Annual Spring Meeting Overview
On Saturday, March 21, 2015, around 100 rail supporters joined MHSRA and transportation leaders from around the country to see presentations on the major rail projects in America.
The Midwest High Speed Rail Association’s (MHSRA) Annual Meeting provided a forum for rail advocates to discuss the major opportunities and challenges facing America’s transportation system. While each speaker brought a unique perspective, and discussed a different project, all agreed that more funding for passenger rail infrastructure needs to be a high priority.
Check out what the speakers had to say:
Rick Harnish, MHSRA:
MHSRA’s executive director gave an overview of the past year at MHSRA. He highlighted progress on building support for CrossRail Chicago, additional frequencies on the Lake Shore Limited, a more forward thinking approach to the Chicago-Detroit corridor and the recently-proposed Chicago-St. Louis/Indianapolis high-speed rail EIS.
Harnish also condemned the proposed cuts to Illinois’ rail services and regretted that much of the organization’s work in the next year would be defending existing services. He emphasized that while MHSRA works to save funding, the message will be to keep growing to build something better.
Bob Stewart, NARP:
Bob Stewart, the Chairman of NARP, detailed his frustrations with America’s transportation system and outlined where he thinks rail advocates should focus in the near future. He emphasized the need for greater choice in transportation, which isn’t available today.
To give American better train service, and more transportation choices, Stewart called for new rolling stock, more routes and more frequency. He argued that Amtrak could double service if the right steps were taken.
Stewart reiterated his organization’s strong support for long-distance trains. He also called for high-speed rail and highlighted how much cheaper high-speed lines are than new highways.
Kyle Whitehead, ActiveTrans:
Kyle Whitehead, in his capacity at ActiveTrans, has been working to address the shortcomings of Chicago’s outdated transit system, which is good at connecting people to downtown, but not between neighborhoods and suburbs.
He detailed the Transit Future campaign, which would raise a county-level tax to fund new transit infrastructure capable of connecting some of the region’s more isolated areas. Today, 12 of 17 Cook County commissioners (enough to pass legislation) recognize the need for the plan, and he’s working to solidify support for a concrete tax increase. Cook County is expected to address this issue after the state passes legislation for the pension crisis.
Sam Smith, Metra:
Sam Smith laid out the major successes and challenges, in what has been an eventful year for Chicago’s commuter railroad. Last fall Metra’s board approved a long-term capital plan to replace the service’s aging fleet and install PTC in accordance with a federal statute. He also detailed Metra’s plan to introduce mobile ticketing, in cooperation with CTA and Pace, in the coming year.
Smith also warned of the consequences of Governor Rauner’s proposed funding cuts to Metra. If the cuts were approved, Metra would have to further increase fares or reduce service.
Smith also commended MSHRA for taking a long-term, holistic view of the regional transportation system, which operators can’t always do.
Daniel Krause, USHRA:
Daniel Krause, who has promoted high-speed rail first with Californians for High-Speed Rail and now with USHRA, had a message of optimism and encouragement for the Midwestern audience. He outlined the recent progress the California high-speed rail project has made – with construction underway for the first segment and major upgrades in the works for conventional trains near San Francisco and Los Angeles.
From his experience in California, Krause highlighted the importance of having completed planning work to keep high-speed rail in the discussion. He then emphasized the critical role of champions for the project like Governor Brown and President Obama to keep it moving ahead.
For the Midwest, he recommended going beyond advocacy to find and empower political champions. He also stressed how although high-speed rail opponents are tough and well funded, it’s a winnable battle to keep working to debunk their myths.
Joe Szabo, CMAP:
Joe Szabo, reflecting on his experience as the Federal Railroad Administrator and his current position at CMAP, addressed the future of passenger rail in America. He discussed how rewarding it was to see California break ground on high-speed rail and thanked Governor Brown for making it possible.
Szabo also highlighted the importance of Chicago to railroads and transportation in general. With an expected 60% increase in freight expected by 2040, he called for a second CREATE project to build infrastructure to handle the growing demand. He also called for similar investments in passenger trains in and around Chicago.
Throughout his speech, Szabo mentioned how critical it is for Congress to create a dedicated funding stream for rail. He cited California high-speed rail as an important source of inspiration for the rest of the country. He also argued that rail needs a large collection of suppliers to lobby for dedicated funding, much like the defense industry does. According to Szabo, the business case for trains is what is needed to drive greater, and more regular investments.
Ray Lang, Amtrak:
Ray Lang, from Amtrak, touted the railroad’s recent successes and commented on some recent pieces of news. He highlighted the reach of the network, and how it serves communicates large and small across the entire country. He also described the significant ridership increases in recent years, which has led to a smaller operating deficit.
Lang commended the passage of the recent Amtrak Authorization in the House. While acknowledging that legislation did not go far enough, he recognized the significance of a bipartisan effort standing up for a true national system. Lang also praised the recent unanimous Supreme Court decision that found Amtrak to be a government entity.
Jeff Sriver, Chicago Department of Transportation:
The City of Chicago is working to revitalize one of the region’s most important – but outdated – transportation assets, and Jeff Sriver joined MHSRA to talk about it. Chicago Union Station is used by millions of people each year, yet it’s layout doesn’t meet today’s needs or allow for expected growth.
Sriver explained the Union Station Master Plan, which strives to create capacity for growing demand, build an inviting space, facilitate transfers between different modes and make the station a catalyst for economic development.
In the short term CDOT plans to improve access to ground transport and construct the Central Loop BRT. Then in the next few years, they are looking to unclog the congested waiting area, widen passenger platforms, reconstruct platforms for through tracks and possibly build new basement waiting rooms. In the long term, CDOT looks to coordinate real estate development near the station and possibly build subways for Metra, Amtrak or CTA trains adjacent to the station.
Julius Parod, MHSRA:
Julius Parod gave an overview of the high-speed rail system in South Korea and described its similarities to the Midwest. South Korea has built high-speed rail in a phased blended approach – using upgraded conventional tracks to extend the reach of a dedicated high-speed trunk line. Over time, South Korea has added more high-speed sections, shortening travel times across the country. The system also includes a direct connection to Seoul’s main airport and has driven development near new stations. This is a similar approach to what the Midwest would likely do.
The presentation also drew parallels between some of the challenges Korea experienced with what the Midwest might face. Korea had to deal with lawsuits (like California has), construction setbacks and poor transit connections at intermediate stations. In spite of these challenges, South Korea’s system is a huge success with tremendous ridership – like a Midwestern network will be one day.
Jordan Horwitz, DePaul University:
Jordan Horwitz, a graduate student at DePaul University, presented on a model for predicting ridership and how it could be applied to proposed projects in the Midwest and Texas. The “Gravity Model” for ridership accounts for the rate at which travel demand diminishes as distances rise. According to the model (which didn’t include city pairs less than 90 miles apart), Chicago-Indianapolis-Cincinnati would see this highest use of any Midwestern corridor.
Horwitz also gave an update on the proposed private high-speed line between Houston and Dallas, which is receiving significant support from Japan. He applied the gravity model to the corridor and found that it would see less ridership than Chicago-Detroit, Chicago-Cincinnati, and Los Angeles-San Francisco.
Rick Harnish, MHSRA:
CrossRail Chicago has made great strides in the past year, and Rick Harnish shared some of the materials MHSRA uses to promote the project with elected officials and other potential allies. He showed a presentation that is usually given in print at meetings.
The presentation gave a quick over view of the project and how it connects O’Hare, Union Station, McCormick Place and the South Side. It also depicted some of the major problems CrossRail would solve, like connecting communities with high unemployment to jobs.
The presentation then goes on to cover many of the details of the project: the nature of blended train service, track improvements, new rolling stock, revamped scheduling and new or revitalized stations at O’Hare and Union Station. The presentation also addresses the project costs and the potential for CrossRail to be the hub for high-speed trains from across the Midwest.