Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:43 pm
If I had shared it out loud, a recent shock I had experienced probably would’ve been laughed out of the room at last Saturday’s joint conference of the Midwest High-Speed Rail Association (MHSRA) and the National Association of Rail Passengers (NARP) in Chicago.
Ten days earlier, I had driven to an interview in Rockford that took less than 90 minutes one way but more than three hours round trip because of the afternoon rush. Because I may make that drive fairly often, I looked up the train schedule to Rockford for times when inclement weather, fatigue or boredom might contraindicate driving in the future.
What’s the joke? There’s no train to Rockford (at least for passengers). However, if I was a ton of lettuce, 20,000 lumps of coal or 5,000 gallons of milk, I’d be all set.
“Welcome to the shrinking world of passenger rail,” NARP president George Chilson would say.
I realized that this is what rail passengers and aficionados have been enduring arguably for the 36 years since Amtrak kicked in back in 1971. Chilson reported that new Amtrak president Alex Kummant phoned him on his first day on the job.
Chilson also cited the need for private-public partnerships, much greater involvement at the state level and tax-credit bonds to help support and expand ridership.
Fortunately, this model may find real-world support since the trend of shrinking passenger routes has been reversed. Still, any futuristic visions of bullet trains or other high-speed rail systems will have to wait on the back burner a while longer. In essence, we’re still functioning on centuries-old technologies and millennia-old standards: the old saw about railroad tracks being "as wide as a Roman horse" is still accurate and true.
Alderman Robert Bauman of Milwaukee, who is a staunch advocate of advanced rail systems, provided an encouraging report regarding that city’s progress. He added, "We should be building a seamlessly connected intermodal transportation system based on public service rather than profitability."
Bauman said Milwaukee has been studying and restudying light rail transit since the early 1990s.
"Ironically, during this time, over a dozen new light rail systems have been studied and built in other mid-sized cities," Bauman said. "The study process seems destined to continue for at least several more months as another alternatives analysis – known as the ‘downtown transit connector study’ – is about to be completed."
According to Bauman, this study proposes the expenditure of significant sums of public money and recommends transportation technologies that may or may not be in the public interest.
For example, there’s a rather absurd concept called the guided bus. Bauman said, "Suffice it to say that guided buses are not a cheap form of light rail but a very expensive version of a bus service."
Fortunately, that concept has been abandoned in favor of several light rail and standard passenger rail routes.
These include commuter routes along the Kenosha-Racine-Milwaukee (KRM) corridor and into downtown Milwaukee, a vision to expand throughout southeast Wisconsin into northeastern Illinois and even a line linking Milwaukee to state capitol Madison. Also, the downtown Milwaukee train station’s $15 million renovation will be completed later in 2007.
Throughout the Midwest, passenger train ridership is on the increase, and it appears that the number of runs and lines will continue to expand within the foreseeable future. This is good news for all types of businesses throughout the Midwest, where the greatest resurgence appears to be happening.
This repeated message kept the 200-plus attendees at last Saturday’s conference enthused, engaged and hopeful. Reports from Chilson, MHSRA executive director Rick Harnish and Anne Canby (president of a national initiative called the Surface Transportation Policy Project) detailed acknowledgment by governments and civilians alike that "trains aren’t such a bad idea."
Some of the main factors contributing to the return of passenger rail include unstable gasoline prices, increasingly unbearable lines and security procedures at airports, the gridlock-level congestion on our highways and the worsening environmental effects of greenhouse gasses and corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards.
Chicagoans have been able to boast one of the best transportation systems in the United Stats. Of course, there are high-speed trains in Europe and Asia that put Amtrak’s predictably late-running systems to shame. It’s no secret that the CTA’s crumbling infrastructure is barely able to carry its burgeoning ridership.
The fact is there’s no magic wand when we’re looking at modernizing a system that’s 100 years old in a very dense urban environment.
"We call this ‘the year of decision,’" said Stephen Schlickman, executive director of the RTA. "The choice is between a world-class transit system and an economic downturn that … a hobbled transit system would most likely bring about."
Midwest cities are playing catch up to Chicago when it comes to developing a rapid-transit system. For example, when Minneapolis finally launched its Hiawatha Line light-rail transit (LRT) system two years ago, officials expected 10,000 riders on the first day. There were 15,000.
Speaking strictly in terms of speed and convenience, most folks are willing to put up with the risk of delays and accidents if they can count on a public transportation system that predictably runs on time. Chicago Amtrak media relations manager Marc Magliari used a PowerPoint presentation to review several encouraging trends including an uptick in ridership just in the four months from late last Oct. 6 through Feb. 7:
- Five Chicago-St. Louis round trips (up from three) saw an increase in ridership of 62,309 passengers.
- Three Chicago-Carbondale round trips saw an increase of 40,604 passengers.
- Two Chicago-Quincy round trips (up from one) saw an increase of 47,437.
Overall ridership growth so far this year, according to Magliari, totals 150,350.
Amtrak is now undergoing its first funding reauthorization hearings since 1997. More than simple budgetary legislation, serious updates to the system (including the development of a state corridor system), demands for on-time performance, strengthening of long-distance routes and serious labor contracts (the last ones having expired in 2000) are on the table.
The event’s greatest call to arms, however, came from Seattle-based author Alfred Runte, who calls himself a "consulting environmental historian." A former candidate for mayor of Seattle and ex-professor at the University of Washington, Runte called for a return to Theodore Roosevelt-styled progressivism by echoing alderman Bauman’s call for "public service rather than profitability" as the guidepost for rebuilding our nation’s railroads.
The coolest new transportation technology at the moment currently appears to be our revived rail system, which will be playing catch up for the next five to 10 years using existing tracks before we see any true, new approaches. Environmentally, in terms of recycling and reuse, this makes more sense than starting from scratch any way.
John Katsantonis is senior vice president of the technology practice at Northstar Counselors, the Minneapolis-based founding member of Pinnacle Worldwide. He also is the principal of The Katsantonis Group.
Editor’s note: This blog first appeared at MidwestBusiness.com, an SBT media partner.