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Take A Fast Train

High-speed, intercity rail coming to midwest

March 1, 2001 | By Kelly Thayer
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

If Detroit were a country, it would grant Chicago most-favored nation trading status.

Every day, thousands of business people, shoppers, and visitors travel on one of 99 flights between the cities' airports, which rank among the nation's busiest. At the same time, 34,000 trucks and cars pour each day in and out of Michigan's southwest corner on Interstate 94. The rush of commerce and connectivity has a hitch, however: Trade routes are jammed.

As highways back up and airports overflow, travelers need a third way to shuttle across the Midwest. New Amtrak trains, with their promise of 110-mile-per-hour speeds between Detroit and Chicago and other Midwest metropolitan areas, just may be the ticket.

With Chicago as its hub, the Midwest Regional Rail System is scheduled by 2003 to link Detroit, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Milwaukee, and Minneapolis with fast Amtrak trains. By 2010, the entire network, including additional rail and feeder bus service, should be in operation. The 3,000 — mile network is within easy reach — a one-hour trip at most - of 70 percent of the region's population.

Congestion Relief
The project is now under way because governors, transportation planners, and citizen activists from nine Midwest states united in the late 1990s to develop a world-class, intercity rail network. The Midwest system is one of eight proposed high-speed rail corridors in the United States. The others are located in upstate New York, California, Florida, Pennsylvania, between Oregon and Washington, between Washington D.C. and Florida on the Atlantic Coast, and between Texas and Alabama on the Gulf Coast.

Rail backers pitch high-speed rail as a relaxing, reliable, and energy-efficient alternative to driving and air travel. They point out that 18 of the country's 20 most delay-prone airports, as well as miles of congested highways, are located along the proposed corridors. High-speed trains can reduce traffic and relieve clogged airports by moving medium-distance, intercity traffic off the roads and runways and onto rail.

Moving Into the 21st Century
The 290-mile stretch between Detroit and Chicago will be one of the first in the Midwest on which passengers will travel at high speeds on high-tech trains. While current Amtrak trains resemble buses, the new ones look more like aircraft, with sloped fronts and sleek bodies.

The trains will provide passengers a smooth, high-performance ride in addition to meeting rooms and phone, fax, and Internet connections, said Kevin Brubaker of the Chicago-based Environmental Law and Policy Center.



"Existing trains can get up to 110 miles per hour, just like you could probably get an old Volkswagen Bug up to 100 miles per hour. But we're talking about getting Ferraris," he said.

The fast trains will transform Amtrak from a lumbering intercity option into a highly competitive travel choice. Currently Amtrak trains travel at an average 70 miles per hour.

The new high-speed rail will cut travel time between Detroit and Chicago from 5.5 hours to 3.5 hours. And instead of three trains per day, the new service will offer nine trains each day between Detroit and Chicago.

Rail backers believe the time savings and new level of convenience will be enough to attract many air travelers, who've grown weary of early check-ins, delayed boardings, holding patterns, and late arrivals.

"If there were more trains, I would consider using them," said Steve Cheolas, a business person who flies regularly between Detroit and Chicago. Fast trains will also draw people like Denis Crezzi, a sales person who drives between Detroit and Grand Rapids twice a month. "The traffic on I-94 is horrible, and the train is really a viable alternative to driving in bad Michigan winters."

Midwest states have already started upgrading existing tracks to carry the high-speed "Midwest Metroliners" safely. Michigan so far has invested $30 million and improved a 90-mile stretch between Kalamazoo and Michigan City, Ind.

Funding Looking Good
The big financial push, however, must come from the federal government. Midwest states are relying on Congress to back the effort with new high-speed rail funding, which will cover 80 percent of the $4.1 billion dollar initiative.

The prospects look good for such funding to come out of Congress this year, Mr. Brubaker said. "In a last-minute deal before the end of 2000, senate leaders agreed to bring high-speed rail funding to the floor before summer," he said.

The proposed legislation would provide $10 billion nationwide for high-speed rail, a figure that would translate into $2 billion to $3 billion for the Midwest and would provide enough money to complete the high-speed corridors from Chicago to St. Louis, Detroit, Minneapolis, and Cincinnati.


 CONTACTS: Dusty Fancher, Michigan Environmental Council, 517-487-9539, dustymec@voyager.net; Kevin Brubaker, Environmental Law and Policy Center, 312-673-6500, kbrubaker@elpc.org; Kevin Johnson, Amtrak spokesperson, 312-655-1338.


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