The Illinois Fast Track Initiative calls for modernizing intercity trains, commuter trains, transit systems, and buses—and integrating them into a robust, connected network. A 220-mph high-speed trunk line will tie the statewide network together.
To do this, we'll need a statewide plan to prioritize and coordinate investment. This plan should balance short-term goals with a long-term, revolutionary vision. The idea is to get each segment of the network built as soon as possible, so that it’s usable and builds political support, while planning and adding new segments over the long haul.
This approach is how Europe has built (and is still expanding) its famous high-speed network. It's a relatively new idea for the United States, but luckily there's an example Illinois can follow: California.
California crafted a statewide plan and is using this approach right now to build the first true high-speed rail system in the United States. Its “bullet trains” will travel more than 200 mph, moving passengers from San Francisco to Los Angeles in under 3 hours. But, the plan also calls for improvements to conventional trains, buses and transit systems around the state. As a result, the benefits of the high-speed line will radiate far beyond the state's two biggest cities.
Illinois' statewide plan should emulate California's innovative approach.
What lessons do California and the rest of the world offer Illinois?
One is that high-speed lines can’t be planned in isolation from a broader vision. They rely on and improve every other form of transportation in a state.
That’s why California’s high-speed rail project is now part of a comprehensive, statewide rail plan that integrates the concerns and priorities of dozens of stakeholders—transit agencies, city and regional planning agencies, freight rail companies, rail advocates, and more.
Having a big-picture plan gives them a tool to work together and create synergies that radiate out across California. As the plan notes, a coordinated approach means that the system “uses the existing rail system more efficiently [and] expands the coverage and mix of rail services in several key corridors.”
Although the high-speed line will ultimately connect San Francisco to LA, it’s being built in phases, starting with a 119-mile segment in the central part of the state.
Meanwhile, there are multiple, ongoing projects to upgrade the transit infrastructure so that it’s compatible with the high-speed line.
CalTrain (the Bay Area’s commuter rail service, like Metra) is being upgraded between San Francisco and San Jose. European-designed, electrified trains will replace diesel-hauled trains—meaning faster trips and more frequent departures. High-speed trains will eventually share these tracks, once a new tunnel to the Central Valley is built.
Similar commuter upgrades are underway in Los Angeles. A 45-mile rail corridor from Burbank to Anaheim is being upgraded to improve Amtrak and Metrolink service and prepare for high-speed trains.
In other words, California’s high-speed line is being built in phases, involving both new tracks and upgraded older tracks. And the construction isn’t limited to the high-speed line itself. High-speed rail affects and improves every other means of transportation.
Another takeaway from California for Illinois is that high-speed rail has broad, bipartisan support. Voters gave it the green light in a 2008 referendum, authorizing about $10 billion for planning and construction. And in 2012, the state legislature appropriated the money—with $1 billion earmarked for upgrades to local, connecting transit systems.
The plan has broad popular support because it just makes sense—no matter where you stand politically. It’s an economic boon, an environmental game-changer, and it makes traveling easier and safer.
California’s project is already having an economic impact. One study found that work on phase one of construction will create at least 31,500 part-and full-time jobs, across a wide range of sectors, by 2029. And the California High Speed Rail Authority estimates that work on the project from its inception through 2018 injected up to $6 billion in the state’s economy.
That's only the beginning of the “green” stimulus. California’s system will be powered entirely by renewable energy resources and is projected to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by about 1.5 million metric tons each year—equal to taking about 322,000 passenger vehicles off the road and keeping 3,700 tons of pollutants out of the air.
And it’s way safer than driving. Fatalities are 17 times higher in automobile travel than in intercity passenger rail—a major plus in states like California and Illinois, where highways around major cities are famously congested.