Connecting the Midwest

How a Faster Passenger Rail Network Could Speed Travel and Boost the Economy

In building a 21st century economy, the Midwest is hampered by an outdated transportation system. Congested airports and crammed highways hinder travel around the region. As the main source of our dependence on oil, our transportation system leaves us vulnerable to oil price spikes and pollution.  Intercity passenger rail in the Midwest can be part of the solution.


PIRGIM Education Fund

In building a 21st century economy, the Midwest is hampered by an outdated transportation system. Congested airports and crammed highways hinder travel around the region. As the main source of our dependence on oil, our transportation system leaves us vulnerable to oil price spikes and pollution. 

Intercity passenger rail in the Midwest can be part of the solution. The Midwestern states have put forward a bold vision for efficient, rapid passenger rail service linking the entire region. The federal government is allocating more than $2.7 billion in funds from the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act to bring that vision closer to reality with rail projects in six Midwestern states. 

Completing the Midwest’s regional rail system should be a priority for addressing many of the region’s toughest transportation challenges, while delivering badly needed economic activity. 

Passenger rail can help address the Midwest’s toughest transportation challenges. 

Passenger rail curbs congestion on highways and in airports. Traffic congestion costs major Midwest metropolitan areas more than $10 billion each year in lost economic output. Construction of a regional rail network for the Midwest is projected to avoid 1.3 million plane trips and 5.1 million car trips per year by 2020, curbing congestion. Also, an improved passenger rail system will run on a significantly improved freight rail network. This means additional cost savings and lower congestion for some portion of freight shipments that can travel more efficiently by rail.

Passenger rail reduces our dependence on oil. On average, an Amtrak passenger uses 30 percent less energy per mile than a car passenger. Compared to airplanes, European high-speed trains consume approximately one-third the amount of fuel per passenger. Newer locomotives are becoming even more efficient, and switching rail lines from diesel to electric power can curb America’s oil dependence even further.

Passenger rail can boost the Midwest’s economy by making travel easier between cities, fostering regional business connections. Constructing a Midwestern passenger rail system will create more than 57,000 permanent jobs in the Midwest, and also support 15,200 jobs during the 10 years that the system would be under construction. Developing the system would give Midwestern railroad equipment manufacturers an initial foothold in a growing worldwide industry.

Passenger rail can provide convenient, efficient travel, where riders can work, relax, enjoy greater legroom, and travel directly from downtown to downtown, even in inclement weather—avoiding the need to drive to outlying airports, wait in long security lines, or jostle for parking in congested center cities. 

Passenger rail protects the environment. A study undertaken by the Center for Clean Air Policy and the Center for Neighborhood Technology found that a Midwestern high speed rail system would prevent 176,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions each year by diverting passengers from car and plane travel, equal to the annual emissions of 32,000 cars. Savings could be higher if the benefits of improved freight and conventional rail networks are included. 

A Midwestern rail network would reach all of the region’s major centers of population and employment—touching the lives of most residents of the region.

Region-wide, 58 percent of Midwesterners—35 million people—would have access to a high-speed rail station within 15 miles of their homes. A total of 17 million people would live within five miles of a station. 

More than one out of every four jobs in the region would be within five miles of a high-speed rail station, meaning that high-speed rail could play a critical role in facilitating the connectivity that can improve the region’s economy.

Every Midwestern state stands to gain from the construction of high-speed rail.

Illinois would be the hub of the new system, with two out of every three jobs in the state located within 15 miles of a high-speed rail stop. Improvements on the Chicago-St. Louis line are projected to draw 1.2 million passengers in the first year of service. 

In Missouri, St. Louis would benefit from a faster connection to Chicago and improved rail service between St. Louis and Kansas City. Improved service would provide a convenient alternative to travel along I-70.

Iowa would have restored service to Iowa City and Des Moines and an 80 mph line extending across the state. The Iowa City-Chicago line is projected to reduce car travel by 345,000 trips per year, saving 1.5 million gallons of gasoline.

In Wisconsin, the popular route from Chicago to Milwaukee would be extended to Madison, connecting the state’s two largest cities. With a completed regional high speed rail network, most major Wisconsin cities and economic centers would be connected to Chicago, the Twin Cities and the entire Great Lakes region by rail.

Minnesota would see new high-speed service to the Twin Cities. Traveling to Chicago on the new line would be at least an hour faster than driving.

In Michigan, upgraded service would provide a faster connection for economically battered cities like Detroit and Flint to Chicago, creating new possibilities for economic development and recovery. 

In Indiana, Indianapolis would sit directly between Cincinnati and Chicago on a new high-speed line, with multiple trains leaving daily in both directions. 

In Ohio, the “3 Cs”—Cleveland, Columbus, and Cincinnati—are not currently connected by a rail line. A regional rail network could include a high-speed line across the state connecting the three cities, and linking Cleveland and Cincinnati to Chicago.

Recent investments in passenger rail have already paid off in higher ridership. 

Faster service along the Chicago to Detroit corridor has led to a 24 percent increase in ridership over the past five years, despite the region’s severe economic downturn.

Similarly, increases in frequency of service along the Chicago to St. Louis line led to a 56 percent increase in ridership. 

Americans are hungry for access to more and better rail service. A 2009 survey found that if the cost and travel time were equal, 54 percent of Americans would prefer to travel to cities in their region by high-speed rail, with only 33 percent preferring car travel and 13 percent preferring air travel. Of Americans who had actually ridden high-speed rail, an overwhelming 82 percent preferred it to air travel.

Building the infrastructure to ease congestion will require a large investment whether we upgrade railroads or expand roads and airports.

Illinois expects to spend $1.1 billion to upgrade rail service on the roughly 200-mile route from Dwight, Illinois, to Alton, Illinois, or $5.5 million per mile. A highway expansion project can cost from less than $10 million to more than $70 million per mile of additional lanes.

Adding airport capacity, especially at the region’s busiest airports, is extremely expensive. For example, reconfiguring runways and adding one terminal at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport will cost $6.6 billion. Building 16 new gates at the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport is expected to cost $400 million.

The Midwest should develop a high-speed rail network that fits together with other modes of transportation to knit the region together. To that end, Midwestern states should:

Continue to back a regional vision – High-speed rail can only deliver its promise to the region if state and federal agencies fully commit to developing a functional interstate rail network. Each Midwestern state should recognize that its own transportation network will realize its full value only if coordinated with developments in other states, and push for federal investment across the region. So far, the Midwestern states have coordinated their efforts more successfully than states in other regions, and the region’s governors should maintain their leadership in this regard.

Maximize “bang for the buck” by investing in lines with the greatest ridership potential, using incremental improvements in passenger rail to help lay the groundwork for faster high-speed service, and allocating transit funds to achieve the greatest overall environmental and economic benefit. States should advocate for federal transportation policy to treat all modes of transportation equally rather than prioritizing highway spending, so that states can invest money where it will do most good.

Balance private investment with public safeguards. The Midwest contains a large share of the nation’s freight rail infrastructure and traffic, which presents both opportunities and potential conflicts for a passenger rail system. Midwestern states should work with freight rail companies where possible, but above all ensure that passenger trains will be given priority on tracks—either through enforceable agreements or public ownership of infrastructure.

Encourage domestic manufacturing to create jobs and develop a new industry as the rail system is developed. Midwestern states are home to dozens of manufacturing facilities that make rail-related equipment. Those facilities would hire more employees and produce more if they were assured of a local market for their products.

Measure progress against a vision. Progress on a regional rail system should be measured against specific short-term and long-term goals, including building at least one Midwest rail line to operate at speeds of 220 miles per hour by 2020.