Fast train to somewhere

May 11, 2011

We’ve had so much bad news for so long it’s sometimes hard to absorb when something goes right. But it did this week, when the federal government awarded Michigan $200 million dollars to improve railroad service between Detroit and Chicago.

“High-speed rail is coming to America,“ U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in Detroit the other day. Nothing can stand in the way of it.” Well, nothing should stand in the way of it. Dithering politicians have been known to slow up even the smartest policies. Even in this case, a reactionary legislator was grumbling yesterday that the money should have been used for pothole repair.

But, mostly, this was a truly bipartisan moment, as the transportation secretary noted. LaHood, incidentally, is a Republican, though he serves in President Obama’s cabinet.

What makes this project special, for one thing, is that this is something that is really going to happen, now. People have been floating pie-in-the sky dreams about mass transit for decades. They’ve talked about light rail up Woodward, and subways.

Rapid transit seemed to be one of those ideas that had a bright future -- and always would have. But this is different. A few weeks ago, I talked to former state senator and congressman Joe Schwarz about all this. Dr. Schwarz was long the legislature’s preeminent railroad expert. He told me a big part of the problem with train travel between Detroit and Chicago was the condition of the track.

That mostly involved a section of the line between Dearborn and Kalamazoo which Amtrak has been negotiating to buy from Norfolk Southern. This money lays the groundwork for that. Within three years, Detroit to Chicago rail travelers should see speeds rise dramatically, eventually to as much as 110 miles per hour.

“When all this work is complete,” Schwarz told me yesterday, Chicago-Detroit will be a four-hour trip. Just about what it takes now to travel to Detroit Metropolitan Airport, get through security, fly to O’Hare, and get to downtown Chicago.” Not to mention that it will be a whole lot more comfortable way to travel.

From a practical standpoint, this is probably the ideal line to demonstrate what high-speed rail can mean, Amtrak says ridership on its Chicago-Detroit line is up sixteen percent over last year, even though travel though some parts of Michigan has had to be as slow as forty miles an hour.

Anyone who has ever ridden on a two-hundred-mile an hour Japanese bullet train, as I have, knows how wonderful rapid rail can be. We are unlikely to reach those speeds here in the foreseeable future, but a hundred and ten miles an hour is good enough.

Especially given the price of gas. Incidentally, we have Florida to thank for this; their governor turned high-speed rail money down. Michigan’s actually getting more than the two hundred million; there’s also almost three million for a new high-speed rail station in Ann Arbor, and also money to build new locomotives and railcars.

Hopefully, we have factories ready for that challenge. And  more possibilities lie ahead. Secretary LaHood said “how about a railroad crossing between Michigan and Canada?

Wouldn’t it be sort of sweetly ironic if our transportation future ended up looking a lot like our romantic iron horse past?