Reflections on High Speed Rail

Seasoned traveler Nick Topitzes of PC/Nametag compares Madison to the cities he visits - and reports back on his findings.

This was written and submitted just over a week ago and since that time, the Feds have closed down the Madison-Milwaukee high speed rail project. My mission with IB is to compare Madison to other areas. I tried to do that with this article. Hopefully, this will give us a balanced reflection on the project.

I had mixed feelings about high speed rail. Not that rail isn’t a nice way to travel — it is wonderful to enjoy the countryside, the gentle rocking, and the reduced scanning, searching, pat-downs, etc. I have wonderful memories of riding the North Shore rapid transit from Milwaukee to Chicago, or having breakfast on the train ride from Sheboygan to Milwaukee, and enjoying my first European adventure, traveling coach from Munich to Athens on a long, long, long trip on old tracks, in old rail cars. And talk about security — when we crossed the borders, border guards would look under each car for people trying to escape Yugoslavia!

So what about today? Do we need high speed rail? Will it work? Will people use it? Will it ever be profitable? Are we running a dual mass transit system — rail and interstate highway — and can we afford both?

Steve Holzhauer, the architect of my building and a principal of Eppstein Uhen, talks about how vital rail is for great urban planning. My daughter-in-law is an urban planner for a major national firm in Portland Oregon and was for a while, involved in the planning of the high-speed rail between Los Angeles and San Francisco. So I have gotten lots of input as to why it is a good thing.

My hesitations are based on some realities. First, it will be disruptive to regular traffic through the city. Is downtown the best spot? Yes and no — with lots of reasons for both.

Is it really going to be high speed? Probably not from what I have read and heard. It will not be like the high speed rails we all hear and read about in Europe. Very recently I rode the Eurorail chunnel from Paris to London. I have done this four or five times over the years. The first few times I did it for the novelty of going under the Atlantic and English Channel. I would enjoy walking the train car as it was speeding along at 150 miles per hour and pretending I was walking at 150 miles per hour. (My own sick mind.) But from what I understand, the Madison-Milwaukee train will only be able to go about 75 miles per hour.

Now that is not much faster than my car on the interstate. I have no waiting in a station or fighting for a seat. I don’t have stops in smaller towns along the way. It is door to door. Pretty convenient.

What will the fares be on the high speed rail? More than $12 each way? For a car getting around 20 miles per gallon (pretty conservative) that would mean 4 gallons of fuel. Or about $12 in gas each way, regardless of the number of people in the car.

Now let’s talk about the high speed rail costs. $800,000,000. That is a huge number. Interest on that (you and I will be paying it) at 4% will be $32,000,000 per year. Or $87,000 a day. A day!! I just chartered a Badger Bus to take my employees to and from Chicago. It will wait there for 7 hours while we are occupied. The cost is less than $1,000 round trip. That mean for the same amount as the interest costs, we could afford to run 87 buses a day to Milwaukee and back and let the riders ride for free. Granted the costs will go up due to annual inflations but we could cover that with a small increase from free to $2.

Eighty-seven buses per day means that a bus would be leaving every 20 minutes. Heck, we could have one leave West Towne, one from the airport and one from downtown every hour! 24/7. Cut service back from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. and we could save over $20,000 per day. And remember, this is with free seats.

There are a lot of travelers between London and Paris. There won’t be as many between Minneapolis and Chicago. Or Madison and Milwaukee. Density helps rail.

One last thing. As I mentioned, recently we rode the high speed from Paris to London through the chunnel. Our departure was scheduled for 8:20 p.m. with a 9:40 p.m. arrival in London. (2 hours and 20 minutes, but you gain an hour.) We ended up taking the 7:15 p.m. which was delayed until 8:50 p.m. and got into London at 10:50 p.m. Three hours instead of 2 hours and 20 minutes. The trains were late because they had to go slow due to ice and snow on the tracks. This was a slight dusting of snow.

I wonder what it would be like in Wisconsin in the winter. Slower than the predicted "high speed" but faster than the interstate?

Interesting decisions. What do you think?

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