Why High Speed Rail?

Today Megan McArdle kvetches about the prospects for high speed rail in the United States. I gather this subject has bubbled to the surface again because of the tiny amount of funds that are in the stimulus package to tantalize people with the idea of an efficient high speed rail system in the United States.

I touched on this subject three years ago and what I wrote then is as true now as it was three years ago.

I drive between Chicago and St. Louis, a trip of about 300 miles that takes roughly 6 hours, perhaps a half dozen times a year. I used to fly but between getting to the airport, going through airport security, waiting for the flight, and the flight time itself it takes nearly as much time to get there by air as it does driving. Why pay more to get there in the same amount of time, get crammed into a seat that’s so narrow that your shoulders crowd the person next to you, and be treated like a shmuck for your trouble?*

I’m a great candidate customer for a high speed rail connection to St. Louis but for it to make sense it would need a number of characteristics:

  • The trip one way should take no more than three hours. That would require an average speed of roughly 100 mph.
  • The trip should cost no more than $50 one way.
  • The trip should be in reasonable comfort end-to-end i.e. boarding, riding, de-boarding.

Heck, if that were the case I’d use it once a week.


There are no prospects for such a connection from St. Louis to Chicago. The existing roadbeds won’t support it with some stretches requiring very low speeds. I don’t take the train now because I won’t pay air travel prices to spend eight hours in a cattle car.

If you’re a true lover of rail travel, go to the United Kingdom. Practically everything in Britain is a relatively short rail hop away and some of the small branch lines are very picturesque. Except for the Eastern Corridor the U. S. is the wide open spaces. There aren’t any medium hauls, 500 miles or less, that would support the traffic that would make them self-supporting.

*Some day let me regale you with stories of flying from Chicago to Huntsville once a week on the NASA contractors’ special on Southern Airlines, the airline with the worst on-time record. Talk about the Grace L. Ferguson Airline and Storm Door Company. Believe me, you’ve never lived.

10 comments… add one
  • PD Shaw Link

    Well, I live in one of those cities between Chicago and St. Louis and the population is up in arms about high speed rail — it’s racist, it will damage or destroy historical buildings, it will damage the downtown economy. A lot of this has less to do with HSR, as much as track improvements are expected to greatly increase freight traffic in a city with very few overpasses/underpasses.

  • PD Shaw Link

    I took the Amtrak to STL with the family last summer, mainly for the adventure of it. It was supposed to be a two hour trip (could have driven it closer to 90 minutes), but it took about three hours. It was fifteen minutes late, but the biggest annoyance was being parked in huge rail-yard in Alton about 30 minutes, waiting for freight trains to pass. An additional 15 minutes seemed to be lost to driving in the rain through certain stretches.

    So by my calculation no more than half of the delays were attributed to track condition and at least half to track congestion.

    When I go to Chicago for business, I usually find the earliest Amtrack is booked and I simply can’t risk being late with later times.

  • I want to spend the money on flying cars instead.

  • Drew Link

    I’d comment, except I think Dave hit all relevant nails squarely on the head.

    PD – your experience largely explains why people don’t use trains. When I lived out East, Boston/NY..Philly/NY….Wash/NY etc made sense because, as they say, the trains ran on time.

  • Yes, the Alton Crawl is one of the worst.

    The only solution that should be considered at this point is high speed monorail or similar technology going down the middles of interstates. Right of way isn’t a problem. Anything else is just a tease.

  • Andy Link

    The reality is that there are very very few places a passenger rail system can operate without some kind of subsidy. Even in Europe. That subsidy usually comes from freight traffic profits or from governments. That reality (and the political consequences) plus American geography and NIMYism mean that rail isn’t going to carry a significant number of passengers anytime soon.

  • PD Shaw Link

    I think I have some numbers now, via a formal alderman. The upgrades for high speed rail are expected to increase freight train traffic btw/ 3 times and 10 times current volumes. The 3x figure is Union Pacific’s estimate, but the upgrades are being built to assume 10x volume, so the skeptics believe 10x is the real target here.

    What I’m wondering is if I will get a passenger train that goes 30% faster with three to ten times the wait for freight trains that have priority to the line. Do I end up ahead or behind?

  • PD Shaw Link

    Andy, usually when people talk about NIMYism, they are not literally talking about their yard, but what’s happening down the street, near their kid’s school, whatever. The plan in my city appears to involve actually going through, or over some pretty historical structures, like one of the better Frank Lloyd Wright homes.

    There are other rail corridors seven blocks and sixteen blocks away, but the word on the street is that Union Pacific would make more money on the corridor that goes through the oldest part of the city because it doesn’t share any lines or switches with other rail companies.

    It might be easier to just blow the whole thing up and start over from scratch.

  • Brett Link

    Part of the problem is that if you really want HSR, then we need

    1)special tracks, since the really high-speed trains won’t run on anything else, and

    2)tracks specifically for passenger trains. PD Shaw hit one of the more important points, which is the fact that Amtrak basically has to get over and wait everytime a freight train comes by.

    That all costs money and time, and you have to overcome the usual NIMBYism from anyone who gets within some distance of the rail line.

  • Paul Link

    PD Shaw,
    Can you tell me what FLW house you are referring to?


Leave a Comment