Nov 04 2013

Sunday Train: The Cross-Rail Chicago Project and Midwest HSR

(2 pm. – promoted by ek hornbeck)

The Midwest HSR Association has long been a Chicago-Centric organization, which is fitting because for many of the urban areas in the nine states that are members of the “Midwest Regional Rail Initiative” intercity rail planning organization, Chicago is included among their top three to five intercity travel destinations.

With the Cross-Rail Chicago proposal, the Midwest HSR Association is proposing to start building from the inside out, providing a set of profits in the Chicago Area that will then provide the through-Chicago system for  intercity rail avoiding the difficult “last mile” problem that the California HSR has to tackle in getting into downtown San Francisco and to Los Angeles Union Station. The proposed project proceeds in phases, with each phase addressing a Chicago regional transport need, even as the total project provides the infrastructure that 110mph and 125mph Rapid Passenger Intercity Rail and 220mph “bullet train” HSR can use to connect to Chicago Union Station and O’Hare International Airport.

The phases are:

  • Expanding Union Station, making use of two existing through tracks and reconstructing unused mail platforms for passenger use;
  • Union Station to O’Hare, reconstructing Metra’s “Milwaukee West” district and building a short section of new rail, initially to a station connecting to the “ATS” people mover extension to the new rental car facility, and eventually via underground stations connecting directly to the O’Hare terminals;
  • Reconstructing the St. Charles Air Line elevated tracks along 16th Street to connect the Union Station through tracks to Metra’s Electric and Rock Island Corridors south of Union Station;
  • With I-90 extensions northwest of O’Hare to Elgin, and then to Rockford Illinois;
  • With I-56 extensions south of the 16th Street Connector to University Park, and then to Kankakee and Champaign

The Midwest HSR Association’s indicative cost estimate for this project is $9.6b, with the Phase One from the 16th Street Connector through Union Station to the O’Hare Transfer Station estimated at $2b.

Midwest HSR’s Cross-Rail Chicago Proposal and the Proven French Model for Building HSR

The vision of the Midwest HSR Association extends beyond the system of 110mph Rapid Passenger Rail corridors envisioned in the Midwest Regional Rail Initiative to include 220mph bullet train HSR corridors:

  • Chicago to Minneapolis / St. Paul via Milwaukee, WI, Madison WI, and Rochester, MN;
  • Chicago to St. Louis via Springfield IL and Champaign IL;
  • Chicago to Cincinnati via Indianapolis IN;
  • Chicago to Detroit and Chicago to Cleveland, both via Fort Wayne, IN and Toledo, OH.

Bullet train corridors do not come cheap. While the cost of the proposed 110mph Rapid Rail Columbus, OH to Chicago via Fort Wayne, IN corridor is estimated at a capital cost of $1.3b, the full cost of the entire Midwest HSR Association vision, including the 220mph bullet train corridors, is in the neighborhood of $80b. The only thing that saves it from the cost of the California HSR system is that the terrain is much more favorable for rail corridors.

Given the high price tag of the bullet train corridors, the question arises what is the smallest segment that can be built that will obtain sufficient benefit from the higher speed to justify the investment in dedicated bullet train corridors, with their complete grade separation and the sweeping curves required to allow the trains to maintain their speed. The successful French approach to building economical bullet train corridors has been to use existing Rapid Rail corridors to gain access into the largest cities, and focus the actual bullet train corridors out in the countryside where they are less expensive to build. They have also frequently built their corridors in phases, from Paris running out, so that the opening of the first phase drops the transit time by a substantial increment, and the next phase drops it further, and so on until it is completed.

We have not had an opportunity to do that in the United States, because we rarely have established Intercity Rapid Rail corridors with developed express access into the heart of our large cities. However, if Cross-Rail Chicago were to be pursued, then we could indeed follow that approach.

The range of opportunities has increased still further with the news this week regarding the long standing Federal Rail Authority regulations that have required passenger trains running on conventional rail corridors to meet specific “buff strength” standards in order to be allowed to operated without proceeding through a complex, and uncertain, regulatory process in an attempt to establish that the “non-compliant” train offers equivalent passenger safety to “compliant” trains.

From the Next City blog: Long Barred from American Tracks, European Train Designs Could Get Rolling by 2015:

Beginning in 2015, regulators and manufacturers expect the FRA to allow modern European designs on tracks throughout the country, running side by side with heavy freight at all times of day. There will be no special signaling requirements for trains purchased under the new rules, although a separate requirement for more advancing anti-collision signaling, called positive train control, is set to kick in around the same time.

Crash safety reform has been slowly building at the FRA for more than a decade, and until now modern European designs were only available to agencies that could endure an onerous waiver process, and only if they could keep other trains off the tracks during service hours. …

Alois Starlinger, head of structural analysis, testing and certification at Swiss rail car manufacturer Stadler, was more optimistic. The new rules, he said, would allow agencies to purchase equipment that’s nearly off the shelf, with only small modifications. (Starlinger was deeply involved with the engineering task force that wrote the new rules.)

This is the best possible news for pursuing bullet train corridors along the lines of the French approach, since it would allow the substantiall less expensive and quicker to build 110mph Rapid Rail corridors to be built up, and then for 220mph corridors to be built in segments to accelerate the trips.

If combined with the Cross-Rail Chicago project, it means that a train could run from a 110mph Rapid Rail corridor onto a 220mph bullet train corridor, then back onto the regional Express Rail corridor to run through Union Station and O’Hare, then connecting from the Cross-Rail Chicago corridor to a 220mph bullet train corridor, and finally completing its route on a 110mph Rapid Rail corridor.

In a fully elaborated system, the routes attracting the most patronage would run entirely at 220mph, while the routes serving smaller transport markets would operate primarily on 110mph corridors, unless and until they meet an existing 220mph to complete their trip.

So this is the appeal from the perspective of improving the sustainability of intercity transport.


Midwest HSR’s Inside Out Model  & Building a Coalition for HSR

However, supporters of the benefits of high speed rail for intercity transport are only one set of prospective members of a political coalition in support of the Cross-Rail Chicago system. They include the prospective passengers on both the O’Hare to Elgin to Rockford corridor and the Champaign to University Park to Union Station corridors. Both of those benefit from core efficiency in the Cross-Rail Chicago project, that it is a through running project, a single two-hour route from Champaign to Rockford that runs through Hyde Park, McCormack Place, Union Station and O’Hare airport in the middle of its route.

It also supports interstate through-running and offers O’Hare airport access to both downstate trains and interstate trains using that through running, including Milwaukee WI from O’Hare, Madison WI from Rockford, IL, and both Northern Indiana and Indianapolis from the 16th Street connector.

The Cross-Rail Chicago project offers benefits both within the Chicago Region and in other parts of the state, as well as offering interstate transport benefits that would justify Federal involvement in funding the project, whether under different political terrain in the US House of Representatives, or as a result of US Senate support combined with the Senate supporting something of sufficient interest to the House.

While, evidently, the Cross-Rail passenger express train should have subsidized operations, the opportunities for express operations and the larger motorist-paid cost of driving in downtown Chicago due to the cost of parking seems likely to offer an opportunity to provide service with relatively modest subsidies per passenger mile, and the connections that regular passengers on the train make to other parts of the Chicago mass transit system would further improve the political base for providing those services the level of subsidy that economic efficiency demands.


The Impact On The Broader Regional Economy

One thing that consideration of the Midwest HSR Association vision for intercity rail brings to my mind is the concept of Mega-Regions. The way that this is described by America 2050, the national infrastructure planning and policy program of the Regional Plan Association is:

As metropolitan regions continued to expand throughout the second half of the 20th century their boundaries began to blur, creating a new scale of geography now known as the megaregion. Interlocking economic systems, shared natural resources and ecosystems, and common transportation systems link these population centers together. As continued population growth and low density settlement patterns place increasing pressure on these systems, there is greater impetus to coordinate policy at this expanded scale.

Most of the nation’s rapid population growth, and an even larger share of its economic expansion, is expected to occur in 11 megaregions: large networks of metropolitan regions, each megaregion covering thousands of square miles and located in every part of the country.

The megaregions of the United States are defined by layers of relationships that together define a common interest; this common interest, in turn, forms the basis for policy decisions. The five major categories of relationships that define megaregions are:

  • Environmental systems and topography
  • Infrastructure systems
  • Economic linkages
  • Settlement patterns and land use
  • Shared culture and history

The map above is from the Georgia Tech Center for Quality Growth and Regional Development Megaregion Initiative. The Midwestern / Great Lakes Mega-Region is in dark purple. The only portion of the population centers allocated to the Midwestern / Great Lakes Mega-Region that is not included in the Midwest Regional Rail Initiative is Columbus / Central Ohio and Pittsburgh / Western PA … which are brought into the system by the Ohio Hub project, included as part of the Midwest HSR Association vision.

Governors Kasich of Ohio and Walker of Wisconsin may have delayed particular corridors in the Midwest Regional Rail Initiative, but with Ohio’s money going to Michigan instead, neither were able to entirely suppress progress in implementing the first 110mph Rapid Rail corridors, with the Chicago to St. Louis corridor slated to begin operation in 2015 and the 110mph section of the Wolverine that currently extends from Porter Indiana to Kalamazoo, MI is expected to extend to Dearborn, MI by 2015, cutting two hours off of the Detroit to Chicago trip.

Adding a through-running Express Rail corridor through Chicago Union Station and O’Hare International will only increase the appeal of knitting the urban areas of this “Mega-Region” together with Intercity rail, and as improved service rolls out to those cities fortunate enough to not have their 2009 HSR funding thrown back to other states by their Governor, that will increase the strength of the “we’d like to have nice things like they have” effect.

Indeed, to a certain extend a Mega-Region becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we in the Midwest / Great Lakes states invest in more sustainable and energy efficiency intercity transport alternatives, that will increase the security of business and other relationships between the urban areas in the “Mega-Region”, encouraging investment in those relationships … and in the end, it is the network of relationships between people living in different urban centers in the “Mega-Region” that actually constitutes the real world system that the label “Mega-Region” is being applied to.


Conversations, Considerations and Contemplations

As you can tell, I find many aspects of the Cross-Rail Chicago proposal to be quite compelling. That does not mean that I am wed to every aspect of the proposal. For example, I would have to see more detailed benefit/cost analysis of the underground terminal stations to decide whether I believe that the undergound terminal stations are worth the cost. From my experience using the Sydney Airport underground terminal station, I believe that these are often the most civilized ways available to access a large hub airport … I am a bit skeptical of spending funds for local or regional transport on airport access. And as I discussed on 7 Feb, 2010 in Sunday Train: Take This Train to the Airport, to be Aviation trust fund eligible, “the access road or facility must exclusively serve airport traffic.” which means that while the underground terminal station may be eligible for Aviation Trust Fund funding, a through corridor to serve that station will not normally be eligible. It may be that if the underground airport corridor is connecting on both sides to an existing rail corridor, it might then qualify … and given the benefit to air travelers at O’Hare if some of the smaller regional connector services are replaced with intercity rail transport, would certainly be a justified investment by the Aviation trust fund.

However, now, as always, rather looking for some overarching conclusion, I now open the floor to the comments of those reading.

If you have an issue on some other area of sustainable transport or sustainable energy production, please feel free to start a new main comment. To avoid confusing me, given my tendency to filter comments through the topic of this week’s Sunday Train, feel free to use the shorthand “NT:” in the subject line when introducing this kind of new topic.

And if you have a topic in sustainable transport or energy that you want me to take a look at in the coming month, be sure to include that as well.


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  1. BruceMcF

    … you could find yourself on the last train to Clarkesville

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