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.

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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.

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

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.

 

Fingers crossed for a Burke win in Wisconsin

Americans… or at least 30% of eligible voters, will be hitting the polls today to vote in the Midterm Elections. This set of elections fall midway between presidential elections and have historically low turn out. Yet, they are often vital for the political structure of state and federal legislatures: the entire House of Representatives is up for reelection, important Senate seats are voted on this day, and many states have gubernatorial elections. This is no mediocre election period. And this Midterm is particularly vital. The state of Wisconsin is voting on whether to reelect the controversial and contentious incumbent Scott Walker or newly elect the former Trek Bicycle executive and business friendly liberal Mary Burke. I disdain Walker, but I’m not enamored with Burke either. I am praying that Burke wins.

This gubernatorial election in Wisconsin stands above every other vote in the country right now, because it is essentially a referendum on the Republican Party’s ultra-conservative orthodoxy that put a strangle hold on political action in recent years. If Burke wins, fingers crossed she does, it will be a strong message to the Republican Party that they can no longer challenge the rights of workers to collectively bargain, they cannot try to destroy unions, they need to listen to the people, foster healthy communities by holding strong on investments in education, innovative jobs, and sustainable infrastructure, and essentially that the platform they have adopted in the last few years was a reactionary blip to the election of Barack Obama that no longer has broad popular support and the error of their ways became quickly apparent.

Although I will be voting in Illinois today, my eyes will be on Wisconsin. The state has a special place in my heart: I spent three years in Madison and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. There I learned about Wisconsin politics and what makes the state tick. I developed a greater appreciation for the Midwest as a whole and most importantly began thinking about the importance of intergovernmental cooperation and partnership across the Midwest for mutual benefit. Walker dropped a bomb on a state I was eager to get to know. The Wisconsin state motto “Forward” made me think I was entering a progressive utopia where despite political and social differences people ultimately worked to move incrementally forward even if just at a crawl. In the years I spent in Wisconsin, that sense of consistent progression died at the hands of virulent partisanship. The idea of “hotdish politics”, as my friends call it, was long gone and the state has struggled since.

Burke is the candidate who, even if not exciting, will bring steadiness back to Wisconsin. She will be able to use years of business, political, municipal, and charitable expertise to improve the state’s finances, economy, and education. She has worked to expand Trek Bicycle nationally and internationally and will better understand the importance of cooperation for growth. Her track record is impressive and is significantly more comforting than what Walker had to show when he was first elected in 2010. This will be a change from the competition Walker encourages, a man who lauds jobs coming to Wisconsin at the expense of other neighbor states rather than look at ways to connect these economies. He is notorious for turning down free investment dollars to expand rail from Chicago to Madison via Milwaukee and on to the Twin Cities. This was a key to creating a Midwest high-speed rail network and would be the first regularly scheduled passenger rail service to Wisconsin’s capital in 30 years.

A Burke win represents steadiness and a return to Wisconsin’s progressive spirit. A Walker loss is a strong message to the GOP and ultra-conservative interests in the entire country. Burke needs to win in Wisconsin and get state and Midwestern growth back on track and bring the region out of an overly competitive state that benefits no one. Walker’s loss is important in setting a new tone in American politics that favors cooperation of competition, the people over business, and sustainable growth over laissez-faire policies.

I couldn’t hit the polls in Madison today so I can only cross my fingers that Burke wins.

 

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.