Friday, April 17, 2009

High-speed rail a nice dream

It’s nice to hear that President Barack Obama is willing to consider the concept of high-speed railroad connecting our cities. It really would be a better alternative than having to use airplanes for short trips, and more relaxing than having to drive.

Is there really a purpose to catching a flight from St. Louis to Chicago (I can’t envision anyone seriously wanting to make that trip in reverse) when a train on significantly improved tracks could travel that route in not much more time?

SO IT WAS encouraging to learn that Obama wants $8 billion put aside, with the chance of $5 billion more during the next five years. Money will come from the economic stimulus package that is supposed to give the U.S. economy a jolt and put people back to work.

I’m curious to see where in this country the federal government first experiments with the idea. I understand officials in California think a line connecting Los Angeles to San Francisco (and potentially shooting north up to Portland and Seattle) ought to be the first, while others would like to see the Washington to New York corridor be the first line for trains that could travel in excess of 100 mph (as opposed to the official Amtrak speed of 79 mph, but in some places on decrepit track they have to slow down to as little as 10 mph).

But let me throw my plug in for Chicago, the one-time hub of the railroad transportation system back in the days when most people took trains and still a significant city due to O’Hare International Airport’s role in U.S. flight connections.

I could easily see Chicago as the center of a railroad spider of sorts, with the arms shooting out in all directions and connecting the city to places such as St. Louis, Minneapolis, Milwaukee and Madison, Detroit and Indianapolis (along with a series of medium-sized towns that lie in between).

MY PERSONAL BIAS would be a route connecting Chicago to St. Louis. That trip (along with visits to places that lie along the route) is one I would make if the travel time factor could be reduced.

Now for those who argue that Amtrak already has service connecting those municipalities, I’d have to ask if you have ever taken that particular trip.

Personally, I haven’t traveled that route on train in about four years – the last time I made the trip to Springfield for a couple of days.

I remember my train left Chicago on schedule and arrived at the train station about one block from the Statehouse in Springfield only about 10 minutes later than the scheduled time. Amtrak worked that day the way it was supposed to.

WHICH MEANS WE are talking about a 3.5-hour-long train ride.

I know from personal experience from the seven years I lived in Springfield that I could make the same trip by car (on an interstate highway that parallels the tracks used by Amtrak for much of the route) in about three hours.

I’d like it if a train ride could cut the amount of time spent en route. And for those who will argue they like to drive, I find hours of driving to be headache inducing. I’d enjoy it if the trip to a place like Springfield were only a 1.5-hour-long ride.

And if a trip to St. Louis only took about two hours (as opposed to the roughly 4.5 hours it now takes on Amtrak), perhaps I’d be more inclined to travel to that city (a personal disclosure: the last time I went to St. Louis was when Pope John Paul II visited there in 1999) and find aspects I’d enjoy.

WHENEVER I HEAR of high-speed rail, I think of it as a nice ideal. But not one in which our political people seem inclined to take the actions that would allow for something to happen someday.

Then again, they don’t act all that quickly on any issue. The idea of a third airport for the Chicago area has been under consideration for nearly three decades, yet we’re not any closer to seeing shovels upturning earth to allow for construction to begin.

High-speed rail is one of those things I would use if someone were to take the initiative to build it. Yet too many political people seem to think that it shouldn’t be built unless people make some sort of commitment to its use.

So in that sense, Obama’s government-speak on Thursday before leaving for a trip to Mexico City was a positive.

NOW, IT’S JUST a matter of figuring out where the federal government will start. Obama would only say that 10 corridors across the country have been identified. Who’s to say what will occur first.

It would be nice to have one of the first high-speed lines (which would require significantly upgraded railroad track from the aging track now in use) in the nation. I’m just hoping this issue is one of those where Chicago gets the benefit of being the president’s “hometown.”


EDITOR’S NOTE: Will Barack Obama remember Chicago (and his Springfield days) when ( federal transportation officials decide where to put the first high-speed rail line in this country?

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