Improving American Rail, pt. 6: Building out better regional rail

High-speed rail (HSR) is glitzy and glamorous. There is no question that it has captured the public’s imagination to an extent. It is a commendable accomplishment to see such a serious discussion revolving around the development of modern and competitive rail infrastructure. However, if the final goal are trains akin to those famous ones in France, Japan, and now China then the first infrastructure developments have to be, out of necessity for the survival of the whole system, significantly more functional and less glamorous: it’ll have to be regional rail.  Stations are important, organizational structure is important, but a functional regional rail system is the glue keeping the whole thing together.

Like I have mentioned in a pervious article, the whole process begins by breaking up Amtrak and keeping only limited oversight, funding, and coordinating powers in a national body out of Washington, D.C. (or another city). The major powers to operate and maintain the system would be handed over to regional systems: New England and the Mid-Atlantic (i.e. the Northeast Corridor), the Midwest, the South, Texas and Southern Plains, the Great Plains, the Mountain States, California and the Southwest, and the Pacific Northwest. Such a system would look much more like Europe, where national rail operators run autonomous systems with high levels of coordination and partnership through the EU and other trans-European entities helping to coordinate trans-national projects and services. This would be where DC still plays a role.


This is the map I featured in the original post. Regions are outlines in black, high-speed rail routes (150-200 plus mph) are in red, major intercity routes are in orange, and trans-national routes are in blue. Canadian high-speed routes are in pink.

At a more localized level, each of these regional rail services could be further partitioned into operating districts organized around either a major urban center or cluster of smaller cities. Each of these could in fact be further subdivided into smaller districts that are even more localized, or used to coordinate how regional and intercity services work in relation to urban rail and transportation services. From a superficial perspective it does appear like a number of unnecessary layers and operating organizations, but the whole purpose of layered operations is to ensure a level of coordination wherein transfers between modes is actually convenient.


The green circle shows everything within 200 miles of Chicago (approx. 3 hour drive). Image from

Take a region like the Northeast Illinois and Southeast Wisconsin. At no point are any of the three major cities more than about 2 hours from each other by car. Travel between Madison, Milwaukee, and Chicago is frequent and done for a variety of reasons and considering their close proximity if the infrastructure was available could be done without ever having to step in a car. But it isn’t there.

Issues have arisen in developing better connections including funding, planning, political bottlenecks and so on. One of the benefits of having a larger entity coordinating funding and services above the local level, but outside of the direct control of states and their own political turmoil, is the potential to orchestrate the development of service types with broad mutually beneficial outcomes. While commuter rail does a good job of shuttling people between the suburbs of a city into the urban core and intercity rail or high-speed rail adequately moves people from city center to city center, there is nothing in between. That in between stage though is necessary for the success of other modes of transportation and making sure people can live car-free to a greater extent.

Regional Rail from Chicago

What would regional rail out of Chicago look like? Multiple lines could theoretically radiate from the Chicago connecting numerous cities and towns within 150-175 miles of Chicago. At major cities like Milwaukee or Madison passengers from smaller cities can use the regional system to connect with HSR lines and long-distant intercity lines. Regional Rail is shown in RED, long-distance intercity rail is in GREEN, high-speed rail is in BLUE.

This type of system is necessary to support other options: transit use begets more transit use. While subways and LTR are great in cities and HSR remains an ideal option for connecting the centers of major cities regional rail systems necessarily weave these all together. While HSR passengers might use urban rail upon arrival, not all travelers are going point-to-point just between major city centers. This middle ground rail option is what connects smaller points in between to the larger nodes where transfers between multiple options are possible. Such systems have the potential to be huge boons to maintain economies and bringing new investment to areas struggling like Michigan while also supporting newly prosperous areas like the string of cities in the central part of North Carolina.

North Carolina Regional Rail

This image shows the three major metropolitan regions in North Carolina and one in Virginia, all of which would benefit from the connectivity that results form a strong regional rail system.

By no means should regional rail options be viewed as a half-assed approach to high-speed rail nor a competitor for dollars. Although I don’t believe many people view it that way, I do think people misconstrue the role and purpose of different kinds of rail operations. There an honest recognition of the role of different service types needs to be maintained. The concept of regional rail is to connect people within already interconnected regions and act as a middle ground between local and urban transportation options and long-distance/intercity options. This is why I’ve only provided examples of regions where end-to-end trips could reasonably be made in less than 2-2.5 hours at speeds somewhere between 80-100 mph. The distance between endpoints is thus limited to about 175 miles, which is fine. Anything longer might run the risk of becoming an inconvenient hybrid of regional and intercity rail (more on intercity rail later).

Putting a renewed focus on regional rail systems–the “in between system”–is the best next step in advancing the passenger rail in the United States. Regional rail is the keystone of a strong multi-modal and equitable intercity transit system, because a regional rail system achieves many things the other modes don’t: it services smaller communities and even cities that would otherwise be passed with HSR or even a traditional long-distance intercity train, they can travel at speeds competitive with cars (80-100 mph), while not requiring the same costly infrastructure investment as HSR, and regional rail can double as commuter rail for communities outside the normal reach of commuter rail or where none exists or could be supported in isolation. But, it stills serves more than the express purpose of getting commuters in and out of a city center.

The best tool to connect cities, people, and transportation options in a more complete web regionalized rail systems that bring equitable transit further from city centers and complements urban rail options and long-distance trains, whether conventional intercity trains or HSR. Without a strong regional rail system other transportation options fail by virtue of existing in a vacuum disassociated with each other.


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.



Improving American Rail, part 5: reclaiming our train stations

If you are standing in downtown South Bend, IN, located about a mile and a half from the campus of the University of Notre Dame, and you look south over the city you can see in the near distance a curved roof adjacent to a rail embankment. The structure is the city’s old Union Station. Now defunct it is repurposed to house data centers. If you take the train to South Bend however, you will disembark at one of two stations–the South Bend Airport station or the Amtrak station–both are located in two different parts of town west of the city center; both are a number of miles from important landmarks. No passenger trains stop at the old centrally located Union Station.

In so many cases, this is the reality of train stations in cities all across the country. Old stations, often built-in a palatial styles or at the height of the Art Deco period, stand empty or defunct only to have trains stop at places far outside of town along desolate and meek platforms. In so many cities, contemporary stations have nothing more than the most basic amenities and few could be called centers of civic life or economy. There are grand plans for the reinvigoration of passenger rail in the United States. California is pushing ahead with plans for a high-speed rail line connecting north and south as are Florida and Texas. At a smaller scale Michigan and Illinois are doing the same thing in the Midwest. But the larger conversations seem to stop where the trains do: the stations. A world-class rail system is the product of good service, comfortable and convenient rides, but also great stations. But as far as I can tell, only a handful of stations are getting the attention they deserve.

I spent a good chuck of time writing about the significance of revising Union Station in Chicago, which is disproportionately important because of its location at the center of both the national and Midwest rail systems. The attention Union Station needs is well deserved, but we don’t want a rail system that is like a crown with one real jewel in it and a bunch of faux plastic diamonds surrounding it. Train stations are one of the places where passengers most intimately interact with a rail system. Stations are where the city greets these intercity systems. They also provide malleable ways to begin taking on the massive project of rebuilding a transit system that was lost long ago. They offer more than one use in one place, and that is an immediately tapable characteristic, one which may more easily garner private and public funds.

Unfortunately, we are no longer a home of universally good or great train stations. In so many cities, even where the old head houses still stand, contemporary train stations have transformed into shells of their former selves. Take St. Louis for example. The current intercity train station and transit hub is the Gateway Multimodal Transportation Center. The stop is nothing more than a pedestrian bridge and a few platforms squished between a double-decker highway and rail yard. Interestingly though the old Union Station (an historic landmark) is right around the corner. Although it has been converted into a multi-use complex, it has the capacity to be reinvented as a rail station, one along a potentially bustling passenger rail corridor. It is certainly a more visible structure and location and incredibly more aesthetically pleasing experience.

This map shows what passenger rail connections currently look like in South Bend, IN. The current services (South Shore Line and Amtrak) stop at different stations 1.5 or miles (as the crow flies) outside the city center. These distances are longer when actually routes into town are considered. If the services were re-consolidated at the city's former Union Station, passengers would disembark a 10 minute walk from Downtown.

This map shows what passenger rail connections currently look like in South Bend, IN. The current services (South Shore Line and Amtrak) stop at different stations 1.5 or miles (as the crow flies) outside the city center. These distances are longer when actually routes into town are considered. If the services were re-consolidated at the city’s former Union Station, passengers would disembark a 10 minute walk from Downtown.

There are examples of major improvements though: in Denver and Minneapolis/St. Paul, major overhauls and minor changes to transit organization within the cities were implemented to turn heritage train stations into multi-modal transit and civic centers serving Amtrak, local rail mass transit systems, local buses, and intercity buses. This included modernized facilities and better connected services in a more centrally located station. In the case of Denver’s Union Station the project included and award-winning new train shed. I’ve talked about this before in the context of how important it is to have both a functional and aesthetically pleasing environment.

These are wonderful examples of how cities have taken it upon themselves to reinvent and reclaim their passenger rail stations. At a national level though, a system of best practices, recommendations, and financial incentives to reclaiming old stations can be utilized to push forward a significant part of the national invigoration of passenger rail that from my perspective is being overlooked, but has the potentially to be one of the easier and more manageable aspects of this.

The goals should be to 1) get control of these properties or in cases when heritage stations don’t exist anymore, get control of prime properties for a new train station. This leads in to a series of related goals. The stations or sites should 2) be turned into mixed private-public places with the aim of being civic centers with opportunities to connect to travel options, but also shop, or lease office space. Many European train stations retain the feel of a classic train station while also employing these other elements. Plans can be implemented even to develop the commercial spaces first before the trains arrive to create some use and simply wait to build out platforms. These sites could even become centers for farmer’s markets and art fairs or dance parties and pop-up night clubs. The most important goal is 3) to consolidate services at one station to create easy intermodal connections and bring in a high number of passengers. This isn’t always going to be possible (like in Chicago or New York), but in even in places like tiny South Bend this could make a difference. In this example, consolidation would connect South Shore Lines to Amtrak and provide easier more centralized access to South Bend and 12 plus trains in and out of South Bend in each direction daily. Consolidation alone would make a huge improvement especially if combined with other intermodal connections.

Saint Paul's Union Depot was reclaimed as a multi-modal transportation center with bus, train, and LTR services and was designed with expansion in mind. This includes new local and commuter transit routes, and intercity high-speed rail routes.

Saint Paul’s Union Depot was reclaimed as a multi-modal transportation center with bus, train, and LTR services and was designed with expansion in mind. This includes new local and commuter transit routes, and intercity high-speed rail routes.

Incentives should be made to reinvest in old stations. This could be federal or state grants covering the costs of renovations, priority advertising services for private businesses that donate money to the project, financial aid in the construction of new transit systems that connect to the stations, and increased financial aid to services that voluntarily consolidate services in one station. Speciality grants or long-term aid could be given to taking back old stations previously repurposed for non-transportation uses, like the St. Louis Union Station. Over time, the funds raised from taxes produced in stations and fees on businesses and services using them would hopefully help fund further additions, expansions, and/or renovations.

There are so many ways we can be reimagine, reclaimed and reuse our old train stations and build new ones. New train sets, reconstructed tracks, and better governance is important to improving rail in the United States, but the train stations are really important too and in some ways the most important element of this process. They are the faces of the rail systems and really the infrastructure most people will actually experience on a daily basis, even those not using the system. They also have the ability to function as new community and economic centers in struggling downtowns and city centers. We can’t expect rail to become a viable option and fuel economic change and become competitive transit modes in cities if the stations we have are retained in their sub par form. Too often they’re small, unattractive, and too far from the city centers to be accessible or have a meaningful impact on communities.

A new plan for stations needs to take social, economic, and logistical concerns into account. A plan that defines best practices should be adopted. Incentives to implement it should be identified. Our train stations should be a collection of gems woven into a larger infrastructure system. Some station designs have popped up in localized master plans and the new Denver Union Station is a great example of the possibilities the future holds for American passenger stations. And considering the attention that project got, I think it is safe to say stations are important and should get attention now rather than later.