When President Barack Obama proposed a network of high-speed passenger trains criss-crossing the U.S. last week, there were high-fives in Kansas City. The Obama Administration's proposal includes Kansas City in its high-speed rail proposal. I'm very excited about it, said Dr. Charles Wheeler, former Kansas City mayor. The president deserves a lot of credit for putting it in the loop as they say.
I'll do anything to work with the people in St. Louis to get the Department of Transportation to work with the president to see the project moves forward.
It's high time for high-speed, Wheeler said.
For too long, rail travel has been allowed to languish, he said.
But there's more that should be done with passenger rail travel and Kansas City should be in the middle of it, Wheeler said.
Because of its central location in the U.S., Kansas City should be a key national rail hub as it was in the past, when hundreds of passenger trains used Kansas City's Union Station, he said.
It's a logical connection, Wheeler said.
The Obama proposal mirrors a regional high-speed rail proposal that's been around several years, said Kevin Klinkenberg, Kansas City architect and passenger rail advocate.
â€œI think itâ€™s a very good plan,â€ Klinkenberg said. â€œâ€¦ Itâ€™s an excellent first step for passenger rail service.â€
The long-time proposal called the Midwest Regional Rail Initiative appears to have served as the template for Obamaâ€™s plan, said Brian Weiler, multi-modal operations director for the Missouri Department of Transportation. That proposal, like Obamaâ€™s plan, envisioned a network with Chicago as the nexus of a 3,000-mile spiderâ€™s web of high-speed rail lines radiating from that city to the Twin Cities, Indianapolis, Detroit, Louisville, Cincinnati, St. Louis and Kansas City, he said.
â€œThis is a turning point in improved passenger rail service, not only for Missouri but across the United States,â€ Weiler said. Although Obama proposes a $8 billion â€œdown-paymentâ€ for high-speed rail service, Weiler said what may be more important is that the administration is committing to $1 billion a year for the next five years.
Much of the presidentâ€™s plan is couched in terms of economic stimulus and recovery, emphasizing â€œready to goâ€ projects, more manufacturing jobs for updating rail systems, trains and equipment; while cutting the U.S. dependence on foreign oil.
â€œMy high-speed rail proposal will lead to innovations that change the way we travel in America,â€ President Obama said in his speech outlining his proposal. â€œWe must start developing clean, energy-efficient transportation that will define our regions for centuries to come.
â€œA major new high-speed rail line will generate many thousands of construction jobs over several years, as well as permanent jobs for rail employees and increased economic activity in the destinations these trains serve," Obama said. "High-speed rail is long-overdue, and this plan lets American travelers know that they are not doomed to a future of long lines at the airports or jammed cars on the highways.â€
However, like Wheeler, Klinkenberg says thatâ€™s thereâ€™s more that should be done beyond the Obama plan and thereâ€™s more planning that needs to be done for the future of train travel, he said. Intercontinental high-speed rail would be more useful with connections between Kansas City and Denver and Kansas City and Omaha and points to the southwest, he said.
Nevertheless, Obamaâ€™s timing is impeccable, Klinkenberg said. The president is pushing for a major increase in passenger rail service at a time when Americans are finding it too expensive to travel by auto and too time-consuming and difficult to fly by air because of security precautions, Klinkenberg said. In his speech, Obama called his high-speed rail plan as revolutionary as that of President Dwight Eisenhowerâ€™s proposal for the Interstate Highway system.
â€œFlying and driving isnâ€™t what it used to be,â€ Klinkenberg said.
â€œDriving along I-70 isnâ€™t a pleasure trip anymore.
â€œAnd flying is a lot more of a pain that it was a decade ago.â€
In years past, passenger rail service tended to be shabby and sloppy, but a determined effort to improve it will pay dividends, he said. â€œIf itâ€™s a good and reliable service, people will use it,â€ Klinkenberg said.
Indeed, a well-run and maintained rail passenger service that Obamaâ€™s proposal offers would be a major asset to the U.S. and to traveling Americans, said Steve Baru, of the Kansas Sierra Club. According to the Obama administration, auto and air travel consume more than 70 percent of the energy imported by the U.S.
High-speed rail would cut much of that energy use while cutting transportationâ€™s â€œcarbon footprint,â€ Baru said.
Baru has traveled on the best passenger trains that Europe and Asia have to offer, including the futuristic 300-mile-per-hour â€œMag-Levâ€ train of Shanghai, China. The Mag-Lev screams along a rail, held in mid-air by powerful magnets, virtually zeroing out the friction that slows other forms of transportation.
â€œA trip from downtown Shanghai to the Shanghai International Airport that would take ninety minutes to two hours because of the traffic, you can do now in seven minutes,â€ Baru said.
Baru said he doesnâ€™t see why Americans couldnâ€™t have the same ambitions.
â€œItâ€™s a wonderful alternative to using an auto or standing in long lines at the airport security checkpoints,â€ he said. â€œYou just hop on the train, sit back and relax or work or even get up and walk around and be more comfortable than in an airplane.â€
Itâ€™s attainable, Klinkenberg said.
Rail travel atrophied because the government and railroads stopped spending the money to maintain it. Instead, all the federal subsidies went to highways and airports, he said.
â€œIâ€™m not saying take all that money away,â€ Klinkenberg said. â€œIâ€™m saying itâ€™s time for some balance.â€
Improving passenger rail service requires dedicated cooperation among regional government and business officials, Baru said.
â€œItâ€™s not going to be easy,â€ Baru said. â€œBut itâ€™s a probability.
â€œI think the climate has changed for the better.â€
When â€œhigh speed railâ€ is mentioned, Americans invariably think of the Japanese bullet trains, Franceâ€™s TGV â€œBig Orangeâ€ and Chinese Mag-Levs.
The Obama high-speed rail plan includes some express routes in which passenger trains would whiz along at more than 150 miles an hour on routes 600 miles long, similar to many of the European and Asian rail systems.
But high-speed is a relative term, Weiler, of the Missouri Department of Transportation, said.
Itâ€™s more realistic to be a bit more modest, he said.
To reach the speeds of fast trains in Europe and Japan, American trains would need dedicated right-of-ways with no road crossings, heavy-duty rails, complex train control systems and special locomotives, cars and equipment, he said.
â€œYouâ€™re looking at something thatâ€™s $30 million to $50 million a mile,â€ Weiler said.
When Weiler thinks of high speed for the trains between Kansas City and St. Louis, he thinks of raising the top speed along the route from the present 79 miles an hour to 90 miles an hour.
â€œEleven miles an hour might not sound like a lot, but thereâ€™s a bunch of things that have to happen first,â€ he said.
Missouri, Amtrak and Union Pacific -- the rails that Amtrak uses between Kansas City and St. Louis are Union Pacificâ€™s -- have been aggressively working on those things, he said. Those efforts may be one reason that the stretch between Kansas City and St. Louis was included in Obamaâ€™s plan.
MoDOT commissioned the University of Missouriâ€™s engineering school to look at speeding up rail traffic between the two cities, he said.
They identified several bottlenecks on the Union Pacific line between St. Louis and Kansas City, he said. That includes the fact that there are long stretches of single-line track between Kansas City and Jefferson City and two single-line bridges over the Gasconade and Osage rivers.
The Union Pacific spent $26.4 million of its own money to run a double-track bridge across the Gasconade River, he said. Using state money and a federal grant, the state will break ground on a long passing siding west of Jefferson City at California, Mo., next week, Weiler said.
The siding is one of three to be built between Jefferson City and Kansas City, he said. The sidings will allow oncoming trains to pass one another without stopping.
Weiler said eliminating the bottlenecks will improve the on-time performance and reliability of the trains running between Kansas City and St. Louis -- a long-running problem over the years.
â€œI think those are the most important things for the current service, reliability, on-time performance and frequency -- before you think about increasing the speed,â€ he said.
It also makes sense to plan to tie together Kansas City, St. Louis and Springfield, Weiler said.
And as the performance of the Missouri Amtrak runs have improved, more towns along the routes are sprucing up their stations and selling their access to passenger trains and promoting closer connections with other forms of public transportation, which also improves the finances for the rail passenger route, he said.
The passenger service between Kansas City and St. Louis has long been subsidized and is likely to remain subsidized in the future, although not as heavily, Weiler said. In the past, rail subsidies have been a contentious political issue in the Missouri Legislature, he said. There have been a couple of years in which the Missouri House eliminated the subsidies but they were restored at the last minute, he said.
In recent years, as on-time performance and reliability have improved and the number of riders has increased, legislative supporters of the route have had an easier time of attracting votes for the subsidies, he said.
If Kansas City doesnâ€™t get behind the high-speed plan, it may be missing a golden opportunity it may never get again, Baru said. â€œOver the holidays, I took the train from St. Louis to Kansas City,â€ he said. â€œThat train was full to the max of people from St. Louis who were going to Kansas City to shop at Country Club Plaza, Downtown and Crown Center.
â€œIf I were Kansas City, I would be rolling out the red carpet for those people," Baru said. "People do want to come to Kansas City.â€