All aboard


The Obama administration’s announcement of $8 billion for high-speed rail development around the country certainly made a splash, but it’s not going to put many new trains on new tracks in the near-term. It’s hard enough to build a baseball stadium for less than a billion dollars these days.

Here, we’re talking about spreading $8 billion around to 10 rail corridors across the country, plus an additional $1 billion a year for 5 years.

While we can admire the rail-centric Europeans or the sleek bullet trains of Japan, is it worth trying to shift the primary mode of transportation for a significant number of Americans?

Amtrak’s Empire Builder runs between the Twin Cities and Chicago. It’ll cost you $56-74 and take you 8 hours to get there.

If you’re a frequent traveler to Chicago, what’s the threshold at which you’ll consider switching from plane to train? A 6-hour trip? 4 hours?

Update: In the comments, Tyler notes that the point of this all is that it’s high-speed rail.

However, the U.S. actually has different standards for what qualifies as high-speed rail than the European Union, for example. The EU says it’s a top speed of 125 mph or more, while 90 mph will earn you the status of “Emerging High-Speed Rail” in the U.S. — or, for the politically expedient, “high-speed rail”.

For the interested, the Federal Railroad Administration’s high-speed rail strategic plan (pdf) is worth a read.

  • Jennifer

    What, no train to Rapid City or Minot? Bummer. Those are much more boring drives than Chicago.

  • If you build it, I will ride.

  • Tyler

    “Amtrak’s Empire Builder runs between the Twin Cities and Chicago. It’ll cost you $56-74 and take you 8 hours to get there.”

    Isn’t this why it’s *high speed* rail that they’re building? Anything at all is better than driving from TC to Chi town.

  • I’m not that frequent of a traveler so my biggest breaking point is cost. I’m looking at round trip airfare of around $320. Amtrak is going to run about $130 round trip. Or I could take Megabus for around $60. The plane ride being only an hour and a half isn’t helped when it’s suggested you arrive at the airport 90 minutes ahead of time, planes often leave late and it’s going to take half an hour to get from the airport to downtown Chicago. And that’s if I didn’t check a bag.

    If I did make the trip frequently, I imagine a 6 hour trip would be short enough for me. Give me a 4 hour trip that actually deposits me at Union Station–I might pay extra for that!

  • davidz

    To begin with, I’d like an additional train or two between Chicago and the Cities. How about the ability to leave the cities in the evening, sleep on the train (so it doesn’t even have to be a high speed train), and then arrive in downtown Chicago in the early AM (6-8 a) so you can have breakfast and get to work. Then reverse the trip that night.

    I used to fly to ORD 2-3 times a month for years. I’d have taken the train almost every single time if it had been a viable schedule option.

    But one train a day, and the eastbound is frequently late, makes it hard to plan a business schedule around. A separate CHI-St Paul train (not the Builder) would allow for more-or-less guaranteed on-time departures from the Cities.

  • bob

    Where’s the high-speed rail from Twin Cities to points west and southwest?

    And if it doesn’t go at least 125 mph, it wouldn’t be worth riding. A 12-hour trip via rail to Phoenix — that’s what I’m talkin’ about.

  • Adam

    Even though 90 mph is what designates a train for high speed in the US. once new track is laid (mostly straight lines with wider curves, overpasses and tunnels for road crossings) to allow it to go faster there is nothing to stop if from going 150, 175 or faster. Right now anything nearing 100 is fast because our rail system is built for freight.

    I think we can trust that if we decide to put a high speed rail in it will be at the least competitve with any other modes of existing transportation or there would be no use in putting it in, our government knows that.

  • Scooterbum

    I am a frequent Mpls to Chicago traveler – I fly if one way is less than $90 and 4 hours. I usually take the mega bus for an average of $30 and 8 hours each way. The proposed “high speed “ rail from St. Paul will most likely be 12 hours one way after lobbying from Minneapolis – Rochester – Winona – Lacrosse and Madison increase the number of stops but make it more politically viable. Some 2nd and 3rd order effects will be the loss of 10 to 20 thousand airline jobs, increased greenhouse emissions due to displacing freight on existing rails and endless taxpayer subsidies for operational costs. What problem is the rail proposal solving ?

  • Paul


    I just rode the Amtrak from Chicago to St. Paul, it took 8 hours, where are you getting this 12 hour figure from?

    We could create tens of thousand of good paying jobs building, repairing, and maintaining high speed trains. We would strengthen our transportation system with diversity. We would reduce green house emissions because rail is one of the most cost effective ways of moving people and freight. This would have a positive impact on freight trains because high speed trains would run on separate tracks (the comment that freight would somehow be “displaced” makes no sense). I don’t know where the figure of 10-20 thousand lost airline jobs is coming from. And for the millionth time, all of our transportation from roads to airlines, are subsidized… who builds, maintains, and runs the airports and air traffic control systems for instance, not to mention the multi billion post 9/11 airline bailout?

    We just took our first long distance train ride from St. Paul to Washington DC and it was a very cool experience. We unloaded our van and left it parked at the the station for 7 days… for free. I was able to check five bags ( I was bringing a bunch of photo equipment), eat real food while sitting at a table, charge my phone and make phone calls, and walk around the train. I saw the Allegheny mountains instead of just flying over them. Took in a couple great exhibits at the Chicago Museum ( Edvard Munch, and a Karsh photo exhibit) while waiting for my connection in Chicago. And we found the people to be very pleasant outgoing. The train is the only place in the world where I can talk to Republicans without getting into a argument because we all want bullet trains! The only draw back is the time, and the only reason that’s a drawback is because we haven’t built high speed rail lines.

    By the way, you can get a coach seat from St. Paul to Chicago today for $56, it’s an 8.5 hour trip, and your it would be a way more comfortable ride than any bus. You should give it a try sometime Scooterburn.