How to Build It

How do we build successful high-speed rail?
Successful high-speed rail systems have new tracks that allows trains to travel 200 mph. Trains then connect the existing railroad network to finish their journey.

High-speed rail systems around the world provide 50 years of valuable lessons for the Midwest.

Most successful high-speed systems use the Phased Network Approach: building new segments of dedicated high-speed lines that connect to the existing railroad network. Modern, high-performance trains travel very fast (125 to 200 mph, or faster) on these new lines, then transition seamlessly to the conventional tracks to finish their journey.

By integrating the new with the old, a single high-speed segment allows faster travel to and from a variety of destinations. As each new segment is built, the network gets incrementally faster and broader. We don’t have to wait for an entirely new network to be built to start enjoying the benefits. (This is one of the critical flaws of maglev and hyperloop.)

Our interstate highway system, which complemented our existing road network, and was funded and built in the same incremental manner.

One step at a time: The Phased Network Approach

A high-speed rail network doesn't happen overnight. It's built in segments that connect to and enhance our existing rail network.

Getting faster and more frequent trains to places like Cincinnati, Louisville, Bloomington and Muncie doesn't mean waiting until we can build high-speed track to all those towns. Instead, we start with one targeted investment, like a high-speed line from Chicago to Indianapolis. Trains cover that distance at 200+ mph, then connect to our existing rail network to finish their journey.

Over time, these branch lines are also upgraded to allow higher speeds and more frequent trains. With a network like this, funding a high-speed trunk line through Illinois and Indiana receives political support from Ohio and Kentucky.

In the Midwest and around the United States, we limit ourself to thinking about rail service as primarily between two cities, or as a single chain of cities in a corridor, often limited to a single state.

This narrow evaluation of market segments makes it difficult to design new infrastructure that serves multiple purposes, as one link in a web-like network. As a result, many potential markets and political constituencies are missed, and it's impossible to reach the necessary threshold of political support to build high-speed lines.

The Toolbox

The Phased Network Approach uses different tools for each segment

The Phased Network Approach combines new high-speed lines with existing railroads and feeder buses to offer a variety of service across a regional network.

The Phased Network Approach combines new high-speed lines with existing railroads and feeder buses to offer a variety of service across a regional network.

  • A comprehensive, detailed business plan for a regional high-speed rail network. The Midwest High Speed Rail Association has begun the research necessary to craft this plan.
  • CrossRail Chicago: Chicago is the hub of the Midwest’s high-speed rail network, and it needs a high-volume, dedicated passenger line. Luckily, we can do this by upgrading existing tracks.
  • New segments of new high-speed track that connect to and enhance our existing railroad network.
  • Upgrades to existing track to allow more trains and faster trains.
  • A variety of services, from non-stop express trains to all-stop commuter trains, that take advantage of the interconnected network to offer mobility between cities big and small throughout the Midwest.
  • Modern, comfortable, safe trains that connect seamlessly from high-speed lines to existing track.
  • Policy changes to enable broader-based planning and funding, as well as better cooperation with the freight railroads that own most of our nation’s tracks.
200 mph makes all the difference
Frequent, fast trains would be the best way to travel between Chicago and St. Louis, but only if the train is faster than 200 mph.

Illinois is upgrading its conventional tracks from Chicago to St. Louis to increase speeds from 79 mph to 110 mph. This is a good start, and will reduce the trip time from five and a half hours to two and a half. Annual ridership is expected to nearly double from 660,000 to almost 1.1 million.

We can do much better, though. Chicago to St. Louis is 280 miles, about the same distance as Paris to Lyon, or Madrid to Sevilla. New high-speed tracks between these cities have revolutionized travel. With hourly TGV and AVE trains making the trip in less than two and a half hours, ridership soared.

A University of Illinois study suggests that offering equivalent hourly, 220 mph service from Chicago to St. Louis would attract nearly 10 million riders, compared to the 1 million expected with 110 mph trains. In effect, traveling twice as fast makes the train useful for 10 times as many people.

Traveling twice as fast makes the train 10 times more useful.

The benefits would extend beyond Chicago or St. Louis: trips to intermediate destinations, as well as those continuing to places like Kansas City or Milwaukee, would also take advantage of the 220 mph line.

Reaching these speeds reliably and safely requires building new electrified, high-speed lines that are dedicated to passenger trains and completely separated from roads and freight trains. Read more about the type of tracks required to allow trains to travel at 200+ mph.

White Paper: Phased Network Approach

Download our white paper, "The Phased Network Approach", to learn more.

Produced in partnership with the North American Railway Foundation.