The train starts to pick up speed, almost imperceptibly, and within 20 minutes the Eurostar high-speed train has left Paris behind, quietly slicing through the French countryside at 185 miles per hour on its way to London.
Just over two hours later, the five-football-field-long train – one of 20 trains that day – deposits 500 passengers at the St. Pancras International station in central London.
The high-speed Eurostar announced last year it has now transported more than 100 million passengers. That's 100 million business people, tourists, educators, students, 100 million generators of economic activity among nations that fought each other almost constantly for centuries.
When a Wisconsinite rides the Eurostar, it's difficult not to reflect on Europe's success and the debate we're having over rail in Wisconsin. Or, more succinctly, the debate we're not having – but ought to.
Wisconsin's proposed rail system will be nothing like the Eurostar, of course. It will be relatively slow. The trains will be emptier and less efficient, at least at first. They won't bring nations together or link destinations as world-famous as Paris and London.
But a trip on the Eurostar is a slap on the forehead. It's a vivid example of what an investment in high-speed rail can do to accelerate growth and economic activity. It's a window into the future for those willing to invest in a regional economy such as the "I-Q Corridor," the intellectually rich route connecting Chicago, Milwaukee, Madison and the Twin Cities.
For Wisconsin "conservatives" opposed to rail (note the quotes), the Eurostar is a stark reminder that this debate isn't about a train or the growth of government. It's about economic growth, economic efficiency and the development of urban and rural areas alike.
Consider the latest breakthrough in Europe: Swiss engineers on Oct. 15 smashed through the last stretch of rock to create the world's longest tunnel, a 35.4-mile Alpine route that will complete vital rail connections for both passengers and freight – shifting cargo off trucks and into rail cars.
Commerce aside, the efficiencies of the Eurostar alone should make a true conservative smile. Energy use is 10 times more efficient per passenger mile compared to cars and planes.
The Eurostar's tickets are labeled "Your ticket to a carbon-neutral journey" because the trains are powered by electricity from nuclear power plants. The Eurostar purchased carbon offsets to offset the remaining carbon dioxide emissions from the portion of England's electricity that comes from coal.
Roundtrip Eurostar ticket prices are priced at roughly what it would cost to park in Chicago for a day or two. And people use it, more than 30 million people alone last year.
Wisconsin is facing a concrete transportation reality: Single-passenger cars running on big highways represent the most expensive way to transport people in the modern world. Moving goods on highways by heavy truck is even worse, as highways intended to last a half a century now need to be replaced every 20 years or so at a cost of tens of millions of dollars per mile. And once highways are jammed to capacity, there is no cost-effective way to expand capacity except to add more lanes.
Rail is cheaper to build, easier to maintain, faster, more energy efficient – and expanding rail's capacity is as easy as adding more cars or more trains.
We'll never be Europe – and we shouldn't be. Growth fueled by a highly flexible highway system is one reason we're successful as a nation. Then again, it's time to examine choices that can build on that success. We can look to the Eurostar's highly efficient path – or follow the lead of Los Angeles and keep adding lanes to freeways that quickly become parking lots.
The proposed rail system between Milwaukee in Madison will be relatively slow and likely relatively expensive at first. That's a tough compromise. But intercity rail would quickly catch on as Wisconsin learns to use it and the line is expanded to the Twin Cities, thus connecting the full I-Q Corridor and its powerhouse cities.
While the proposed system isn't "high-speed" in the Eurostar sense, it's a start. And it is an economic investment. Regardless of when we build it, rail will be part of our future transportation system. And we have $820 million in federal start-up money today – a good thing for a state that never sees its fair share of federal spending.
Let's put the political posturing and phony economics aside and focus on an investment that makes true business sense – now and for the future.
Michael Flaherty is president of Flaherty & Associates public relations in Madison. He is a former reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal and the Dow Jones News Corp.