New California rail plan is a model for the Midwest

Earlier this month California released a draft of its 2018 State Rail Plan. It’s one piece of a broader vision that sets out what the state’s transportation system will look like in 2040.

With the understanding that fast trains will be part of everyday life, the plan calls for prioritizing public investment in the state’s rail system. Fast, frequent passenger trains will zoom past congested highways. Trains will travel quickly on the new high-speed line through the state’s central valley, then connect seamlessly to upgraded existing tracks to reach destinations around Los Angeles and San Francisco, or offer easy connections to local trains and buses.

The plan lays out a phased approach, starting with immediate tasks like electrifying Caltrain and upgrading other existing lines and equipment. As parts of the new high-speed line are finished, the plan emphasizes providing timed connecting services and easy, single-ticket travel. By 2040, high-speed rail will go all the way from the Bay Area to the L.A. basin, with trains also serving Sacramento, the Inland Empire, and San Diego. This phased approach has worked around the world, and it will work in the Midwest, too.

The plan puts current ridership on California’s intercity rail system at about 110,000 riders every day. With the fully-functioning high-speed network in 2040, they expect that to grow to 1.3 million riders every day. That’s 10 times more people getting around by train every day, a testament to the transformative power of fast, frequent, reliable trains.

That same 10-fold ridership growth is possible in the Midwest. Once the current 110 mph upgrades are completed on the Chicago to St. Louis corridor, annual ridership is expected to be about 1 million. A 2013 University of Illinois study suggests that true high-speed rail on this corridor, with 220 mph trains every hour, would increase ridership to nearly 10 million. In effect, going twice as fast provides 10 times better ridership.

California’s plan is aggressive in all the right ways, and it’s a model the Midwest should look up to. The FRA regional plan that’s underway now should provide a similar solid foundation. Midwest High Speed Rail Association will then go into depth to make the business case for individual parts of that plan.

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