Is a fast train to Chicago fast enough, or do we need real “high-speed”?


The Strib tackles the question of whether new rail service between Minneapolis and Chicago is really going to be fast enough.  As you may already know, the proposed line to Chicago will not travel at a European-style 200+ miles per hour, it will cruise along at 78, possibly reaching 110 in some stretches.  The current Amtrak line averages 54.  The Strib pegs the total trip at 5:21 hours for the “fast” train and 3:22 for a true “high-speed” system running the same route (not including boarding times).

Since spending $33 billion for a true high speed system seems somewhat out of the question in the current political and economic environment, the question becomes: can a 5 hour train ride (not including boarding and alighting times) compete with the car, the plane and the Megabus?  We’ll start with the two latter options: yes and yes.  The Strib’s graphic says a non-stop car trip takes 6.5 hours and the Megabus takes 8.  If you factor in the traffic jams, general unpleasantness of driving 6+ hours, Illinois drivers, and ever-present worry about who you may get stuck next to on a bus and I’d wager a “fast” train would compete well any day if fares were reasonable (sub $200 round trip).

The plane is the real competitor.  However, unlike the car, the train and the bus, which all have relatively short waiting times for boarding, plane travel can include an extra 1.5 hours on the front end minimum for ticketing, security, and other airport hassles.  So you can effectively double the Strib’s estimate of travel time by plane to 3 hours.  Oh wait, have you ever flown into O’Hare?  It’s an hour from anywhere!  4 hours it is.  Union Station is right downtown.  And while there is no garauntee that new rail service wouldn’t result in increased security at stations, it couldn’t possibly rival the silly and offensive security theater currently perpetrated by the TSA.  Last time I rode the Amtrak from Milwaukee to Chicago there was no metal detectors, no baggage screening and no one asking me to take my 8 month old’s shoes off.  If you assume 30 minutes for ticketing, etc. at the train station you are at 6 hours.  6 hours on a clickety-click, comfortable, pretty-scenery train or 4 hours in a cramped metal tube after being x-rayed and frisked and with only 3.4 ounces of liquid to comfort you?  If the price is right, I think the train wins every time.

6 thoughts on “Is a fast train to Chicago fast enough, or do we need real “high-speed”?

  1. Great post! I was just visiting Union Station in St. Paul today and contemplating this very question.

    I was arguing with an architect that the train would be more convenient, but he pointed out that unlike in East Coast cities, most passengers in this area are not headed to the city center. So you may have to add more time on the end of the trip for getting to your suburban destinations outside of the origin and destination cities.

    Ultimately, I think that is a good argument for higher speed rail, along with much stronger incentives to promote future development near the stations rather than at the suburban fringe.

  2. I think the glamour of air travel still has a major influence on the American traveling public. Because of that, there is a major risk involved in not implementing these lines in just the right way. It’s like a startup company making its IPO only for the public to realize that they don’t make anything that’s all that useful. Along the way it makes a few people wealthy…but…well, okay I’m being a bit melodramatic. I think you’re right overall, I would suggest the key is going to be the fare. Right-pricing the product will make or break the competitive ability of the system.

  3. Glamour of air travel?! I laugh!

    I do however disagree with your statement that this is faster than a car. If you are going from downtown St. Paul to downtown Chicago, absolutely (and if there’s an extension, maybe downtown Minneapolis). But these aren’t the majority of trips. If you are traveling to Chicago for business, a substantial amount of business happens in the inner ring of suburbs (near O’Hare, actually). If you are traveling from Chicago, only a small portion of the population lives near the train station, and adding 30 minutes to an hour to get to the train station is reasonable, even for people living in the city limits.

    In the Twin Cities, if you are going to the cities for business, it is of course highly unlikely you are going to downtown St. Paul. Adding downtown Minneapolis and it at least is realistic. Coming from the cities, again people don’t live near these stations. Driving to the stations (or getting transit to downtown Minneapolis) adds to the numbers considerably, but then of course you need sufficient parking. Transit to downtown St. Paul doesn’t seem up to the job. Anyway, time-wise you might be adding 20 to 40 minutes.

    If your destination is not transit-accessible, on either end you will have to rent a car. If it is transit-accessible, you can use transit. Either way you have to add more time to the trip because a car takes you to your exact destination (unless it is not very car-accessible, like downtown Chicago).

    In my opinion the train only can compete when arriving at your destination in your car is actually detrimental to your trip experience (you don’t have a car, you can’t use it, it’s unreliable, you can’t fit everyone, you can’t park it at your destination, or driving 6:30 is too long for you). And maybe a train can pick up some of those other trips, but not because someone is just being a hard-nosed rationalist about travel times.

    Also schedule flexibility is important. Cars are almost perfect, except for periods of the day with traffic. Both the megabus and trains are limited but relatively flexible for changes. Planes suck. This relates to the sense of “speed” because you have to be conservative about scheduling as a result. (At the right time of day you can usually jump right on a plane without much lead time, but you can’t *know* that you can do so.)

    • Adding in travel time to downtown Saint Paul does make the competitiveness with the car questionable (a reason to bring the line into downtown Minneapolis maybe?). However the train does have one additional advantage to the car that I didn’t mention, which applies especially in the case of the business traveler. Five hours on a train means five hours of email, conference calls, and possibly flipping moderate republicans. In other words, you can do work, especially if the trains are equipped with wifi (how could they not be?). Car travel means 6 hours of steering and maybe talking on the phone. So from a business perspective, time on the train isn’t wasted, whereas time in the car is.

  4. Time on the train may not be wasted, but time getting to the train station, waiting, and boarding and alighting is. (Same applies to air travel). In my car (hopefully one that drives itself will be available about the same time a fast train comes to town) I am moving towards my destination (my exact destination, not an approximation like downtown) mere seconds after locking my front door. This additional time not lost going nowhere is even more important perceptually, as time in motion is much less onerous than time waiting. As Ian noted, most destinations are not downtown, (in the Twin Cities fewer than 15% of all regional jobs are downtown, and far fewer residences).

    See e.g.

    Levinson, David, Kathleen Harder, John Bloomfield, and Kasia Winiarczyk. (2004) Weighting Waiting: Evaluating the Perception of In-Vehicle Travel Time Under Moving and Stopped Conditions. Transportation Research Record: Journal of the Transportation Research Board #1898 pp. 61-68

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