Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Are we a step closer to high-speed rail?

High-speed rail fans envision these IL routes
I got my kicks on Monday not from Route 66, but from the potential future of the railroad tracks that parallel pretty closely to the Mother Road of old in Illinois.

Transportation Department officials distributed another $2 billion to various states meant to pay for work needed to advance local rail systems to the point where they could someday accommodate high-speed rail trains.

OF THAT AMOUNT, Illinois is getting $238 million (or just over 10 percent of the total).

Now a part of the reason our state is getting that extra money is because of the political games played by Republican types who wanted to think they could sandbag this idea with their actions.

They took a pass on accepting a share of the money, saying they’re not interested in having high-speed rail in their states. Perhaps they think they can kill off the concept if they turn the United States into a virtual checkerboard, with certain blotches that can’t accommodate the trains that could turn a Chicago-to-St. Louis trip from a five-hour drive to a two-hour train ride.

One of those states is our neighbor to the north – Wisconsin. But the state that contributed to the latest cash disbursement is Florida.

FOR THOSE OF us whose memories extend beyond the past 15 minutes, Florida is the state that managed to impact a presidential election in favor of the candidate who “lost” the popular vote. Perhaps that kind of action made Florida political people giddy enough to think they could kill off this project.

Instead, Illinois got part of the cash they should have received.  It will go toward upgrades on the tracks between Chicago and St. Louis – particularly the portion between Dwight and Joliet. Although I have to think that the bulk of attention on any high-speed rail route that cuts across Illinois and connects the state’s residents to its two urban areas ought to be in those freight yards in Cook County just outside of downtown Chicago.

Anybody who has ever taken an Amtrak train in its current form knows that is where the trains have to creep along at a turtle’s pace. That is going to be the place that needs a serious reconfiguration if the idea of a Chicago-to-St. Louis journey in just over 2 hours is ever to become reality.

Now I will be honest. It has been just over five years since I last rode an Amtrak train on that particular route.

IT CAN BE a pleasant-enough ride if one has time to spare for leisure. Although the Spartan conditions of contemporary Amtrak trains makes the idea of a “leisurely train trip” through the Midwestern United States seem to be an absurd concept.

My point being that while I like the idea of travel by train in theory, the reality doesn’t live up to the image many of us would like to create in our minds.

Giving a boost to the idea of high-speed rail could be the step that helps move inter-city train travel somewhere in the direction of becoming that mental image we’d like to have.

Heck, perhaps I’d even be tempted to take a train trip up into Michigan (the Chicago-to-Detroit routes could also benefit from some of the federal funding that was awarded by Transportation Department officials on Monday).

IT’S TOO BAD that I can’t contemplate a Chicago-to-Milwaukee or Chicago-to-Madison, Wis., trip in the same way – since Wisconsin state officials are among those who want to play ideological games with the idea of high-speed rail.

Because that is what much of the opposition to the idea has become.

Some people just want to have their automobiles and want to be able to ride up and down Interstate 55 (which is what becomes of the Stevenson Expressway once you get outside of Chicago) and want to instill some sort of ideological purity to the idea of not having to travel on a schedule.

I can almost buy that concept.

THE ONES WHO I find to be most ridiculous are the ones who try to claim that riding trains somehow undermines persona l freedom by having so many people ride together. As though the very concept of mass transit somehow undermines the democratic ideals of the United States of America!

I have even heard some ideological crackpots try citing the fact that high-speed rail is so popular in other countries as evidence that the idea is “too foreign” to work in the United States.

We even get some of that kind of ridiculous rhetoric from the states that tried turning away federal funds.

My guess is that they thought they’d be allowed to keep the money and apply it to some other project of their choice – or at the very least some sort of transportation-related project. Road repairs?

INSTEAD, THE MONEY goes to the people who are willing to play ball, so to speak, on high-speed rail.

Which may mean that Monday’s grants are a purely partisan political move by the current administration. I’m not complaining. If it helps make the experience of a train trip more convenient and pleasant, it may very well let me get out more often.


1 comment:

Unknown said...

Michigan got something like $200 million for high speed rail from the feds. Unfortunately (for me)the money is going to go to upgrading the Detroit to Chicago line. For several years now I have been riding Amtrak on the Grand Rapids to Chicago line on the Pere Marquette. When I first started riding the train there were plenty of seats empty so you could stretch out. Not anymore. The train is usually packed on the trip both to Chicago and on the way back. After having experienced high speed rail travel in Germany, all I can say is that if we can get high speed rail established here, especially in the midwest, all I can see is it helping the whole region. Someday Florida is going to regret not taking the money.