Missouri High Speed Rail: Mission Impossible? | Part I

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This is the first of a three-part series about high speed rail in Missouri:

A lot has been said and written about high speed rail (HSR) in the United States over the years. Yet, there are no true dedicated HSR lines in the US today. Currently, the closest thing is the Acela train in the northeast corridor, connecting Boston to Washington D.C.

The Acela electric train reaches a top speed of 150 MPH – which may be fast enough to consider it HSR – but the average speed between D.C. and New York is only ~82 MPH, and on the New York-Boston segment this drops to ~63 MPH, which makes the average speed over the entire route ~72 MPH.

{Acela Express train at Newhaven State Street Station. Flickr photo by Thuanphotos}

Construction of new track is underway between Chicago and St. Louis, with the goal to increase speeds to 110 MPH on certain segments. This will result in about an hour less travel time – from 5 ½ to 4 ½ hours – between the two cities. Faster trains at a higher frequency are a welcome improvement over the current situation but it would be a stretch to call this HSR. It is not. The average speed between Chicago and St. Louis will increase to only about 60-65 MPH.

Compare these speeds with those reached on lines in Europe and Asia: The Eurostar between London and Paris reaches a top speed of 186 MPH. The 306-mile trip takes 2 hours and 15 minutes, averaging 136 MPH. The Chinese Beijing to Tianjin train reaches a top speed of 205 MPH and averages 146 MPH.

{Café TGV train}

High speed rail is not rocket science. The first TGV train route between Paris and Lyon opened in September 1981 – 32 years ago. The first Japanese bullet trains rode in 1964. HSR is a true and tested technology that has been successfully deployed all over the world.

So why is it that the US currently cannot compete in the high speed rail arena?

The lack of high speed rail in the U.S. can probably be partly attributed to cultural differences and politics – not just to geographical, technological or economic obstacles, although these surely exist. So, let’s investigate if true HSR could be built in Missouri and – more importantly – whether it would be economically feasible to operate and maintain a high speed rail line in our state.

Typically, the first objection heard from HSR opponents is that it cannot be operated profitably and that indeed it would cost (taxpayer) money to keep it running. Regardless of whether this is a true statement; the same could be said about highways. Highways are built and maintained at a huge cost to the taxpayer. Some $600 billion has been transferred from general- to highway funds over the last 50 years, because gasoline taxes, tolls and other user fees do not suffice. Today, user fees pay for about half of the total cost of building and maintaining our highway system.

Just take a look at what Missouri legislators proposed earlier this year: a 1% increase in general sales tax to supplement insufficient local and state infrastructure- and highway funds. This 10-year tax measure would have generated some $8 billion in new monies – the majority to be allocated to new highway lanes on I-70 between Kansas City and St. Louis. [Bill SJR16 was ultimately defeated.]

Ironically, gasoline tax and user fees are not sufficient to keep our existing roads and highways operational, yet more highway lanes are planned; more highways, requiring more maintenance and therefore more money.

At the same time, Americans are driving less and are doing so in much more fuel-efficient vehicles, thereby decreasing even more the revenue from fuel taxes. Continuing a highway-building policy will become a never-ending cycle, requiring ever more investment, only to be funded by future tax increases.

{The average vehicle mileage in the U.S. is flattening}

So what if we decided: no new highways. We’ll keep the system we have; we’ll fix and maintain our existing infrastructure – like Missouri’s 6,893 structurally deficient/functionally obsolete bridges and 31% of the state’s roads in poor condition – and focus on other means of transportation, like high speed rail.

Important questions we should ask before we start such a venture:

  • Where should a high speed rail track be built and how much would it cost?
  • Could a high speed train be operated and maintained profitably?
  • Could it compete with airplanes, cars and trucks?
  • How many temporary and long-term jobs would it create?
  • What are the economic, environmental and safety advantages for the State of Missouri?

Let’s start with the first question: Where should the line be built and how much would it cost?

When you look at Missouri’s demographics this first question is fairly easy to answer. There are two large population centers – Kansas City and St. Louis – together responsible for about 75% of the state’s economic activity. There is no doubt the line should be built between these two cities.

The current Amtrak train takes riders on a 5 hours and 40 minutes journey at a frequency of only two trains a day. By building a dedicated HSR track between Blue Springs and Wentzville, travel time could be slashed to an hour between those two cities and to less than two hours between the downtowns of KC and STL.

Building a 191-mile dedicated HSR track would cost – based on an estimated $35 million a mile* – around $6.7 billion. Electrification of existing rail and adding new track to and from downtown Kansas City and St. Louis would add another $2.0 billion, for a total of $8.7 billion for the entire 248 mile-long track.

[*The estimated cost of building a dedicated high-speed track vary from a low of $10 million to a high of about $80 million a mile, depending on the terrain or on whom you ask. Missouri is fairly flat, no mountains have to be tunneled through, and only one major bridge must be built over the Missouri river. For comparison: The Florida HSR line between Tampa and Orlando was projected at $27 million per mile. California’s mountainous terrain puts HSR track cost there closer to $80 million per mile. France is currently building the LGV Sud Europe Atlantique line at $35 million per mile.]

And how would we pay for this?

Let’s assume (and this is crazy) that Missouri indeed decided to raise the general sales tax by 1%, but would allocate it fully to this project. The first $8 billion would be secured. Add to that $1 billion in federal matching grants and other infrastructure funding over the next ten years and project financing is a done deal.

As the sales tax proceeds become available over the 10-year lifespan of the measure, the HSR track could be built accordingly. If we wanted to build faster, bonds could be issued against the tax measure. And now would be the time to do so, to benefit from the current historic low interest rates.

In part 2 we will investigate whether HSR trains can be operated profitably; what a timetable would look like, and if HSR would be able to compete with other means of transportation in Missouri.

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  • Ryann

    Does anyone know the cost per mile to build MagLev and how much more it would cost than HSR?? And isn’t the maintenance supposed to be less expensive? 300mph would mean a very short trip from STL to KC.

    • STLEnginerd

      Not sure but operational cost is higher so that would offset the maintenance even if it is less, which would surprise me.

  • Larry Guinn

    I would think HSR connecting STL – Columbia – KC would create commuters from one area to another. I could see living in Columbia and working in downtown KC or STL. This HSR service could cause a shift in living.
    Organize your life in a simple way and you could live with one car to a family or no car at all.

  • Philip Scherry

    At this point, I would consider doing something more like the HyperLoop (http://www.teslamotors.com/blog/hyperloop).

    If you do HSR, then there should be 4 stops: St Louis, Jefferson City, Columbia, Kansas City.

  • kuan

    Quick question; who is the person doing the interviewing and who is the person being interviewed in this article? I see that authorship is attributed to Frank DeGraaf, but I see no other attributions that have been made. Maybe I am just missing a paragraph or have somehow otherwise overlooked it, but I can’t seem to find this. If anyone can point it out, that’d be much appreciated. Thanks.

  • John R

    Great post and I look forward to Part II. One correction, though… MODOT has scaled back its plans for I-70 — at one time they were looking for $4 billion or so to 8-lane that sucker including a separation of truck and passenger lanes, but now they are looking at a more traditional six laning (three lanes in each direction) at a cost of $1.5 billion or so — so the cost for this project would be substantially less than half of the proposed sales tax expenditure.

    Without a national commitment to high-speed rail, at this time I think I’d rather desire substantial revenues to go to further improvements to the KC-Saint Louis line and intra-city public transportation projects. What would a $500 million investment in the Missouri River Runner get? I suspect a lot. And a similar amount for Metro and other cities would go a long way as well as essentially they currently get a buck and change from the state currently.

    • Thomas R Shrout Jr

      MoDOT plans to have new equipment in use on the Missouri River Runner by 2015. The order is one placed by a consortium of Midwestern States. The cars will be bi-level and hopefully will result in shorter dwell time at the eight stops between KC and StL. Dwell time in Kirkwood for instance is 7 minutes. A relative inexpensive platform for the bi-level cars should shorten that. New locomotives will be next and they will accelerate faster than the current ones. The new bridge over the Osage River will be open this fall, ending that bottleneck.Other small projects continued to be made on the alignment. MoDOT hopes with this incremental approach will eventually cut an hour out of the current schedule. No doubt, an hour out of the schedule plus new equipment will give ridership a boost.

      • John R

        ^ Awesome, Tom! Fox 2 had a great story about some of the additional improvements coming up– I think wi-fi was also mentioned — but they didn’t say that we could eventually look for an hour to be cut off. If that happens, it sure would boost ridership even more.

        Anyone have an idea of how much it would cost to get another daily run on the River Runner?

  • Andy

    I would love for my tax dollars to go towards HSR but purely for selfish reasons. Personally, I find flying to be a horrible, HORRIBLE way to travel; its only advantage being speed. Any type of viable alternative would be welcome.

    That being said, I still think that HSR in the US is one idea that will never get off the ground. Building HSR lines would take money away from the interstate highway system and we all know how people love to bitch about the quality of the roads.

  • STLEnginerd

    Also Both cities will need to significantly improve their mass transit infrastructure to make it truly viable. I also think that in St. Louis at least the terminus should be Lambert Airport Wentsville is too far out and lacks a connection to Metrolink. I don’t know KC well enough but I suspect it should have a connection to the new streetcar line.

    • jhoff1257

      The terminus would be at Union Station in KC (the future terminus of their Downtown Streetcar line) and the St. Louis terminus would be at the Gateway Station in Downtown St. Louis (connections to both Metro lines). You can’t (for the time being) run true high-speed trains through dense urban areas. The high-speed segment would run between Wentzville and Blue Springs (rural) and then slow down for the rest of the route to the major stations in each city.

  • STLEnginerd

    How straight does high speed rail line have to be? Could the River Runner Route be converted to HSR? I ask because I speculate that more daily business traffic is required between KC STL and Jeff City than Columbia (my intuition only) because of the demands of state political lobbyists. There should at the very least be a study to determine the most value added midpoint between the two terminus.

    • Eric

      Yeah, if I were doing it, I’d upgrade the river route from STL to Jeff City, then go north to Columbia, then along I-70 to KC. Cover all destinations for not much more money, maybe even for less. Even if Jeff City doesn’t have many riders, I’m sure there will be political pull for it to go there.

    • John R

      The legislative session is only 5 months of the year and JC — while charming — is sleepy even during session. I suspect fast-growing Columbia, especially with Mizzou, would be a much bigger draw. Also, the Columbia route would shave mileage and time off the existing MRR route.

    • jhoff1257

      I think the issue of upgrading the current route has to do with freight. Not only that but it’s the Union Pacific main-line and trying to get railroads to do anything is a serious challenge. Just look at how they killed the Jackson County commuter rail plan for the East suburbs of KC.

  • Joey

    I fly from New York City to St. Louis in 2 hours, yet it takes me OVER two hours to get from St. Louis to Jefferson City on Amtrak. HSR NOW!

  • Eric

    Yes, HSR is more convenient than flying for trips of this length. The stations are more centrally located, the security arrangements are less painful, the vehicle is much more comfortable, the trip is more reliable (not delayed/cancelled by weather), etc.

    But looking on Travelocity and Southwest web sites, it appears there are only about 4 nonstop flights each way per day from STL-KC. Is it really worth spending 9 billion dollars so that 8 planeloads of people (about 800 people) can have a somewhat nice trip? Yes, HSR would also attract car passengers, and would serve Columbia, but it still seems excessive. Maybe once Chicago-STL HSR is built, this will be a worthwhile extension of it. But not before.

    • tonypalazzolo

      I don’t think there will be a market for this even when the finish the line between Chicago and St Louis. The market now for rail travel is such that without government aid, it wouldn’t exist. The further away you go the less desirable rail will be simply on length of trip.

      • Eric

        The longer the route the more possible destinations. You can have Chicago-Champaign, Chicago-STL, Chicago-Columbia, Chicago-KC, Champaign-STL, Champaign-Columbia, Champaign-KC, plus the routes in Missouri. Each stop adds a couple minutes, as opposed to a plane stop which adds at least an hour. Add all these destination pairs together, and the total ridership can be pretty good.

      • jhoff1257

        Except there is a market. Not only is customer satisfaction on the Missouri River Runner at 91% (third best of all Amtrak routes) but engineers delivered passengers on-time 90% of the time. On top of that the Missouri River Runner has seen increasing ridership for the last SIX consecutive years. Ticket revenue has increased by 130% in those same 6 years. Right now it takes nearly 6 hours to cross the State of Missouri. Do you honestly believe if we cut that to 2 or even 3 hours people wouldn’t take advantage of it?

        It’s also worth noting that 2012 saw the highest system-wide ridership in Amtrak’s entire history. It’s fair box recovery is 79%, the highest of any passenger railroad in the country. I’d love to see some numbers from you that prove there is no market for trains and this Missouri line. But with record ridership on the Amtrak system and the Missouri River Runner, I just can’t see your point.

        And to add to this “The market now for rail travel is such that without government aid, it wouldn’t exist.” the highway system wouldn’t exist either, without the billions upon billions of dollars the federal government pours into it.

        • tonypalazzolo

          Okay – they had nearly 200,000 ridership in a year. Depending on the industry, a 91% customer satisfaction is poor to out of business. You want me to prove that there is no market, but I can’t prove a negative. Seems to me that spending billions upon billions of taxpayer money to build it only to have to spend billions more to run it would be very, very foolish. Of course that’s why it has a shot. Remember, that money has to come from someplace. What to you propose we cut from the budget – education, medicare?
          You also can’t compare the highway system to a commuter line. One is necessary infrastructure, they other is a toy. There is a reason that travel by railroads became obsolete. Technology made it more cost effective to fly. The interstates made it easier to drive.

          • jhoff1257

            In 2013 airlines ranked 69 on a 100 point scale for customer satisfaction, worse than Amtrak. By your logic they should be out of business.

            According to the Bureau of Transportation statistics Amtrak (as a whole) has an 83% rate of reliability. Airlines? 76%. A June 2013 article in the LA Times stated “Airlines rank lower in customer satisfaction than the post office.” Again, by your logic they should be out of business.

            I think it’s very foolish to spend billions on new highways in a country where VMTs (vehicle miles traveled) has been falling since 2004, nearly 10 years, while rail travel has increased in ridership every one of those years.

            According to this hypothetical the funding would come from that 1% sales tax increase. No one is speaking of cutting healthcare or education. It’s an IDEA! One that clearly has merit when looking at recent statistics. And yes, you most certainly can compare various modes of transit.

            And calling public transit a “toy” is the broken record of the anti-public transit crowd. Try something else already.

          • Alex Ihnen

            FWIW – highest customer satisfaction rating for cell phone companies? 73%

          • jhoff1257

            Haha. I was actually going to throw that in there as well. I don’t know of too many businesses that sit at a perfect 100% satisfaction rate.

          • tonypalazzolo

            Who said I’m anti-public transit. While it is subsidized, we need public transportation. What you are wanting is a massive public expenditure that in no way will improve our economy and to compete with air and ground travel have to be subsidized. It’s simply not needed. To get it, you have to increase sales tax by 1%. The most recent proposal was to lower the corporate taxes and increase the sales tax. Everyone screamed that it would hit the poor. Now, it’s okay as long as we get a shiny new fast train out of the deal.

          • jhoff1257

            I was in favor of the 1% sales tax hike to rebuild I-70. I think the income tax proposal (our misguided legislature’s response to Kansas) is a disastrous proposal. That should never happen. Modernizing I-70, yes I could get behind that. But I’d rather have the shiny fast train.

            Remember this is just an idea. No reasonable Missourian would ever expect our terrible legislature to increase funding for the public transit systems that already exist in our state much less push for this.

            Either way, I’d rather have the better customer service, better travel experience, faster service, and cheaper prices on a high speed train than the crap that passes for air travel these days. And I’d rather sit back and get some work done or watch a movie than white knuckle it to KC on I-70 today. Like Alex said, lets try something different.

          • Alex Ihnen

            The point for me is more that we are subsidizing and have subsidized our highways costing billions of dollars. Somehow having the top two cities for highway lane miles per capita hasn’t brought Missouri untold of riches or economic prosperity. MoDOT and quite a few state political leaders wanted/want a 1% sales tax increase to build an 8-lane I-70. I think trying something different makes sense. On the other hand, if we could all agree to not subsidize highways, gasoline, the auto industry, suburban housing, the airline industry, and so on, sign me up.

  • Lura

    Well, I live in KS and I drive across and back the state every weekend. I would love to have a rail, then I could get work done instead of listening to a book on tape. It would be safer especially with all the trucks on the road. Since we lost a lot of RR due to flood in ’93, there are more and more trucks on the road carrying good that should go by rail. Some of the things I’ve seen are hair-raising!

  • Presbyterian

    This is an interesting piece. I suspect a true high-speed line to Chicago would get more use than KC — though Missouri taxpayers might be even less inclined to pay for it.

    If I had $8 billion in secured transit taxes, though, suspect I’d direct more of it toward streetcars and light rail within our urban areas and go for a “mostly” high speed rail service elsewhere.

    Sadly, that is an “if” since Missouri has been big on costly taxpayer-subsidized highways and not big on the more sustainable alternatives.

  • tonypalazzolo

    You can call it forward thinking, progressive or whatever. It would still cost is prohibitive and it’s usefulness somewhat less. The options now are to fly to Kansas City or drive. The benefits of flying is that it will take equal or less time (airtime plus security) and you will have far more depart times. Driving takes longer, but you don’t have to rent a car. It would be paid for by diverting current dollars from highway funds or increasing taxes. Highways serve a dual purpose of personal travel and delivery of goods and services. What we will end up with is a very expensive, pretty toy that takes away from other far more important government services.

    • jhoff1257

      Just like building a new I-70 (and maintaing all of our deficient highways) would require increasing taxes. I lived in KC for almost 6 years and I’ve flown between the two cities more times than I can count. It takes a least 3 to 3.5 hours to do that. Especially if you live South of the River in KC and have to drive 30+ minutes to the airport. I’ve driven between the two cities even more and it’s a horrible and unsafe drive. I’d take a high-speed train any day.

      I’ll also add that if both cities (and the State) got off of their collective butts and built legit public transit systems you wouldn’t have to have a car in either city. Currently a tourist in St. Louis can pretty much get to all the major attractions, business districts, and stadiums without a car. I’m also pretty sure rails deliver goods and services too, at a much cheaper fuel cost I might add. Who says we couldn’t run high speed freight across the state too? Get some of those damn trucks off of I-70.

      • tonypalazzolo

        A couple of things – first your assuming that it will be quicker then flying. You still have to drive to the train station which might be even further depending on were you live (KC’s airport is unusually far from anything,). Trains also are horrible at schedules. The only way that it wouldn’t be is if they are dedicated lines and twin track all the way. That precludes Freight which would be the only way to come close to financially solvent. Then in order to make it work, we would have to spend even more money on local transportation which is already heavily subsidized.

        I get it, I love trains and it would be a cool way to cross the state. I just don’t see a huge market and cost are prohibitive. Not only would be finance the building of it, but the operation as it would be the only way to compete.

        It won’t take trucks off of the highway. Trucking is far more expensive then rail, but for obvious reasons logistics dictate when you use rail and when you use truck. The addition of rail won’t change that.

        • jhoff1257

          Well if you live South of the River in KC, Union Station is about 25 minutes closer than the airport regardless of where you are coming from. I’d also bet that this hypothetical proposal assumes that it will be double tracked the whole way. The proposal already said it would be a dedicated passenger line.

          You also noted this: “Trains also are horrible at schedules.” and this “I just don’t see a huge market.” Here is an article that proves both those statements wrong. Not only is customer satisfaction on the Missouri River Runner at 91% (third best of all Amtrak routes) but engineers delivered passengers on-time 90% of the time. On top of that the Missouri River Runner has seen increasing ridership for the last six consecutive years. Ticket revenue has increased by 130% in those same 6 years. Right now it takes nearly 6 hours to cross the State of Missouri. Do you honestly believe if we cut that to 2 or even 3 hours people wouldn’t take advantage of it?

          Quite frankly, I don’t care about freight. Taking more vehicles off of Highway 70 and other State highways, whether they are cars or trucks, is a good thing. And I’d also like to think that if we had a dedicated high speed line it would free up more room for freight on the UP main line. I could be wrong (not to familiar with freight myself), but I don’t see why we couldn’t increase freight if Amtrak was no longer using the tracks. We have multi-modal ports for a reason. It’s already common, especially in Kansas City, for trucks to pull into one of these ports and have their trailers lifted onto flatbed railroad cars and shipped to their destination that way.

    • Kyle Steffen

      Don’t forget that the interstate system is also a major means of military mobilization, if something were to happen. I agree with keeping what we have (and even removing some…ahem depressed lanes), but we can’t let what we have crumble. It actually is an important system.

  • Tyler

    I would love for this to happen as John said that we’d at least be able to begin to compete with the rest of the developed worlds’ transportation systems.

  • John

    DO IT. This would really turn heads all over the planet. “People in the U.S. are thinking ahead? What? When did they start deciding to be progressive and catch up with the rest of the developed world? Huh??”