By Allison Bush, email@example.com
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.”
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.”