Money and Speed: What to Expect from St. Louis to Chicago High Speed Rail

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{Europe and the US offer vastly different challenges to building HSR}

When discussing high-speed rail (HSR) we should first answer this question: how fast does it need to go to call it HSR? In the US, a speed of 110 MPH has been designated HSR whereas in Europe 156 MPH is used as a benchmark. This is called HSR-Express in USDOT lingo. When we look back at the golden age of steam engine-powered locomotives we will find that trains in the 1940’s already traveled at speeds of 110 MPH and even faster. Achieving these speeds again today, feels like a “Back to the Future” moment.

Why not be a little more ambitious and use the standard of 156 MPH as a minimum for high-speed rail? Trains that fast have been operated successfully in Europe since the early 80’s and presently the majority of European high-speed trains travel at speeds in excess of 187 MPH.

How similar, or disimliar is a potential St. Louis to Chicago line to the Thalys route between Amsterdam and Paris? The STL-CHI line is 284 miles, while the AMS-PRS line reaches 305 miles. It takes the Thalys train about 3 hours to travel from Amsterdam Central Station to Paris Gare du Nord. Although reaching a speed of 187 MPH, the train slows regularly and stops in Rotterdam, Antwerp and Brussels.


{the Gare du Nord railway station, one of the busiest in the world}

The cost? In 1989 the Dutch government decided to build a dedicated high speed rail line from Amsterdam to the Belgian border. The project eventually began in 2000. The total length of the line between Amsterdam and Belgium is just 78 miles, of which 53 miles is completely new rail. The 53-mile high speed segment was finished in 2009 at a total cost of 6.7 billion Euros (8.7 billion US dollars). The astronomical cost of the track can be partially explained by the fact that it had to cross several wide rivers and a very long tunnel needed to be built for environmental reasons.

Let’s assume that the whole 78 miles could have been built on more Illinois-like terrain for the same price tag. This would still equate to $111 million per mile. For comparison: in Florida planners estimate the cost of a Tampa-Orlando track at $27 million per mile and in California a figure of $ 45 million per mile has been estimated for an LA-San Francisco line. Using California’s estimate of $ 45 million per mile would make a STL-CHI dedicated HSR line cost $ 12.7 billion. This figure is also used by the Midwest High Speed Rail Association (MHSRA) and seems to be a “best-case scenario” estimate.

MHSRA proposes to build a dedicated track between St. Louis and Chicago suitable for speeds up to 220 MPH, reducing the travel time between the cities to one hour and fifty-two minutes. A one-way fare would be $46.00. At a later stage the track would be extended to O’Hare which would take another 25 minutes and $10 one-way. This new dedicated track would be routed: CHI-Champaign-Springfield-STL with stops in all cities. St. Louis to Springfield would take 0:37, to Champaign 1:09 and to Chicago 1:52.


{the 110+ MPH Milwaukee Road class F7 – c. 1938}

$12.7 billion dollars for a Chicago- St. Louis line is a lot of money but it really pales in comparison to some other proposals for HSR. In the northeast corridor a DC-Boston line is estimated at $200+ billion dollars with a new Hudson River tunnel between New Jersey and Manhattan projected at over 13 billion dollars alone.

Vice-President Biden last week announced a proposal to dedicate $53 billion over the next six years (which includes the $8 billion from last year’s program) with a goal to connect 80% of Americans through high-speed rail within 25 years. This money will be spent on three programs, Core-Express: dedicated tracks suited for 125-250 MPH, Regional: 90-125 MPH and Emerging: up to 90 MPH.

Let’s go back to Europe one more time to see why they’ve been successful operating high-speed trains over the last 30 years. Europe is very densely populated with 450 million people living in an area half the size of the United States. The population served by the Amsterdam-Paris line is roughly 7 million in the Amsterdam-Rotterdam area, about 5 million in the Brussels-Antwerp area and about 12 million in the Greater Paris area for a total of 24 million. Draw a 300 mile radius around any of the cities mentioned above and you will find 140 million people living within that circle.

High speed rail operations in Europe are run by private companies that have to make money and are not subsidized*. Air France and KLM participate in Thalys, most of their customers connect by train between their hub cities and as a result air travel between Amsterdam, Brussels and Paris has been virtually eliminated. (*Large national railway operators like SNCF, DB and NS are still more or less state-owned but operate like private companies. They are all in the process of being further privatized.)

This model of short-to-medium range distances in high density areas is the key to profitable HSR operations and this is the biggest challenge for high speed rail in America: much longer distances and much lower density. It’s one thing to build it. It’s a whole different thing to operate it profitably.

The 284 miles that separate St. Louis and Chicago make it expensive to build, to compete with air travel you would have to be able to go city to city in under 3 hours and do so at a certain frequency. For instance, two trains a day would defeat the purpose of going fast. People want to go when they want to go, not when the train wants to go. Simultaneously, at a higher frequency the trains will still need to be filled to keep it profitable. (Note: There are about 30 daily flights to choose from to O’Hare and Midway from STL.)

Even with a dedicated track, a train between Chicago and St. Louis would only be able to travel at 220 MPH on certain segments. It seems more viable for future HSR between the cities to use lower (but still high) speeds of up to 187 MPH. It’s cheaper to build, cheaper to operate and the time savings between 187 and 220 MPH are just too small (less than 10 minutes) to make a large impact. Passengers would still be able to get from downtown St. Louis to downtown Chicago in a little more two hours, a competitive length of time.

It’s worth mentioning as well that a train running at 220 MPH consumes four times the energy of a train at 110 MPH. Assuming it will take about half the time to get to the destination it will thus use twice the energy consumed by the slower train. High-speed rail is not necessarily green, although it still beats out the airplane by a large margin.

Nationwide, many existing rail lines will likely be upgraded to 110 MPH in the next 25 years. High speed trains on dedicated HSR tracks will appear only in a few densely populated corridors. Whether a St. Louis-Chicago line would be included remains to be seen. To think that one day 220 MPH trains will be crossing the continent from North to South and East to West is simply a pipe dream. It’s too expensive to build and impossible to run profitably.

That’s where the airlines come in. Better hang on to that mini-toothpaste.

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  • mike

    I ride the Thalys all the time from Brussels to Cologne. I think it would be such a great asset for Chicago and Saint Louis.

  • Aaron

    I agree it would be cool, but I think the HSR projects don’t make sense both technically and politically.

    From a technical standpoint, the travel time savings compared to air travel are very slim when compared to the multi-billion dollar cost of construction and operation. Add in the likelihood of a high profile project and symbol of national pride being targeted. It would take just one incident to necessitate airport like security measures for HSR, adding delay and a similar experience to flight check-in.

    Politically, I’m troubled that HSR has become fashionable in Washington as a future alternative to air travel at a time when so many in congress are still disdainful of funding operating costs for Amtrak on the grounds that the system doesn’t pay for itself through ticket fares. Voters and congress people continue to expect this of public transit in ignorance and denial of our subsidies of airports and highways. It’s insane that Washington want’s to spend tens of billions on capital costs for HSR when paying the operating costs for the Amtrak system we have now is constantly on the chopping block.

    Instead of HSR, why don’t we get medium speed rail right? Let’s make low cost medium speed travel between cities a serious alternative to driving. Instead of aiming to compete with planes, trains could actually compete with long distance driving if they ran frequently, ran faster than cars (say 90 mph), NEVER had to wait for freight trains, an offered a competitive ticket price when compared to the cost of gas for individuals AND groups. I haven’t done the analysis, but the investment need to make this happen should be well below the multi-billion dollar figure for HSR.

    I’d be curious to see a per dollar carbon emissions reduction comparison of improving Amtrak to compete better with driving vs. building HSR to compete with air travel.

    • >>From a technical standpoint, the travel time savings compared to air travel are very slim when compared to the multi-billion dollar cost of construction and operation. Add in the likelihood of a high profile project and symbol of national pride being targeted. It would take just one incident to necessitate airport like security measures for HSR, adding delay and a similar experience to flight check-in. < << There is another benefit to trains in general besides the time savings attributable to HSR, and that is its a much better ride. In terms of comfort, traveling by train is far superior to traveling by either plane or car. Once someone experiences the train, few want to go back to driving or flying. When train service began between LA and San Diego with 2 trains per day, people laughed. They were expected to be 'ghost' trains. Today, there are 26 trains per day traveling between the two cities in the land of the car. And those trains are full in spite of fairly slow speeds [60-90 mph], frequent stops because freight trains are given the right of way and slow downs because some portions of the trip are on single track. As an extra bonus, the trains have revitalized the neighborhoods around each of the stops along the way. As for cost, trillions have been spent on airports and the interstate system while Amtrak has been starved for funds. And yet complaints are few when a new airport terminal is proposed or a new freeway. >>>Politically, I’m troubled that HSR has become fashionable in Washington as a future alternative to air travel at a time when so many in congress are still disdainful of funding operating costs for Amtrak on the grounds that the system doesn’t pay for itself through ticket fares.< <<< There are many in Congress, probably those same people who are disdainful of Amtrak, that wouldn't hesitate to invade another country, spending billions in the process, and who continue to encourage a defense budget that is equal to or larger than the totality of all the defense budgets in the rest of the world. Why do you place so much value on their opinion? >>>It’s insane that Washington want’s to spend tens of billions on capital costs for HSR when paying the operating costs for the Amtrak system we have now is constantly on the chopping block.< <<< Amtrak's operating budget is a miniscule, miniscule [and that's not a typo] portion of the US budget. That its on anyone's "chopping block" speaks to the provincialism and silliness of many in Congress. >>>Instead of HSR, why don’t we get medium speed rail right? Let’s make low cost medium speed travel between cities a serious alternative to driving. Instead of aiming to compete with planes, trains could actually compete with long distance driving if they ran frequently, ran faster than cars (say 90 mph), NEVER had to wait for freight trains, an offered a competitive ticket price when compared to the cost of gas for individuals AND groups. I haven’t done the analysis, but the investment need to make this happen should be well below the multi-billion dollar figure for HSR.<<<< In the well written article up above, it clearly states that trains compete effectively with plane travel on a route that is longer in distance than that between Chicago and St. Louis.

  • Douglas Duckworth

    If we ever tax carbon emissions and thus the price of oil increases you could see HSR replace air flight.

  • Herbie Markwort

    The problem is, highways seem straight from a windshield perspective at 70 mph, but they’re nowhere near straight enough to support high-speed rail at speeds of even 150 mph. At that speed, you need a curve with a 1.5 mile radius; at 220 mph, 3 mile radius.

    Anyways, given that Illinois is ideal terrain for building high-speed rail—flat and sparsely populated—there’s little reason to believe that a 180 mph or faster Chicago-St. Louis line could not be built relatively cheaply and be successful. But St. Louis needs Chicago and its larger to population to support the infrastructure as I don’t believe St. Louis is large enough to serve as a hub itself (i.e. no links from here to Nashville, Memphis, Little Rock, or Tulsa).

  • Alex Ihnen

    But isn’t the point that HSR really needs to serve a more dense area to really work? I always thought that in the Midwest Indianapolis would be best positioned as a corporate HQ and HSR hub. Chicago in 1hr, Louisville/Cincinnati in 40mins? That’s not even a bad commute.

    Within 350mi: Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Louis, Nashville, Louisville, Cincinnati, Columbus, Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Detroit.

  • Stlelsewhere

    The issue of buying a right of way and ensuring no at-grade crossings or sharp turns is a problem.

    In a recent case study for I-70 between KC and STL by the Show-Me Institute, it was pointed out that trains in America do not have the same rights as cars, and if a train were to be placed in the median of an interstate, it would make things more fair: no at-grade crossings and a relatively straight ROW. This would make effective sidings more complicated as they’d need to jump out of the median somehow, but it still seems like a decent idea to consider if at any point I-55 needs a major overhaul.

    The Show-Me Institutes idea for a fifty year vision of three parallel interstates between St. Louis and Kansas City with electric high speed passenger and freight lines in the medians could just as easily be made from the St. Louis to Chicago route.

    St. Louis is unique in the US for being the only city that has nine major cities in a circle around it at a radius between 250 and 300 miles. We are the city in the middle of the dead space surrounded by: Chicago, Indianapolis, Louisville, Nashville, Memphis, Little Rock, Wal-mart land, Kansas City, Des Moines, and the Quad Cities. Those cities are all fairly evenly spaced on that circle. It makes a lot of sense for St. Louis to invest heavily in rail connections to the cities on that circle.