The fast track: imagine how well high-speed rail fits in Indiana's transportation future. (Cover Story).
Imagine boarding the high-speed train at Fort Wayne's newly renovated Baker Street Train Station, or at Lafayette's relocated and restored Big Four Depot. From either city it's a 90-minute trip to downtown Chicago.
A group of visionary Hoosiers would like to make these scenarios reality. They've been quietly making their case to citizens, civic leaders and lawmakers, and hope that the state this year will make a downpayment on their vision by authorizing environmental and engineering studies of high-speed rail possibilities.
HIGH-SPEED RAIL VISIONARIES
Leading the push to bring high-speed rail to a track near you is the Indiana High Speed Rail Association a Highland-based group of civic and business leaders launched about eight years ago and steered by founder and executive director W, Dennis Hodges. It began as a handful of enthusiasts, mostly from northwest Indiana, but has grown to some 225 members that include numerous corporations and cities.
Hodges is a Gary native who serves as a public-policy advisor to foreign diplomats in the Midwest and organizes corporate events for foreign government offices in the United States. Foreign travel inspired his enthusiasm for high-speed rail. For him, overseas visits revealed just how much it could add to this country's transportation options. "I've spent a lot of time traveling by train in Europe, and I felt Indiana and the Midwest were clue for improvements in the passenger-rail system. I think we've reached a point in our society where all modes of transportation must be researched and developed."
While high-speed rail is a new and novel concept for most Americans, it's an everyday reality for those in Europe and Japan, says Mike Pracht, vice president of marketing and business development for Siemens Transportation Systems, which manufactures trains and other equipment needed for rail systems. "In the rest of the industrialized world, they began developing these intercity rail connections back in the '60s and '70s," he says. "I would call that higher-speed rail, and it became high-speed rail in the '70s and '80s. The objective was to provide alternative transportation options between city pairs, to provide a more balanced transportation system. The U.S. has never done that."
Determined to nudge Indiana in a direction that Europeans and Asians embraced decades ago, the Indiana High Speed Rail Association has quietly gone about the business of educating the public and lobbying government officials. The movement has gained speed and proponents as the efforts have progressed. "In 2001 there were hearings and outreach meetings around the state that attracted 1,100 people," observes association president Roger Sims, president of Sims Professional Engineers, a Highland-based engineering consultant to the railroad industry and other heavy industries.
"We have been diligent in bringing the whole travel system before the public and elected officials," Hodges says. "Once it caught on at the government level, we proposed that Indiana become part of a federal corridor map that includes high-speed rail. In 1998, the Indiana Department of Transportation agreed, and made an application for federal high-speed rail corridors in the state."
That effort succeeded, and Indiana is now on the maps. "We now have more miles of federal corridor than any other state," with 530 miles, Hodges says. "Indiana is perceived as a crossroads, not just of highways but also of rail."
WHAT'S BEING PROPOSED
Indiana is among nine Midwestern states planning a $4.5 billion, 3,000-mile high-speed rail network. The hope is to establish passenger-rail technology that can travel at speeds of up to 110 mph. That's not as fast as some European and Asian systems but has the advantage of being able to use existing railroad right-of-way and even share track with current freight railroads. "We're hoping that the trains will use existing track or a track parallel to existing track," Hodges says.
Chicago's Union Station is seen as the hub of the rail network proposed by the Midwest Regional Rail Initiative, the nine-state consortium that includes Indiana. "Mini-hubs" would include the Gary/Chicago Airport and Union Station in Indianapolis. From Gary, rail service would split toward Detroit on one line; toward Fort Wayne, then Toledo and Cleveland on another; and toward Lafayette and Indianapolis on the third. In Indianapolis, service splits again, with one line heading to Cincinnati and another to Louisville.
What proponents envision is a transportation option that can compete for travelers on trips of 100 to 300 miles. Clearly, air transportation has the edge for longer trips, but trains can compete well on shorter intercity hops, especially when travelers are moving from downtown to downtown. When one factors in the time needed to get to and from suburban airports, check in, clear security and await clearance for takeoff, high-speed rail could win the race when moving downtown-to-downtown on such routes as Indianapolis to Chicago, Indianapolis to Cincinnati, Fort Wayne to Chicago or Fort Wayne to Cleveland.
Given that fact, rail becomes much more than just a nostalgic option for old-timers or families seeking a pleasure excursion. Rail in many cases may become the fastest option for business travelers, as well as the most convenient and comfortable.
The cost for all of this, proponents claim, is a relative bargain. Indiana's share of the Midwest rail network would carry a price tag of about $900 million, with the state paying $180 million to $200 million and the federal government picking up the rest of the tab. That bill would pay for any necessary improvements to the right-of-way, including track upgrades and high-tech signaling technology. It would cover train stations and the trains themselves.
Paying for a passenger-rail system is where the issue sometimes runs into opposition. Why, opponents argue, should the general public put money into a transportation system that only some people would use? And isn't Amtrak, the entity that might be called upon to operate this rail network, a fiscal black hole?
The fact is, the public pours billions upon billions of dollars into road, air and water transportation systems, rail proponents counter. "No travel mode is self-supporting," Hodges says. "Airports and highways are built with taxpayer money."
"When we're talking about providing a transportation system there are benefits that go beyond the consumer directly," observes Michael Scime, railroad section manager at the Indiana Department of Transportation. "We get public benefits from interstate highways and government invests in them. We get benefits from the airlines and government invests to build airports."
The same concept can work for rail, argues Pracht. "I do believe you can run a system profitably once the infrastructure is in place," he says, noting that high-speed passenger-rail systems are operating in the black around the world and even in this country, where Amtrak's Northeast Corridor turns a profit as long as infrastructure costs are not included. "You can't generate enough revenue from the fare box to run it and build it. But it's exactly the same as building airports and roads."
THE BENEFITS OF HIGH-SPEED RAIL
Why, opponents may ask, do we need rail now? Intercity passenger rail has been all but dead in this country for decades. What has changed? "What is creating an opportunity is the significant congestion on the roads and in the air," Pracht says. "I would say that America is suffering from a transportation crisis."
"As congestion increases and as fuel costs increase, it's good to have alternatives," says Scime.
"Clearly the interstate highway system is a useful travel tool," Hodges says, "but in urban areas it causes time to be wasted, appointments to be missed and people to be killed."
That points to the argument of safety. Riding in a train that moves more than 100 mph may be unnerving to some, but the fact is that high-speed rail systems move some six million passengers a day worldwide, but have only recorded one fatal accident. Amtrak's high-speed rail link between New York and Washington has operated for more than a decade and a half with only a few minor incidents, while during the same time frame more than half a million Americans died on the roads.
"As a nation, we have lulled ourselves into believing that the kinds of death and injury that occur in other transportation modes are expected and unavoidable," Sims wrote in a recent report on high-speed rail in Indiana. "However, death and injury are avoidable with the institution of high-speed passenger rail."
Relying as heavily as we do on automobiles also wastes a lot of energy, rail proponents argue. Indeed, they argue, if just 5 percent of those traveling intercity by highway could be moved to a rail system, it could save about one-sixth of the amount of oil America imports from the Middle East. If one calculates the amount of fuel needed to move one passenger one mile, high-speed rail is six times more energy-efficient than a car carrying one person, and three times more efficient than a commercial airliner.
Needless to say, boosting transportation efficiency also will yield dividends for the environment. Government studies indicate that three-quarters or more of five major air pollutants come from motor-vehicle emissions, so a significant move to rail could clear the air in some cities. And rail proponents also argue that rail requires less land to be lost to transportation, because two railroad tracks can carry as many people per hour as 16 lanes of highway.
Cost-efficiency is another major argument for high-speed rail. While construction of urban interstates may cost between $15 million and $20 million per mile, infrastructure for high-speed rail costs $3 million to $6 million per mile. Highway and air travel also carry with them lost-productivity costs that stem from highway gridlock and flight delays or cancellations, costs that the U.S. General Accounting Office has pegged at a quarter-billion dollars a year. "Time spent in congestion can be very costly," Hodges observes.
While logic might suggest that the dawn of a new transportation mode will spell more trouble for an already ailing airline industry, Pracht says that's not necessarily the case. "The business case is to take commuters off of the puddle-jumpers," he explains. Those shorter hops are less profitable for airlines, but necessary to haul passengers into the hubs where they'll board longer, more profitable flights. High-speed rail fits in nicely by taking over the carriage of those less-profitable passengers and leaving the plums for the airlines to carry.
Proponents believe development of a high-speed rail network will bring with it local economic benefits, just as the extension of Interstate 69 is expected to boost economies in southwest Indiana. The Maryland-based consulting firm of Transportation Economics and Management Inc. has studied the potential and determined that the rail plan could generate anywhere from 5,560 to 16,700 jobs in Indiana. Add that income to increases in property value and property tax collections and the total economic benefit would range between $1.3 billion and $3.8 billion.
Gary, with the state's busiest "mini-hub," would enjoy the greatest gain, according to Transportation Economics and Management Inc., with estimates ranging from $400 million to $1.2 billion. Indianapolis could reap benefits of $347 million to $1.0 billion, and Lafayette could enjoy a boost of $82 million to $239 million.
Such returns shouldn't be all that surprising, Hodges notes. "In building any transportation system, one dollar spent normally results in about three dollars in return."
If these benefits are not compelling enough, proponents point to the comfort and convenience of train travel. Proponents say modern train travel is not like the train travel that older Americans may recall. "You have a comfort level that you don't have in a car or airplane," Sims says. "There are a lot of creature comforts for the business traveler."
Like air travel, it's usually divided into two or three different travel classes, but "typically the lowest class is significantly better than coach on a plane in terms of leg room and elbow room," says Pracht of Siemens. "You'll have telephones on the train, electric adapters, full dining cars or bistro cars, and cars can be partitioned to create conference rooms."
"These trains all offer business centers," Sims says. "You can plug in and open up your laptop from the time you get on to the time you arrive. Another advantage is that they usually go to the financial business center of cities."
WHAT'S HAPPENING NOW
"Right now we're pretty much at the end of the planning phase," says Scime. "The next phase would be to do some environmental analysis and some solid engineering studies." Such studies are needed to make Indiana eligible for federal funding when the time comes to launch the project.
The Indiana General Assembly this session is considering legislation to pay for the studies, deemed essential for the project to progress. Hodges' group supports House Bill 1489, which would provide at least $1.5 million for studies. "If we don't do this preliminary work first, even if we had matching funds we wouldn't be able to spend the federal dollars," Scime says.
Hodges says high-speed rail could be up and running in a decade or so, but for that to happen, Indiana must get serious about planning and paying for it before too long. Though the money for environmental studies is all that is needed right now, within a year or two "we have to really start asking Indiana for some serious money," Hodges says.
He's confident that the more people learn about high-speed rail, the more they'll agree that it's money well-spent. "We really believe that this project, once it is implemented, will truly bring economic development to the state of Indiana," he says. "It will substantiate Indiana's claim to be a distribution center, a transportation center and the crossroads of America, not just in terms of highways but in terms of rail as well."