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updated: 11/21/2011 5:29 AM

Politicians railing about high-speed trains

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  • Don't expect fast trains like France's TGV any time soon in the Midwest. While Illinois stands to receive nearly $2 billion in federal dollars for high-speed trains -- about 68 percent dedicated to a route between St. Louis and Chicago -- Congressional leaders recently killed an $8 billion funding package for high-speed rail.

      Don't expect fast trains like France's TGV any time soon in the Midwest. While Illinois stands to receive nearly $2 billion in federal dollars for high-speed trains -- about 68 percent dedicated to a route between St. Louis and Chicago -- Congressional leaders recently killed an $8 billion funding package for high-speed rail.
    Courtesy of Eurail

 
 

Whizzing through the French countryside on a high-speed rail TGV train at 200 miles per hour. Rumbling along on Metra's BNSF Line's 5:04 p.m. express train at 70. Speeding between Chicago and St. Louis at 110 mph -- most of the time.

High-speed rail is a relative concept -- except when it comes to politics. Then, one man's high-speed, job-creating, rail dream is another man's money-wasting boondoggle.

I got some perspective on the issue last Monday during the annual William O. Lipinski Symposium on transportation at Northwestern University. This year's focus -- high-speed rail.

Close to home, Illinois stands to receive nearly $2 billion in federal dollars for high-speed trains, with about 68 percent dedicated to a route between St. Louis and Chicago.

The Obama administration has advocated for high-speed rail networks across the country, pushing for $53 billion in funding over six years.

The GOP calls the policy misguided and Republican governors in Ohio, Wisconsin and Florida rejected federal grants to the benefit of Illinois, which received about $497 million as a result.

The Lipinski Symposium convened experts and political heavyweights like Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood (who backs high-speed rail in Illinois) and critics like Pennsylvania Congressman Bill Shuster, who chairs an influential House rail subcommittee.

Back in Washington, Shuster, a Republican, worked with colleagues last week to successfully kill $8 billion requested by the White House for high-speed rail in 2012.

This means "an end to the president's misguided high-speed rail program, but it is not the end of American high-speed rail," Shuster said. He and Transportation Committee Chairman John Mica, a Florida GOP congressman, say dollars for high-speed trains should go to the Northeast region, which already has an effective, popular rail network.

Mica punctured the Midwest high-speed rail balloon at an April 2010 hearing when he mocked the 110 miles-per-hour speeds projected for the regional corridor. "The worst dog is the Chicago-to-St. Louis route. You can only put so much parsley around a turkey," Mica said.

Now that's just mean.

However, it's true 110 mph is small potatoes compared to European high-speed rail or Japan's bullet train, which spurts along at more than 200 mph. And it's true that the Chicago-St. Louis route would only reduce the 284-mile trip of 5 hours (which in reality often takes longer) to less than four hours. The maximum speed on the line now is 79 mph.

Illinois high-speed rail champion U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin said the 2012 funding setback is disappointing but won't kill the dream of "transportation projects that will improve safety, spur economic development, reduce congestion through multimodal investments and create thousands of good paying jobs."

About $500 million in transportation grants were spared the ax and "I will work to see that high speed rail projects in Illinois are made eligible for funding," Durbin promised.

At the conference named for former congressional power broker Bill Lipinski, his son U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski said, "I think high-speed rail has great potential but we're in a tough budget time where it's difficult to get funding." The Western Springs Democrat and Transportation Committee member added he was hopeful high-speed rail will do better when Congress passes a multiyear surface transportation funding.

Big surprise, Lipinski's counterpart on the Transportation Committee, U.S. Rep. Randy Hultgren, disagreed.

"My priority is on upgrading and maintaining the transportation infrastructure we currently have," the Winfield Republican said Friday. "Instead of focusing on high-speed rail, let's focus on creating a high-speed economy and jobs."

Friend or foe of high-speed rail? Drop me an email at mpyke@dailyherald.com.

And to check out the symposium, visit iti.northwestern.edu/lipinski.

One more thing

The symposium included a look at projecting the market for high-speed rail. My take-away was -- you can't.

Rail expert Steven Polzin pointed to numerous uncertainties surrounding HSR here. For starters, there's the uncertainty of financing projects requiring millions of dollars in infrastructure. The current plan for high-speed rail in the U.S. is also problematic because "there's a lot of orphan segments," Polzin said, referring to geographically isolated HSR lines that don't connect to other regions.

One plus for HSR, according to its supporters, was how simple and fast it would be to board trains compared to getting on an airplane. But now it's possible high-speed rail riders will be subjected to the same security screenings that fliers endure.

Polzin, a professor with the Center for Urban Transportation Research at the University of South Florida, also warned against trusting overly optimistic predictions.

"The environment is challenging to objective ridership forecasting," he said.

"There are thin ranks of experts and a lot of nonexperts who travel in Europe and thought high-speed rail was neat."

Your voice

Railroad historian and author Tom Fetters took issue with my wording regarding "tanker" cars carrying chemicals in a Nov. 4 story about the CN derailment in Bartlett that affected hundreds of Metra riders. Here's his correction. "I have to remind you that 'tankers' are ships that carry liquids. On railroads, the vehicle would be a 'tank car.' In case you think of tanks hauled by truck, that would be a tank-truck," Fetters wrote.

Upcoming

Have your say on IDOT's latest plan to fix the Eisenhower Expressway bottleneck between Mannheim Road and east of Oak Park. The deadline to comment on the state's latest plan is Nov. 30. You can opine your heart out at the website Eisenhowerexpressway.com.

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