The perplexing buzz of high-speed trains
Kristen McQueary firstname.lastname@example.org | (708) 633-5972 April 8, 2011 6:14PM
Gov. Pat Quinn (at microphone) talks to the media Sept. 17, 2010, at the Amtrak station in Alton, Ill., announcing a $98 million project to prepare a section of railroad tracks in preparation for a high-speed rail service between Chicago and St. Louis. |
Updated: January 23, 2012 2:10AM
Here’s the set-up: You decide to enjoy a long weekend in Springfield this summer with the wife and kids. Maybe you’ll explore the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum and visit Abe’s grave site at Oakridge Cemetery.
It might be adventurous to take Amtrak, and why not? The direct Chicago-to-Springfield route would allow you the flexibility to read a book during the journey while your kids play “I spy.”
So you peruse Amtrak’s schedule out of Union Station. You consider $30 per day parking costs in downtown Chicago. You worry about luggage and how to transport the family easily from the Springfield Amtrak station to the hotel, and then to the museum and over to the cemetery.
You glance out the window at the Honda Odyssey minivan parked in the driveway. Equipped with a turn-by-turn navigation system, a flip-down television and DVD player and a small cooler for drinks and snacks, it also has space to stash your golf clubs in the back. Plus, you could stop for an Avanti’s gondola in Bloomington-Normal.
Done. Van it is.
As we reliably gravitate to the comfort of our feature-rich automobiles — satellite radio, mapping and navigation, television screens, heated seats and hybrids — the government continues to try to sell us on rail.
The latest skirmish erupted when Florida Gov. Rick Scott announced he would not accept $2.4 billion in federal money for a high-speed rail line. Mayors, governors and transportation geeks from Los Angeles to New York lurched at the chance to swipe Florida’s share. We did, too. Illinois is among the states competing for a piece.
But here’s the thing: People in the United States generally don’t dig trains, not for long-distance travel and not in a manner consistent enough to justify the expense, particularly when our national debt is tipping $14 trillion.
Ours is a country, unlike any other, built on a system of modern interstate highways.
And so what seems to be lacking in many news reports about the tongue-wagging, gasping orgy under way to grab federal money is a serious discussion of need. Do we really need high-speed? Who will be using these trains? What are the long-term costs of construction and maintenance well beyond 2025, when President Barack Obama hopes to compete the web of high-speed track?
It’s simply illogical to compare the United States to the vastly overpopulated, metropolitan cities of China or Europe’s system that connects London to Paris. We’re talking about fast trains from Chicago to St. Louis and Kansas City. Demand is not quite as high.
Plus, we would be starting from scratch. Amtrak’s infrastructure cannot accommodate high-speed trains.
What would make more sense would be a concentrated upgrade of existing urban routes used by commuters on a daily basis.
How about investing more federal money in Metra’s proposed STAR Line, which aims to connect more than 100 suburban Chicago communities in a sweeping arc from Waukegan to Chicago Heights? How about building Metra’s proposed SouthEast Service line through the south suburbs?
Metra unveiled both projects several years ago but has no money to turn the dirt. Those routes would do more to ease congestion along Chicago’s clogged expressways and to reduce pollution, commute times and energy consumption than a pie-in-the-sky high-speed rail system linking non-destination cities.
And since building stuff with government money seems to be both parties’ only idea for job creation, we can assume two new Metra lines would put a few transportation workers back in business, too.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood was quoted recently saying Americans want high-speed rail.
“Citizens are way ahead of the politicians on this,” he said. “They want to get off the roads and on the train.”
No, they don’t. Perhaps in theory but not practice.
Americans want automakers to continue innovation toward fuel efficiency, convenience and more cool gadgets for their cars. They want soft leather seats and keyless entry.
They are not clamoring for a fast train to the Quad Cities.