High-speed rail is a system that serves many destinations, both large and small, by integrating new segments of high-speed track with our existing railroad network. By combining high-speed trunk lines with sections of existing track, high-speed rail takes you from your "point A" to your "point B," not just the biggest or most popular desinations.
While on high-speed track, trains travel at least 125 mph, and ideally faster than 200 mph. Reaching these speeds reliably and safely requires building new electrified, high-speed lines that are dedicated to passenger trains and completely separated from roads and freight trains. These dedicated high-speed lines will be built where the tracks can be mostly level and straight. High-speed trains reach city centers and destinations beyond high-speed trunk lines by connecting seamlessly to upgraded sections of the existing rail network on both ends.
Successful high-speed rail systems around the world prove that fast trains benefit large cities, small towns and rural areas. They are constructed in segments, introducing incremental improvements at each stage of development.
New train equipment operates at very high speeds on new lines and improves travel times on older, existing track. This builds ridership, revenue, and early public support for continued investment. In America, we can look at the example of our interstate highway system, which complented our existing highway network and was funded and built in the same incremental manner.
A successful high-speed rail system:
- Gets you where you're going as fast, or faster, than driving or flying
- Offers very frequent service, such as an easy-to-remember "clock face" schedule where trains leave every hour, on the hour
- Serves many markets and numerous political constituencies
- Offers a variety of service levels, from non-stop express to all-stop commuter, with well-coordinated connections.
As is the standard around the globe, high-speed rail in the Midwest will use traditional "steel wheel on steel rail" technology, not maglev or hyperloop.
What makes high-speed rail successful?
High-speed rail travel time must be competitive with flying or driving, what exactly "competitive" means depends on the distance and type of trip.
In many markets, a perceived trip time comparable to driving is sufficient, especially if trains are reliable, frequent and comfortable. Travel time to the station must be taken into account. A shorter trip on the train means the traveler’s origin and destination can be farther from the station while the entire trip remains competitive with driving. As the train gets faster, the potential market grows.
For example, a four-hour schedule on the Chicago to St. Louis corridor would be competitive with driving from downtown to downtown, but not for travelers beginning and ending in suburbs. A high-speed rail trip of two and half hours between the cities allows for more connecting travel time on each end, while still being competitive with driving. It's even competitive with flying when considering all the time wasted in the "slow parts" of flying: airport security, taxiing, takeoff and landing.
Fast trips also increase travel options and flexiblity. Three hours of travel is the practical threshold for a day trip. This allows enough time for meetings or a business lunch, then getting home in time to tuck the kids into bed. Time spent on the train can also be productive time, while it's mostly wasted when driving or flying.
Illinois is upgrading its conventional tracks from Chicago to St. Louis to increase speeds from 79 mph to 110 mph. This is a good start, and will reduce the trip time from 5 and a half hours to 4 and a half. Annual ridership is expected to nearly double from 660,000 to almost 1.1 million.
Around the world, 110 mph is not an impressive speed for a train that connects two major cities this far apart. Chicago to St. Louis is 280 miles, about the same distance as Paris to Lyon, or Madrid to Sevilla. The high-speed links between these cities have revolutionized travel, and a 220 mph train in the Midwest would be no different. A University of Illinois study suggests that a 220 mph train that cuts the Chicago-St. Louis trip to two hours and offers hourly departures would attract nearly 10 million riders every year. In essence, traveling twice as fast results in 10 times higher ridership.
High speeds alone do not make an effective passenger rail network. High-frequency service is just as important. Greater frequencies reduce total travel times, serve different travel markets throughout the day and improve system reliability. They are needed to make connections with buses, planes and other trains viable.
The acceptable time between trains depends on the length of a journey. If your travel time on the train will be only 30 minutes, waiting an hour for a train seems too long. On transit and commuter trains within urban areas where trips are shorter, a train every 15 minutes is deal. On medium-distance, inter-city rail journeys, a train every hour is reasonable. For longer trips into rural areas, twice-daily departures in the morning and evening can be sufficient.
Total travel time includes every stage of the journey from the moment you depart to the moment you arrive, including the time you are waiting for the train.
Longer wait times not only add to total travel time, they make the entire travel experience less pleasurable. Waiting an hour in a train station feels longer than spending an hour on a moving train. Increased frequencies translates into decreased waiting.
Conisder a trip from Indianapolis to Chicago. Driving takes about 3.5 hours. A high-speed train would make the trip in about 2 hours. If the train leaves every 3 hours, then on average, you'll have to wait 1.5 hours for the next time. So, the total travel time is an average of 3.5 hours, which is no longer faster than driving. If you just miss a train and have to wait the full three hours, your effective travel time is 5.5 hours!
Ideally, there's a train every hour, making the average wait time only 30 minutes. Total travel time for all train riders will average 2.5 hours, which definitely beats driving. In the worst case scenario, if you have to wait a full hour for the train, the whole trip is only 3 hours—still faster than driving.
Different travel markets overlap throughout the day. Business travelers may be departing before sunrise, commuters travel during rush hour, leisure travelers and shoppers may be on the move during the middle of the day. If there isn't a train late enough at night to get you home after dinner or a show, you won't take the train in the first place. More departures provide more choices for more travel markets, increasing ridership.
Greater frequencies also lead to greater reliability. A frequent schedule gives travelers lots of options if they are running behind schedule, whether it's own fault or the railroad's. More frequent trains also gives the railroad more options to accomodate passengers in case of mechanical failures or other service disruptions.
Successful high-speed trains connect with other forms of transportation: local buses, intercity buses, transit systems, and even airports. The interconnections between those systems usually create wait times, which factor into total travel times. Higher train, bus, and transit frequencies reduce the potential wait times resulting from those transfers, thereby reducing total travel times.
High-speed rail systems around the world have been developed and expanded in phases, blending into and taking advantage of the existing passenger rail network. They are highly integrated with transit systems, intercity bus lines, and airports. Sometimes they share track with freight trains. A high-speed line is not a system unto itself, but rather an essential part of a much bigger transportation framework.
The essence of high-speed rail is robust interconnectivity and frequency: serving as many travelers as possible with each investment. And yet, most discussion regarding high-speed rail in the U.S. has focused on the “100–500 mile sweet spot,” a presumed optimal distance between two large cities. The promise of high-speed rail cannot be evaluated by only studying the ridership between two end-point cities, nor by considering each city pair to be a separate, stand-alone market. This approach overlooks the benefits of a highly interconnected network that provides reliable travel between many places. Networks transform the potential of each individual segment, so that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Passenger rail planning in the U.S. needs to abandon its preoccupation with city pairs and focus instead on networks.
Design each investment to serve as many people as possible, and the neccessary political support will follow. This seems simple, but railroad planning in the U.S. is stymied by fragmented jurisdictions and funding streams. Decisions about commuter trains, regional trains, national trains and freight trains all happen separately. People's travel needs are not neatly divided into these categories, and as a result, many potential trips are missed by planning models.
We need a new mindset and planning framework that recognizes that each infrastructure investment can serve multiple purposes and that each train can serve many market segments.
Gaining the most traffic to support each new piece of infrastructure requires gathering people from far and wide. That means creating strong links to connecting services. High-speed rail is not a system unto itself, it is an essential part of a much bigger transportation framework. Fast trains are the most effective when their schedules, fares, and physical connections are closely coordinated with other trains, transit, buses, and airports.
Faster trains reach more smaller cities
The attractive force of high-speed rail reaches greater distances than conventional passenger rail service. The increased demand justifies branch lines that connect farther flung communities to the high-speed lines and the network. Once in place, those branch lines make possible additional commuter or regional services that would not be viable without the traffic resulting from the high-speed sections.
Fast trains from Chicago to Indianapolis could produce enough ridership to make branch lines radiating out from Indianapolis to Bloomington, Louisville, and Muncie feasible. Travelers from those cities could reach Chicago faster and more affordably than by car or airline. Those branch lines could also host commuter and regional services that would connect those cities to Indianapolis and each other.