Trains: The missing option

The Midwest is home to some of the America's most vibrant cities, millions of hard-working families, robust agriculture, world-class universities, and countless tourist attractions. Together, they create one of the world’s strongest economies.

Families, communities, and businesses across our vast region need convenient, timely and affordable travel options. Whether for a family event, an important business meeting, or a college class, nothing beats being there in person.

When our only travel options seem like bad options, it's time for fast, frequent, and reliable trains.

For the vast majority of trips throughout the Midwest, driving is the only convenient option. Long car trips are inefficient and expensive. Air travel has become a dispiriting affair that makes little sense for most trips within the region. Our highways and airports are congested, overburdened. What if there was another option?

Fast, frequent, and reliable train travel is the answer. Modern passenger trains are the only way to make travel more productive, more convenient, and more affordable. Demand for fast and frequent trains has never been stronger. Amtrak ridership has doubled in the last 10 years, and would be growing much faster if there were more trains for people to ride. It's time to give ourselves that option: efficient, expedient train travel.

A great way to travel

Trains offer space to work, eat, relax and socialize while traveling.

As Americans, we love to adopt the latest and greatest technology. In the second half of the 20th century, we abandoned train travel in favor of air travel and car travel. With the speed of the jet engine and the convenience of the interstate highway system, who could blame us? In doing so, we forgot about the conveniences and comforts of train travel. And now, as our highways and airports are choked beyond capacity, and high-speed rail technology is available and established, it's time to take another look at trains.

The layout of a train creates possibilities for comfort and productivity that an airplane or car simply cannot match. When factoring in airport delays, high-speed trains can be faster than jet travel for trips up to 800 miles, and they're many times faster than driving.

Trains offer more time to work or relax
For a 400 mile trip, a high-speed train is faster and cheaper than driving or flying and offers more time to be productive or rest.

A train offers convenience and comfort that other ways of travel simply can't. To start, trains travel direct to downtown, putting you closer to your reason for travel. Train stations are also better-connected to public transit, bike share or ride share, making it easier and faster to connect with friends or colleagues.

Trains can offer much more frequent departures than airlines can, meaning you can leave or arrive when you want to, not when flights are available.

From the moment you step on board to the moment you arrive, trains give you the freedom to walk around, use the restroom, or visit the café car. There are no restrictions on using your phone, tablet or laptop. You'll probably have cell phone service and strong Wi-Fi for most of the journey.

In this example of a 400 mile trip—like Chicago to Minneapolis-St. Paul—not only is a high-speed train is faster than flying or driving, it's cheaper. The train travel time and cost is based on a 2010 study performed by AECOM. The flight is based on a Southwest ticket, plus getting to and from the airports. The driving cost is calculated by the standard IRS mileage rate, which includes gas and the hidden costs of driving like vehicle payments and maintenance.

Modern trains are comfortable, spacious and accomodating

These images from Florida's new Brightline service show how trains offer space to stretch that airplanes and cars can't. Most regular (coach) seats on trains are as spacious as first-class seats on airlines. Modern trains include some seats that are clustered around a table, which are great for getting work done on your own or as a group. Or you can head to the café car, which is also a great place to do business, socialize, or simply enjoy looking out the window.

The wide aisles and doorways of modern trains are fully accessible to people of all abilities. Wheelchairs, bikes and luggage roll easily on board, and there's plenty of storage space.

Read more about how modern train designs are more comfortable for passengers and more cost-effective for operators. >>

Reconnecting the Midwest

Four new high-speed lines radiating from Chicago form the core of a Midwest high-speed rail network.

High-speed rail dramatically changes the way people think about travel, which results in dramatic changes in behavior. When fast, reliable trains are available, millions of people will choose the train instead of flying or driving. As same-day, round-trip travel becomes possible to many more desinations, people will choose to make trips they wouldn't have before.

The benefits of high-speed trains have been proven around the globe in regions that are remarkably similar to the Midwest. Fast trains re-draw boundaries, bringing distant cities and rural areas into economic mega-regions. In Europe and Asia, virtually every city and town is accessible by train, often with hourly departures. High-speed trains create stronger, more efficient communities, closer personal relationships and more competitive and sustainable regions.

To measure how high-speed rail would impact our region, the Midwest High Speed Rail Association commissioned an economic impact and ridership benefits study that evaluated four high-speed routes linking Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Detroit, Minneapolis and St. Louis to 12 intermediate cities. The results were astounding, with a $13.8 billion annual increase in business sales in Chicago alone.

The benefits aren't limited to cities on new high-speed lines: The Phased Network Approach brings fast, frequent service to the entire region by connecting high-speed lines to our existing railroad network.

A paradigm shift

Our study found that a Midwest high-speed rail network would serve 43 million passengers every year, and that's only counting the larger metropolitan areas directly served by the high-speed main lines. The number of people riding regional services branching from this core network to more than 100 smaller markets would increase that estimate. For comparison, Amtrak’s total nationwide ridership in 2014 was 31 million.

Availability of high-speed trains between Madrid and Seville in Spain, a trip similar to Chicago-St. Louis, caused a dramatic change in travel behavior.

High-speed trains reinvented travel in Spain

In 1992, Spain inaugrated its first high-speed service on a new line connecting Madrid to Seville and other parts of Andalusia. Before high-speed service, most people drove, with the remaining travel split between conventional trains, buses and airplanes. Within two years, though, people were using high-speed rail for more than half of trips. This dramatically reduced congestion at highway bottlenecks and opened up capacity at airports for longer-distance flights. In addition, the total number of trips grew by a third. High-speed rail allowed people to take trips that would have been too expensive, inconvenient or slow before.

Spain saw similar shifts in behavior when it opened its second major high-speed link, connecting Madrid to Barcelona and the rest of Europe by way of southern France.

Faster, safer travel—for less

Modern trains are faster, cheaper, and safer than driving, especially on longer trips. On a train, you can read, work, walk around, grab a snack, or take a nap, all while getting where you are going. There’s no traffic, no potholes to dodge, and you don’t have to pay for parking when you get there.

A significant benefit of high-speed rail over other travel modes is time and cost savings. The combination of fast running times, reliable service and affordable fares result in a significant shift of existing trips from flying and driving, as well as substantial generation of new trips, known as “induced demand.” In our model of a midwest high-speed network, 77% of the network’s 43 million annual passengers are expected to be diverted from cars, 9% from airlines, 6% from conventional rail service, and 8% are new trips from induced demand.

Our study indicates that on a Midwest high-speed rail network, more than 35 million former car drivers and conventional rail riders will save $1.2 billion every year by wasting less time. A combined 37 million car-diverted and air-diverted trips will save $1.9 billion. Every year, 32 million annual car trips diverted to fast, modern trains will reduce total annual vehicle miles traveled by 6.4 billion, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and saving wear and tear on our roads. This will result in 2,615 fewer non-fatal and 43 fewer fatal accidents every year. The monetized value of this safety benefit is $905 million annually.

Annual benefits of a midwest high-speed rail network

Our 2011 economic impact study found that a Midwest high-speed rail network would bring these benefits every year:

  • $13.8 billion increase in business sales (in Chicago alone!)
  • $1.9 billion in time savings (instead of driving or flying)
  • 6.4 billion reduction in vehicle miles traveled
  • 43 fewer fatal accidents on the road—and 2,615 fewer non-fatal accidents
Creating activity in our cities and towns
A Midwest high-speed rail network would bring activity to our cities and towns, like Lafayette, Indiana, which would see the number of passengers at and around its train station grow 15 times over. Photo by Karen Demerly (flickr cc).

High-speed rail reinvigorates cities. Ciudad Real, in Spain, is about 115 miles south of Madrid and is surrounded by the farms of Castilla-La Mancha. Its rural location and rich history gave it character, but it was struggling. The nearest freeway was 30 miles away, and a train trip to Madrid took 3 hours. Then, in what the city's former mayor calls "the most important moment of the century," the Madrid-Seville high-speed line was built with a stop in Ciudad Real.

All of a sudden, the small city was only 50 minutes from Madrid. People started coming to visit. Some of them decided to stay and live there, commuting to work on the new high-speed line. Businesses suddenly had new customers, and the university was able to attract students and top professors like never before. The town has grown by more than a third since the arrival of the high-speed train, but it's been able to maintain much of its rural character.

High-speed rail would transform the Midwest's small cities and towns the same way. Fort Wayne, Indiana—which was last served by passenger trains in 1990—could see 900,000 passengers per year, boosting that city’s economy by nearly 2%. LaCrosse, Wisconsin’s regional base of 30,000 jobs would grow by nearly 1,000 as a result of induced job creation. In Lafayette, Indiana, activity downtown would increase as the number of passengers grows 15 times: from 19,000 to 300,000 passengers per year. Throughout the region, economic growth from a high-speed rail network would create nearly 130,000 long-term jobs.

Putting the Midwest back to work

Building the Midwest high-speed rail network would create a significant number of good jobs throughout the region. Our study estimates more than 600,000 job-years of work to construct the system — more than 60,000 jobs per year for more than a decade. After construction, the system would also create more than 4,000 long-term operations and maintenance jobs.

Reconnecting rural areas

The annual cost of owning and maintaining a car in the rural Midwest is nearly $10,000.

In many parts of the Midwest, long drives are understood to be a necessary part of daily life. Whether for work, shopping, or to see friends, a car can be the only way to get around. The rising cost of gas and the hidden costs of vehicle maintenance make this reality more expensive than most of us realize: the annual cost of auto ownership in the rural Midwest is nearly $10,000.

Although Amtrak serves more than 200 stations around the Midwest, many small towns only have one train a day. A Midwest high-speed rail network would bring faster and more frequent service to many small cities and towns. Driving would no longer be the only option for many trips. Like Ciudad Real in Spain, high-speed rail would mean new business, visitors and residents for towns across the Midwest.

A greener way to travel

High-speed rail is a better way to travel for our region and for our planet. A Midwest high-speed rail network would shift people from cars and airplanes to efficient trains, reducing CO2-equivalent emissions by 3.3 million metric tons each year. That's about the amount of CO2 emitted by a coal-fired power plant, or the combined emissions of nearly 350,000 homes.

What makes high-speed rail successful?

High-speed rail is more than just a fast train between two points. Read about what it takes to build a successful high-speed rail network. >>