By Eric Jaffe, October 22, 2013
The discussion of high-speed rail in the United States has been so focused on the California bullet train that some people may be surprised to learn it's not the only proposal in the mix. Less advanced but no less ambitious plans exist for fast trains in the Midwest, Texas, and the Northeast Corridor.
With work on the California line finally underway, it seems fitting to check in on the three other projects.
Courtesy of the University of Illinois High Speed Rail Study
Late last month, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (working with the Illinois Department of Transportation, among others) released a preliminary study of a possible Midwest high-speed rail line that would link Chicago with Indianapolis or St. Louis — or perhaps both. The report concluded that such a project is indeed feasible and would "provide safe, modern, sustainable transportation for future generations."
The new report offers a range of cost figures for a 220 mph service capable of connecting Chicago's Union Station with either St. Louis or Indianapolis in about 2 hours. For the full build, stretching to all three major Midwest cities, the cost could reach as high as $50 billion, and would certainly require public or private money to cover construction costs. But with a possible 14.5 million riders by 2035, the study also predicts that fares would cover daily operations.
Recent Amtrak figures speak to the potential of enhanced rail in this Midwest corridor. Ridership on the Lincoln service that connects Chicago and St. Louis carried more than 655,000 passengers in fiscal 2013 — nearly a 10 percent jump from the previous year, the largest jump of any Amtrak route in the country [PDF]. The big question would be what to call the new service: no one's going to name a bullet train after Lincoln.
Believe it or not, there's a private rail company in Texas that thinks it can complete a high-speed rail line in that state even before the California route gets going. The Texas Central Railway says it expects to complete an environmental study on a bullet service connecting Dallas to Houston by the end of the year — complete with station locations. Company officials say 200 mph trains (the same as those used on the Tokaido Shinkansen in Japan) could start carrying passengers as early as 2020.
Of course, there are quite a few questions to answer between now and then. Texas Central bills its service as a cheap, convenient, and even luxurious alternative to air travel. That might not go over well with Southwest Airlines, which holds a lot of weight in the region, and has scuttled fast train plans in the past. Reports suggest that local officials from places like Arlington and Fort Worth may also oppose any service that doesn't stop in their towns.
Those straggles aside, the Texas Central plan seems to be gaining momentum. The company claims the Central Japan Railway Company as a likely investor in the project (early estimates stand around $10 billion). To that end, it's secured the consulting services of J. Thomas Schieffer, former U.S. ambassador to Japan. Last but not least, the Texas Department of Transportation, which has conducted its own high-speed studies, has said it will step aside if private interests move forward.
Amtrak released its vision for high-speed rail in the Northeast Corridor in 2012 [PDF], and a spokesman confirms that's still the latest plan out there. Much of the news concerning that proposal focused on the whopping $151 billion price tag, but the country's most popular rail corridor would certainly get something for its money. If Amtrak achieved its goal, travelers could expect to reach Washington or Boston from New York in just 90 minutes by 2040.
Ultimately, Amtrak would like to establish several tiers of train service in the corridor: with express and super express trains joining the regular regions. (The Japanese naming influence here is quite clear.) Amtrak ridership has thrived in the Washington-Boston corridor in recent years, with trains now preferred to air travel in the region. Despite its popularity, service in the Northeast Corridor will eventually plateau if it doesn't make a high-speed transformation.
Right now it's hard to see how Congress would ever put the needed money in place. Still, elements of the vision have received federal support — namely, the so-called "Gateway" project to enhance service into and out of midtown Manhattan under the Hudson River. That project got a brief injection of funding in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, and officials broke ground on an 800-foot concrete tunnel for the train last month. California, you've got company.