Stimulus-backed high-speed rail could benefit Great Lakes region; environmental benefits uncertain

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Proposed U.S. high-speed trains might travel at 110 mph. The 220-mph trains in Malaga, Spain are becoming competitive with aircraft travel. Photo: Terry Wha

By Allison Bush,
Great Lakes Echo
June 22, 2009

The prospect of traveling from Chicago to Detroit at 110 mph might be more feasible with the recent release of federal rules for obtaining a piece of the $8 billion in stimulus funds for the high-speed rail.

The criteria looks good for the Great Lakes region as it favors multi-state proposals. Regional transportation officials have proposed a high-speed rail with a central hub in Chicago that travels to Detroit, Milwaukee, Cleveland, Columbus, Indianapolis and other cities.

But will people give up their automobiles and make the shift?

“The high-speed rail can look really good environmentally,” said Mikhail Chester, a researcher at the University of California, Berkeley. “The question is, what happens if it has low ridership?”

Train service can decrease emissions and save energy, Chester said. But in a country so dependent on the automobile, it could have the reverse effect.

Chester’s research focuses on emissions per passenger per mile traveled.  A car with two passengers in it would have much higher emissions per passenger than a train that traveled the same distance with hundreds of passengers.

“But when the train has very few people on it – where it’s consuming a lot of electricity, but very few passenger miles are being served – it won’t look very good compared to other modes of transportation,” he said. “This point is often lost in discussion.”

And although high-speed trains could decrease  greenhouse gas emissions, they could increase  sulfur emissions, which have direct environmental and human health impacts, Chester said.

“With sulfur, there is higher emissions from electricity emissions than from gasoline and diesel – there are very low sulfur emissions for those fuels,” he said. “There’s the question of what trade-offs are you willing to make?”

And from an environmental standpoint, high-speed rail between cities might not be the best place to invest.  New public transportation systems within cities could have a greater impact, Chester said.

“The majority of environmental impact is happening from intercity travel,” he said. “Most of the trips we take are probably less than 20 miles.”


There are numerous proposed high-speed rail lines for the U.S, including a track in the Midwest with Chicago as the central hub. Click for national map.

And just providing high-speed rail is not enough to get people to give up their cars, said Joe Grengs, an assistant professor of urban planning at the University of Michigan.

“The only way we’re going to get a significant shift to the high-speed rail is if it affects people’s pocketbooks – if gas prices go up,” Grengs said. “I don’t think people will move to trains on their own, they will have to experience some pain first.”

There needs to be a focus on making the systems usable and on encouraging people to make the shift, Chester said.

There are encouraging signs for train ridership in the region.
It has increased in the Midwest for several years, and weekend tickets are frequently sold out, said Marc Magliari, an Amtrack spokesman. This suggests that people are willing to make the switch.

And high-speed rail systems work best traveling from one high-density place to another.  So a rail system with Chicago as the central hub makes sense, Grengs said.

But there are also hurdles.

Several Midwest cities, such as Detroit and Cleveland, are places with “a lot of distress and a lot of crime,” that could affect ridership, Grengs said. “Transit is perceived as being less safe than driving in your own personal vehicle, which could potentially be an issue.”

3 thoughts on “Stimulus-backed high-speed rail could benefit Great Lakes region; environmental benefits uncertain

  1. Pingback: Administration Releases Stimulus Job-Counting Rules | The Paris - San Francisco

  2. I wish they would hurry up and pull the trigger on some mass transit – either for commuters or for longer distances. I understand what all the concern is about, but really? Make it fast, put it in a convenient spot and make sure it’s affordable.
    As for safety, I would much rather take a train into Detroit than worry about leaving my car in some darkened lot.
    I lived in Minneapolis when they approved and built the Hiawatha LightRail. Same concerns – ridership, safety and expense. I just read where the ridership has already exceeded their ridership estimates for 2020.

  3. High-speed rail between Detroit and Chicago looked doable more than a decade ago. Southwest Michigan residents who worked in Chicago looked forward to a reliable, faster mode of travel. Rail crossings in Dowagiac and other places were dismantled in anticipation. What happened? Was the Michigan Legislature short-sighted? Did party politics circumvent a worthy project? Amtrak ridership today between St. Joseph, South Bend and Chicago is above average. It probably would be higher if high-speed rail had gone through back then.

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