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.