(This post was originally written as a comment on Richard Florida’s Blog at The Atlantic in response to a comment about what new markets would be opened with a high speed rail link from the Twin Cities to Chicago)
Time-competitive rail service from Minneapolis to Chicago would transform the market dramatically. Currently there are three main options:
* By car, which is 400 miles each way and takes seven hours, without traffic. With traffic, it’s quite a bit longer. The cost is dependent on gas prices, but if you are going to Chicago you have to worry about parking, and tolls
*By train/bus, which takes about the same time as driving. By bus, it’s seven hours in a airplane-legroom seat (hell on wheels); by train it’s more spacious and more expensive
* By plane, which is pretty quick (1:20 in the air plus an hour-or-so on each end) but has extremely variable costs. Since Southwest is flying the route and demand is low, tickets with advanced purchase are currently about $100 roundtrip. Last summer, however, when only Northwest, American and United were “competing,” tickets cost on the order of $400. And without 14 days advanced notice, tickets on the route are over $200 even now.
In other words, travel by air is relatively fast but has a very variable costs, and is quite dependent on fuel prices. Travel by road or rail is cheaper, but the time cost of at least half a day makes it very unattractive. There is currently no middle ground–a relatively fast service which has relatively low prices and does not have draconian fees for booking at the last minute. This is one market which currently does not exist.
The other markets which do not currently exist are for intermediate city pairs. The most logical route (despite what various Minnesota politicians continue to argue) is via Saint Paul, Rochester (Mayo Clinic), Winona (Winona State Univ.), La Crosse (Univ. Wisconsin campus), Madison and Milwaukee. Looking at it in a similar manner to a recent post on this blog:
Route, Gmaps driving time, distance, 155 mph HSR time, daily flights
Saint Paul – Chicago via Milwaukee, 7:05, 422 miles, HSR: 2:43, Flights: 50,
Saint Paul – Chicago direct Chicago – Madison, 6:33, 401 miles, HSR: 2:35,
Saint Paul – Rochester, 1:33, 78 miles, HSR: 0:30, Flights: 6*,
Saint Paul – Winona, 2:21, 113 miles, HSR: 0:44,
Saint Paul – La Crosse, 2:42, 150 miles, HSR: 0:58, Flights: 6*,
Saint Paul – Madison, 4:22, 262 miles, HSR: 1:41, Flights: 5,
Saint Paul – Milwaukee, 5:19, 328 miles, HSR: 2:07, Flights: 17,
Rochester – Madison, 3:30, 211 miles, HSR: 1:22,
Rochester – Chicago, 5:41, 350 miles, HSR: 2:15, Flights: 6,
La Crosse – Madison, 2:30, 143 miles, HSR: 0:55,
Madison – Milwaukee, 1:25, 79 miles, HSR: 0:31, Flights: 4*,
Madison – Chicago, 2:34, 147 miles, HSR: 0:57, Flights: 11*,
Milwaukee – Chicago, 1:42, 92 miles, HSR: 0:36, Flights: 12*
I threw in daily flights as an afterthought, and it’s not all it might seem to be, since both Minneapolis (Northwest) and Chicago (United, American, Southwest) are hubs. So a lot of people on those flights are going somewhere else and just making the first leg of their trip. I put an asterisk (*) where it seemed most of the flyers were in this group; flights where it wouldn’t make sense to fly for such a short leg. Some of these routes, particularly Madison to Milwaukee, could easily be replaced by rail service if it existed (Milwaukee has an airport train station). In fact, I was once on a Midwest flight which had a cracked windshield and we needed a new plane, so they pulled one off the Milwaukee-Madison route and, presumably, put the passengers in a couple of cabs to Madison.
Routing some trains via O’Hare could potentially eliminate a lot of short, inefficient feeder plane trips, which the airlines might actually want to drop. You can already buy a plane ticket and travel portions on TGV or even Amtrak (anywhere between New Haven and Wilmington to Newark, for example). If you’re on Continental flight 94XX, you’re on a train.
The other market this opens are the various intermediate markets along the route (and similar markets exist along other routes, for sure). First of all, several cities become suburbs. Rochester (home of the esteemed Mayo Clinic) and Winona (two colleges) become suburbs of the Twin Cities, and the Mayo Clinic becomes a quick trip from Saint Paul or Minneapolis. On the other end of the line, Madison and Milwaukee become suburbs of each other, and both become suburbs of Chicago.
La Crosse would be a bit more than an hour from the Twin Cities and Chicago, wuoldn’t quite be a suburb of either, but its location in between the two could be quite advantageous. The same can be said for Madison, which would be less than two hours from the Twin Cities. Each city would be linked with several major Creative Class-type economies (Chicago, Madison, Minneapolis).
Finally, some other intermediate trips link rather interesting pairs. Milwaukee-Madison-La Cross link three of the campuses of the University of Wisconsin. Rochester, which is currently an hour, by road, from Winona and La Crosse, would be linked in less than half that time. And Winona and La Crosse, now a 45 minute drive (with no real public transport) would be a 15 minute trip by train.