clearly headed to Germany. In English, they could say their please’s and thank you’, yes’ and no’s. Beyond that, there was no available form of communication beyond pantomime. They were amongst the kindest people I have ever met. Beyond their general politeness and sense of regard for the people around them, some of whom probably resented their presence, they offered to share all their food and drink with me. Never have I seen such levels of generosity. Briefly we became entwined in each other’s world. When we reached the border the nervousness of the mother made me nervous. At that point I knew I would intervene on their behalf in spite of not knowing what to say if an Austrian boarder guard were to question and challenge their ability to passage. The 15 minutes passed though without incident and we moved across the pass into Austria.

In Innsbruck I bid them farewell with the hope they feel at home in Europe, can make a new life full of happiness and joy, and that they’re provided the same generosity. I feel grateful for these experiences, because it reconnects me to the larger issues playing out in our world. It is so easy to fall into the habit of consciously ignoring what is happening around us. Communal spaces are essential in helping us forge these connections, even if such spaces are very functional tools, such as for transportation. In spite of being a highly social species, we have a bad tendency of cutting ourselves off and staying in boxes. Being forced out of them, even if only to travel, is a healthy experience.


The help I’ve provided during the refugee crisis is in the gran scheme of things somewhat pathetic. While I’m proud I helped when I did, I’m highly aware more needs to be done.

For those looking to provide assistance, I’m providing links to resources in the USA, Germany, and Austria. Note, that many of these articles were published in the fall 2015, so information may have changed since then.



Size and Perception: Is the US really too big for high-speed rail?

A nifty website allowing users to pick a city in Europe and then see how far one can get from there by rail within a day made the rounds online recently. Rail and transportation advocates across the U.S. received these maps as an example of the virtues of European rail systems and the failures of the American system. “We could never get halfway across the continent in 6 hours, how can that be?” one asks themselves looking at these maps. Well, part of the problem is Europe is actually really tiny compared to the U.S. Size remains a problem for establishing a comprehensive rail American network comparable to operations in Europe. But it’s a problem of perception in addition to structural issues, which are perhaps reinforced by perception, that keeps down momentum on rail. Voices in opposition of greater investment often take the question of size to heart as a reason for passenger rail’s infeasibility; and the casual observer can probably comprehend the logic of size working against rail. We have to get over the question of size though. While the geographic size of the U.S. and distribution of its cities will definitely affect what passenger rail services will look like it doesn’t inherently hinder the potential for such systems.

The U.S. is a really big country, huge in comparison to Europe. I use a particular anecdote with the students I work with in Austria to impress this upon them. I ask how long a flight from New York City to LA lasts and usually get answers ranging from two to five hours, but hear answers in the two to three hour range, or a long flight within Europe. The answer, which is 5 hours and 20 minutes, always manages to elicit plenty of awe especially when I sweeten the whole thing by informing them this is about 20 minutes longer than a flight from London to Amman, Jordan. Crammed into this small area is a population well over 510 million (the EU’s current population, not Europe as a whole) compared to the U.S. with a population of 320 million and a combined U.S.-Canadian population that still pales in comparison at just 355 million. It’s a dramatic demographic and geographic difference that has defined how the two continents have been shaped in the last century.


When Europe was adopting advanced rail technology and building the Chunnel and TGVs in France, the U.S. was expanding the Interstate Highway system and building cities around cars and national travel around aviation. The changing world though is proving the resilience of the European (and Japanese) models of urban development and intercity transportation. The U.S. survived on the idea of cheap fuel without the foresight to consider the environmental impacts of our life styles and the potential that access to cheap fuel might be ephemeral, ideas that have no been thoroughly shaken.

Trains are inherently more sustainable than cars and planes. Cities and dense living similarly while also incubating contemporary economic advancements and human interactions. People are moving away from cars. These changes are forcing the U.S. to reevaluate how to get around the country and many eyes have turned towards high-speed rail (HSR) and passenger rail in general as a solution. A persistent point of opposition is that the U.S. is just too big for HSR, but that’s based on the false thinking that HSR and passenger rail systems like they exist elsewhere in the world are the only models that could work and it lacks the creative thinking to explore how such models can be adjusted for American landscapes.

I’ll grant this, doing a direct comparison of the U.S. and Europe would make the casual observe believe that, yes, the U.S. is just too big for HSR or any European style rail system. Even when broken down into regions, the U.S. is still at a very different scale from Europe. Take the Midwest for example, it covers an area comparable to much of Western Europe (population 260+ million), but has a population similar to France (approx. 67 million). With only one city of 10 million plus people (Chicago), it also falls far behind the two in this European region and the many of urban regions with over 5 million people there. If the distribution of cities and population are what make a successful HSR system work, well then yeah, Western Europe has a lot on the U.S.

But that’s not all what it takes to make rail feasible and work or what make it a valuable asset.

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The European counties of the UK, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, France, Germany, the Czech Republic and Austria are shown in comparison to the Midwest and Great Lakes States with Chicago and Frankfurt positioned roughly at the same point.

What is too often overlooked in the simplistic argument that the U.S. is too big is considering the way rail fits into larger socio-economic, environmental, and transportation systems that are both dependent and independent of geography. There are of course the environmental reasons for promoting investments in rail over investments in car infrastructure and aviation. Trains contribute significantly less to global climate change than the latter two, but the environmental argument alone isn’t a huge sell for many Americans (unfortunately) and is at the very least it’s well established. Additionally, although the costs of building the system are high, the economic output that would likely result is even greater. That’s moving in the right direction. Perception is powerful though, and this all means nothing if people think the country is just too big for a system to be built anyhow.

But now it’s time to start thinking outside the box?

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France, superimposed over the Midwest, occupies a relatively small portion of region.


There are a few particular points that indicate geography and scale are not the significant roadblocks to HSR and passenger rail generally believed. One point is how the system is going to be used. There are two models one can look at in determining the design of a HSR and passenger rail system. One is the German system, which really looks more like a subway system. Routes criss-cross a region connecting multiple urban centers of various size and varying in importance. Such a system would make sense along the Atlantic coast where urban centers are more scattered and a passenger getting on at Point A may be getting off an any number of points between A and B. Then there is the French model, which is all about getting people to and from a single primary center to outlying more minor urban regions.


This map shows the different HSR systems in Europe and how each country follows pretty much one of two models, the German or French one. (Source:

The applicable model is important when considering geography. In the German model, trains run at slower speeds and can share tracks with conventional trains, because the shorter distances between stops means trains can never really pick up speed anyhow. In the French model, speed is king. With more express or almost express services, the goal is to get passengers from Point A to B with few to no stops in between; often because it’s not even necessary. A geographic and demographic distribution similar to Europe is significantly more important for the German model, but the French model could easily benefit from the spatial geography of a region like the Midwest.

Let’s focus on the Midwest as an example.

Part of what makes HSR in the French model work is trains getting up to very high speeds cutting down the door-to-door travel times while having the option to offer frequent service throughout the day in a more comfortable surrounding than an airplane. Competition with cars and planes though means trains need to hit speeds of well over 180 kph (110 mph) and usually closer to 320 kph (200 mph) (Link: 10 Fastest Trains in the World). The longer the distance between stops and the fewer stops means the faster trains can go and the better they can maintain their speed. The Midwest is ideal for such a system. With Chicago at its center and most traffic going to and from Chicago with few large cities between it and other major centers a system modeled on the French one here would be highly competitive.

Indeed, the long stretches of relatively flat land with few barriers (natural and man-made) means Midwestern trains could be some of the fastest in the world. Running at speeds comparable to the Renfe between Madrid and Barcelona an express train from Chicago to Minneapolis/St. Paul would arrive in about 2 hours, 10 minutes. At a maximum, there would likely be 4-6 intermediary stops (Chicago-O’Hare, Milwaukee, Madison, LaCrosse, Rochester, and maybe Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport). This is barely half the number along the Acela Express from Boston to Washington, D.C. with an average of 70 miles between stops in the Midwest versus 32 miles along the Acela. Combined with trains that have improved acceleration and breaking technologies common on German systems a Midwestern system could be globally state of the art. Here, geography is less an impediment to rail, and more a benefit.


A Finnish train outside of Helsinki mid-winter (Source:


In our Midwestern model, weather also plays a major role in supporting a strong rail based transportation system. The size of the Midwest will never save it from two things: summer thunderstorms and winter weather. Both of these can cause havoc at regional airports and on roadways and are especially troublesome for a singular aviation center, Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. A Chicago Tribune article from 2013 looked at the numbers and reasons for flight delays at O’Hare and bad weather year-round socked the city’s airports’ on-time departure rankings. Unlike airports and airplanes, which can be quickly and more dramatically affected by severe weather trains, which are by no means immune, at least offer A) an alternative mode of transportation and B) can get through more before getting shut down.

In a region like the Midwest, where thunderstorms are common in the summer with snowy, cold winters, providing a quick and convenient transportation option that can get people around the cancelled flights and slogging traffic (or keep them out of it in the first place) is essential and up to now missing. Considering how much air and road traffic goes through Chicago this is significant for improving passenger and freight movements through the region. Since most any Midwest HSR system would in all likelihood include stops at O’Hare it would actually enhance intraregional and national passenger traffic.

Chicago’s O’Hare is a major hub, but not necessarily a major destination. One of the keys to making O’Hare function successfully is getting people and planes in and out of the airport as efficiently as possible. Weather regularly confounds those efforts and causing delays creating backups that include short-haul flights within the region and important national and international long-haul flights. Opening up capacity at O’Hare can be achieved by decreasing the number of short-haul flights to the airport from within the Midwest. This would improve operations year round and improve performance when operations are limited by bad weather.

And HSR makes this entirely possible at O’Hare. Chicago is within the Top 3 destinations for many of the region’s major cities (#1 from Cleveland, #2 from Detroit, St. Louis, Indianapolis each, and #3 from Kansas City) as well as the fourth top destination from Milwaukee. All of these are within 2-3 hours or less of Chicago based on optimistic proposals for a Midwestern HSR system. If an HSR system was built in the Midwest and bad weather strikes fewer passengers would get trapped at O’Hare, because the first or final leg of their journey to or from O’Hare would be by train rather than plane.

That’s not to say trains equal problem free winters. A study from the Swedish Royal Institution of Technology (KTH) called Gröna Tåget examines the problems facing high-speed rail operations in climates with harsh winters such as the Nordic countries, Russia, and northern Japan. While winters pose very robust engineering and planning problems for high-speed rail operations (and rail operations in general) they are not problems that are impossible to overcome. There are still many areas for improvement. Indeed, the Midwest’s geography in particular may be more ideal for HSR in wintry environments, because it’s relatively flat compared to Scandinavia where on top of everything snow build-up in valleys and avalanches are problematic too. Growing HSR systems in Russia and China and older ones in Germany and Japan show that winter isn’t as much of an impediment to rail as it may seem and reinforces the positive impact it can have in relation to other transportation modes.


This is just one proposal for HSR in the U.S. This map gives more details about the types of services offered. (Source:

Weather disrupting air and road traffic though isn’t unique to the Midwest. Regions like the Deep South and Texas, both of which experience thunderstorms in the summer and the remnants of hurricanes would benefit from transportation modes that redistribute passenger traffic over a number of modes too. Indeed, these two regions share another common characteristic with the Midwest: both have major hub airports serving the American aviation network (Dallas-Fort Worth and Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson airports), that could also be connected to HSR and passenger rail systems serving their immediate surroundings and regions. Indeed, a hub-and-spoke HSR system in the South with Atlanta at its center could beneficially serve Hartsfield-Jackson International airport the same way as with O’Hare in the Midwest. And all this means less traffic at airports allowing for a greater focus on the major mid- and long-haul flights people are most likely connecting to, less congestion in security lines and terminals, and fewer emissions and noise pollution from fewer flights overall.


According to Shanghaiist, an ambitious new plan has been unveiled to connect Beijing and Hong Kong by an HSR line that will cover the 2,400 km (1,490 miles) distance in 8 hours. This is an equivalent distance to Amtrak’s Silver Star or Silver Meteor routes between New York City and Miami, which each take more than 27 hours. The article, which was shared by the Midwest High Speed Rail Association on its Facebook page, has made the rounds of social media as an example of the China’s increasingly superior HSR network. Granted that the construction of single, essentially transcontinental HSR lines is impressive, it’s not a shame the U.S. isn’t doing that, or at least not to the extent that China is (as well as Europe to an extent), because a U.S. network needs to serve the needs of the U.S. and reflect the realities of the country, including in terms of our geography, and there are plenty of ways HSR and other passenger rail services can do just that.

This is important to remember when planning and thinking about any model of passenger rail development. Although there are certain trends and truths that are universal, the way to apply them isn’t always identical. Examples like those from China are great to inspire something better in the U.S., but they’re not set in stone. I can see it already though, critics explaining how the U.S. is just too big for a system like China’s, because we have fewer people spread over more of the country than China.

Well, duh! The U.S. will never have the huge, concentrated population of eastern China that supporting massive transcontinental HSR lines. But that’s basing an American rail system on a country unlike the U.S. And that’s fine. China is not Europe is not the U.S. At the very least China can continue to set an example of what is possible. As Rick Harnish, Executive Director of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association pointed out in an e-mail interview “in ten years China has connected the equivalent of Miami to Boston, New York to Omaha, and New Orleans to St. Paul.”

That’s really impressive for sure and although it’s built to serve different demographic needs it also exposes the ironic situation the U.S. is in. The U.S. has a set of integrated regions and megalopolises to support regional systems connected to each other via long-distance trains or connecting hubs, all of which are included in realistic proposals for HSR and passenger rail improvements in the U.S. and none of which are nearly as big as the Chinese system. So how has the U.S. managed to achieve so little? Europe and Japan are successful by virtue of geography and technology. China is successful because of population and technology. The U.S. falls somewhere in the middle. Clearly the geography of the U.S. isn’t too big for comprehensive rail systems or its population too small and there is plenty of technology to fix the quirks. We simply have a limited perception of what’s possible.

All these arguments have gotten so swamped with chatter about how we’re not Europe or China and how unrealistic this whole HSR thing is that we’re losing sight of important details. Europe and China only offer examples for us to build on and most proposals are incredibly realistic. In an interview with Talk of the Nation on NPR Dr. Christopher Barkan of the Rail Transportation and Engineering Center at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign provides insight into the geographic practicalities of HSR compared to other modes explaining the sweet spot for HSR is somewhere between 240 and 1120 km (150-700 miles). Most existing proposals for HSR in the U.S. are well within this range and some routes are much shorter. The Northeast Corridor for example could be extended another 435 km (270 miles) and still be within this ideal range for HSR. That’s an extension from Washington, D.C. to Norfolk, VA.



Fantasy map of an HSR network in the U.S. (Source:

Yeah, some ideas are definitely too far outside the realm of possibility, such as one fantasy map showing a transcontinental HSR network with routes that carry trains from Miami to San Francisco and Québec to Cleveland… via Dallas! While it manages to simultaneously engage people in the discussion about HSR it also worrying reinforces a perception that HSR and passenger rail advocates in the U.S. day dream about trains that will whisk people from Seattle to Washington, D.C., rather than more realistic and practical dream of trains from Las Vegas to Los Angeles or New York City to Montréal. And these are the ones we should be discussing.

So okay, there are in fact pipe dreams out there, but the overwhelming majority of proposals are really well though out and realistic HSR and passenger rail concepts. What’s strange about arguing the U.S. is too big for HSR–or better passenger rail in general–is that usually the U.S. never sees itself as too big for anything. It’s just this time that we’re breaking from that mold. This point alone shows how the particular argument being challenged here is pretty blatantly used as a means to mask various other more subjective reasons to oppose HSR. If the U.S. never limits itself because of size, how did the country suddenly grow too big? The U.S. is not too big for HSR and it’s not too big for rail, we’re just thinking too small.

We’re a country of big dreams and big ideas and yet the dreams many have for passenger rail in the U.S. are pretty modest compared to international examples. HSR networks that connect specific regions, expanded passenger services, and potentially improvements that will make transcontinental trips an overnight journey instead of a weekend long excursion are all much more realistic than most of us think or are told to believe. How we let ourselves fall into the trap of suddenly thinking we’re too small for anything is pretty unfortunate and getting over that thinking alone won’t make HSR and better passenger rail services appear over night, but it’ll sure as hell help.

As Harnish put it bluntly, “Perception is everything.”

My Two Cents: The Sun Times Made Awful Transit Advice

I’m not sure what the Sun Times editorial board was thinking when they penned a piece endorsing improvements to Chicago’s transit systems, but from what I read it doesn’t seem like they were thinking all that much. The editorial board endorses and scorns major transit initiatives in the region, but their picks are mostly uneducated and thoughtless and far from pragmatic.

Their endorsements include the Red Line extension south form 95th Street to 130th Street and an extension of the Blue Line west from Forest Park to Yorktown Center in Lombard–okay, not too shabby. But, the board also coldly dismisses a proposed 16-mile bus rapid transit line along Ashland Avenue as “dead for now, for good reason” and endorses a pie in the sky plan to build an express train from the Loop to O’Hare using an elevated track above the Kennedy Expressway and Blue Line O’Hare branch.

The board [kind of] got off to a good start with some endorsements and an acknowledgement that a world-class city can’t rely on cars alone. What’s disappointing aren’t necessarily the projects the board endorses, but the way they dole out their endorsement. Calls for ambitious transit improvements are commendable, but the editorial board failed overall with these endorsements as a group. Most of these projects make up parts of the Center of Neighborhood Technology and Active Transportation Alliance’s ambitious Transit Future campaign.


The Transit Future campaign proposes major expansion of Cook County’s transit network.

The editorial board is clearly well aware of discussions and activism concerning transit in the region, but they’re tone deaf to what these discussions are about and what transit activist and experts are saying. Had the editorial board really listened, it would’ve been clear enough the better endorsement is just the Transit Future as a whole: it provides a clear yet ambitious vision for transit in and around Chicago in the near future, while simultaneously offering policy and funding proposals that could make this vision a reality. Few plans on the books do that.

But they picked and they chose specific projects and apparently with little rhyme or reason. There is sense to the madness for sure: the extension of the Red Line south has been discussed for years now with little to show and ever since former Mayor Richard J. Daley visited Shanghai visions for high-speed express trains from O’Hare to the Loop have danced in planners heads like sugar plums.

Why the board decided to endorse the ridiculous proposal for a “double-decker” express train brought forth by Chicago’s new aviation chief Ginger Evans is a mystery. And why they write off the Ashland BRT proposal without explanation even more so. I guess it must suck just that much (not!)

I cannot say I endorse the Sun Time’s endorsement. And while I feel I’ve made my two cents known, I can’t ignore the Sun Time’s method of picking and choosing specific projects either. Lists are too much fun. As such, I think its worth making one-on-one alternate endorsements for better projects.

Why? To show the truth breadth and thoughtfulness of transit proposals for the region, ignored by the Sun Times.

  1. CrossRail Chicago: Proposed by the Midwest High Speed Rail Association,

    This map shows how CrossRail Chicago would allow for improvements in and out of Chicagoland.

    CrossRail Chicago would roll a number of projects into one. Essentially, a mix of track and infrastructure improvements between O’Hare and Union Station would facilitate the introduction of express trains between the airport and the Loop. Further improvements would allow trains to travel through Union Station to Metra Electric tracks. This is even better, because it allows conventioneers going to McCormack Place to get off at their destination and improve access to O’Hare from the South Side via Hyde Park. Additionally, these improvements would facilitate the introduction of high-speed express trains to the Midwest’s intercity rail system.

  2. The Mid-City Transit Way (Lime Line): Similar to the Ashland BRT, the Mid-City Transit Way (or Lime Line) is a proposed ‘L’ line that would travel north-south without going through the Loop. Built on abandoned rail embankments it would run from Jefferson Park to Midway and potentially east to the Red Line. Just two blocks east of Cicero Avenue it would connect Far West Side communities and a number of ‘L’ and Metra lines as well as both Chicago airports via Jefferson Park. A major improvement to airport access it is logistically the easiest way to build an entirely new ‘L’ line in Chicago. While the Blue Line extensions endorsed by the Sun Times are enticing, this seems like a more realistic option for the near future, and one that still makes a mark.
  3. Commuter Conversions: Commuter Conversions, or turning commuter rail lines (Metra) in to rapid transit lines (the ‘L’), is such an overlooked option for improving transit in Chicago it doesn’t even seem within people’s conceivable imagination. Yet, it’s a cheap option, because it uses existing infrastructure, and can be implemented incrementally over time. Currently, only one major proposal exists for such a conversion and its for the Metra Electric along the south lakefront. If the idea were expanded over the entire Metra system however, it could vastly increase connectivity to the suburbs and eliminate the need for some costly rail lines. It’s cheap and its pragmatic and it’s something other cities are doing at an impressive scale.

At the end of the day, I do feel silly writing something that is essentially bickering about what commendable transit proposal is the best. But there is good reason for such bickering. Chicago has a great transit system, but has a long way to go before things get called “world-class”. But with limited resources its important to pick your battles. Costs, rider needs, logistically realities all play a role in transit planning, and the endorsements made by the Sun Time’s editorial board seems to consider none of this and that’s where the Sun Times fails in their endorsements.

A subtle hand can be as strong as a bold one, and sometimes the bold ones are the most impactful if not the most powerful.