In American Midwest, a step closer to high-speed rail

The most promising new high-speed rail service in the U.S. connects Chicago to Detroit. Will it help the economy? Conflicting views on potential impact.

The second-fastest train in the U.S. is coming to...Kalamazoo, Mich.

The Chicago Sun-Times reports that an Amtrak train demonstrated speeds of 112.5 miles per hour on its way from Chicago's Union Station to Kalamazoo, just a hair above the 110 m.p.h. speed that the U.S. Federal Railroad Administration uses to define high-speed rail.

(It should be noted, however, that the U.S. Dept. of Transportation calls "high-speed" anything above 125 m.p.h.; ditto Europe, although that bar has now been raised to 155 m.p.h. for new track.)

Mark Brown describes his 138-mile trip in the report, which took two hours eight minutes:

The ride was noisy and bumpy. Walking the aisle at the highest speeds was challenging. Using the washroom was similar to what you might experience on a turbulent flight. On the other hand, the wi-fi worked great.

After some speechifying in Kalamazoo, we made the turn and were back in Chicago by 12:30 p.m. — exactly on schedule. Amtrak officials say dependability — and frequency of trains — are bigger issues in attracting riders than achieving high speeds.

Why Kalamazoo? With all due respect to the town of 74,000, it's halfway between Chicago and Detroit, and any efficiency upgrades along the route will hopefully benefit the Midwest's two biggest metropolises. (The plan is to reduce the 5.5-hour trip to 3.75 hours.)

But would it really help? Cities guru Edward Glaeser suggested in 2009 that it would not, citing a similar potential connection between Houston and Dallas:

Any transportation investment can create large economic ripples only if it significantly increases the speed at which an area with cheap real-estate gains access to a booming place that doesn’t have any comparable, closer available land area... there is little here to bring confidence that rail lines revitalize cities.

A better solution might be Milwaukee-Chicago, where a high-speed rail line has been proposed and where the commute is just 1.5 hours on Amtrak's 79 m.p.h. Hiawatha line. (Ridership has doubled on the line in the last decade, according to Milwaukee's Journal Sentinel.) An upgrade to 110 m.p.h. would cut the commute to just an hour.

However, Glaeser argues that even that would not necessarily lead to economic benefit and urban revitalization, as Amtrak's high-speed Acela between Philadelphia and New York has demonstrated. In this case, density correlates to economic productivity -- and regional passenger rail only reduces that.

Photo: Amtrak's Wolverine service, one of two lines that would benefit from the upgrades. (John Mueller/Flickr)

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