Illinois waits for the trains
March 29, 1990
Probably the last piece I wrote extolling the virtues of intercity train travel before the dimming candle of my optimism made it too hard to write another one. I had been an advocate for years, and had to explain to my erstwhile colleagues in the guild that I was still for trains, I just wasn’t for Amtrak.
In truth, the circumstances were never going to favorable to such transportation systems in the rural Midwest. Illinois between Chicago and St. Louis ain’t exactly the Ruhr Valley in terms of population density, and Americans are simply love cars too much.
The mag-lev trains I enthuse about here look as unlikely as ever to be built, not that it matters; Illinois is as likely to install Star trek transporters as it is to install a mag-lev train. And the third airport for Chicago that was going to be built near Lake Calumet is now supposed to be built near Peotone, but building either still looks like folly. Amtrak between Chicago and St. Louis continues to set ridership records, which testifies to the fact that people still want to take trains, if only someone would build them.
I must own up to the fact that I used the opening gag again, in a 1991 piece for the Reader about Amtrak titled How to Get Out of Town on a Rail. Don’t tell them. And I can't explain the title—one of mine, I'm afraid.
I had a vision once. I was standing on the apron of an Amoco station outside Chenoa, filling up on a drive from Chicago. Glancing toward the west, I saw a trainload of the damned, wailing and thrashing their arms as they were borne off to the Judgment Day through a fiery cloud. It was a shaken man who described the apparition to L. upon my arrival home. She reasoned from the time and location of the sighting that what I had seen was just Amtrak's southbound 3:15 out of Chicago, backlit by a setting sun, passing me at the precise moment that its passengers learned that the Amcafe was already out of chicken salad.
In days past I would have been on that train instead of driving. I prefer trains to cars, all things being equal. But things are not equal in the transportation market between Chicago and St. Louis. Amtrak is simply too slow by half for the price, with or without chicken salad. I am past forty and have too little time left to spend any of it parked on a siding outside Bloomington.
Ah, to be in Europe, now that TGV is here. Ten nations of the EEC embarked recently on a massive program to build new high-speed train lines to connect major cities 350 miles or less apart. Many of the passengers now making these short hauls travel by air, with constipating effects on the continent's airports. The new trains will provide an alternative nearly as speedy. They will use new French and German technologies (the Europeans disdain the Japanese “bullet train" as outmoded) that will move people at 186 miles per hour—three times the average speed Amtrak aims for on its Chicago-St. Louis runs.
Not even legislators driving back to Chicago on 1-55 make those kinds of speeds. The closest thing we have in the U.S. to such a system is Amtrak's Metro-liner link between Washington, D.C, and Boston. It is the only one of Amtrak's routes whose roadbed it owns, and the railroad had upgraded the line (mainly by replacing old track with welded rails) so that its trains can safely navigate it at peak speeds as high as 125 miles per hour. The Metroliner is one of Amtrak's success stories. Generally, its short-haul routes are losing money, but the Metroliner's fast, frequent service has attracted roughly as many passengers as fly between those seaboard cities on shuttle airlines.
Metroliner service is a revelation to anyone accustomed to the carnival thrill ride Amtrak is obliged to offer between Springfield and Chicago. A few years ago, I rode a Metroliner train from Baltimore to Washington, DC, and back. Recounting the day for friends, I later realized that I had no memories of the train trip at all. Those minutes—and it only took minutes—were a void. I clearly recall the stations at each end of the trips, but nothing of the journey itself, there being scant motion to signal my progress and no inconvenience to mark it.
These astonishing results were achieved, mind, not with German supertrains but by simple refinements of Amtrak's thirty-year-old technology. That technology may soon be as outdated a way to move trains as the old propeller engines are as a way to move airplanes. Engineers at the Argonne National Lab outside Chicago have sketched the outlines of a system of trains that would not move on wheels but would float, frictionless, using magnetic levitation. Traveling at speeds up to 300 miles per hour, a mag-lev train could get from Chicago to St. Louis in one hour and seven minutes, a trip that Amtrak now takes six hours to complete (if it runs on time); the Springfield to St. Louis leg would take twenty-two minutes.
A mag-lev system would connect airport to airport. Trains would be expected to replace airplanes on flights of 600 miles or less. More than 60 percent of all the flights that now move into and out of Chicago's O'Hare are to cities 600 miles away or less; presumably that load would be reduced or eliminated by high-speed rail links connecting the same cities to Chicago. That would delay, perhaps even obviate the kind of airport expansion now being argued about in Chicago. Mayor Daley, for example, has proposed construction of a third major airport there, to be built in the Lake Calumet region on the south side. The project would cost millions of dollars and the loss of thousands of acres of unique wetlands and require relocating a river and a major highway as well as thousands of homes and businesses.
In the U.S., airlines' competitor over short-haul trips from feeder airports to their hubs is not trains, as in Europe, but cars. If Amtrak can't now compete with the car in time between Springfield and St. Louis, the airlines can't compete with it in cost. Because of the peculiarities of the market, it costs as much to fly from Springfield to Lambert Field in St. Louis as it does to fly from there to New York. A fast, sensibly priced train link between those two points thus would displace car trips rather than airplane flights, but it would be no less desirable for that. Imported oil dependency, traffic congestion, and big-city air pollution are problems at least as desperate for solutions as airport overcrowding, and trains ease all three. The sole argument against such a system is that it would, by reducing the flights in and out of O'Hare, make life more livable in DuPage County.
Essential to any expansion of our passenger rail system is a traveling public at least willing to consider trains as an alternative to planes and cars. Amtrak has, slowly, been building just such a consumer base. Ridership and earnings have been up even in the face of bad tracks and broken-down rolling stock. Yet George Bush—predictably, for a man whose views on most issues date from the late 1970s—has urged that Congress end Amtrak's remaining federal subsidy. This comes at a time when federal investment in intercity rail ought to be expanding—virtually guaranteeing that the U.S. will again be left standing in the station. ●