Out of Control Policy Blog

High Speed Rail...in Iowa?

If anyone is interested in seeing how far intercity rail silliness can get when federal dollars dangle, take a look at what's being proposed in Iowa. According to the Des Moines (Iowa) Register, the state's governor is on a "whistle stop tour" of the state to drum up support for new intercity rail service. The state is applying for $46 million in stimulus money to plan and work toward establishing intercity rail service from Iowa's biggest cities and Chicago. The mayors of Iowa City and Des Moines are on board as well as the chamber of commerce.

The only problem is that 1) Iowa-Chicago intercity rail service was dropped decades ago by Amtrak because practically no one road the trains, and 2) it is now faster to drive to major cities than take the conventional trains. According to the Register:

"The proposed train between Iowa City and Chicago, via the Quad Cities, would take 4 hours 58 minutes over 222 miles. The train could reach a peak speed of 79 mph, Amtrak officials said, but its average would be 45 mph.

"Travelers could drive from Iowa City to Chicago via interstates in 3 hours 43 minutes, more than an hour faster than the train."

and

"The Iowa City train would require $32.5 million for Iowa track improvements on the Iowa Interstate Railroad, plus equipment costs of $1.9 million and annual operating subsidies of $1.6 million, state officials said. Upgrading tracks between Iowa City and Des Moines for passenger trains would cost an additional $106 million.

"The proposed route between Dubuque and Chicago on Canadian National tracks would be even slower than the Iowa City train, requiring 5 hours 10 minutes for a 178-mile trip. That's an average speed of 35 mph."

But, rail advocates note, this is really just a start. The goal is to get to high-speed rail, and they are blatant in their recognition of the political nature (rather than economic justification) for the service.

"Richard Harnish, director of the Midwest High-Speed Rail Coalition, a Chicago advocacy group, said the new rail service proposed for Iowa should be viewed as "quick-start" projects that can be running quickly.

"The passenger trains could eventually operate at much faster speeds "if Iowans make it clear to their legislators that they want it to be as good as it can be," he said.

"Tammy Nicholson, director of the Iowa Department of Transportation's Office of Rail Transportation, said passenger rail service should be viewed as a key component of the state's overall transportation system.

"In order to deal with growing highway congestion for both freight and passengers, we have to utilize these other corridors that we have for transportation," she said.

Sorry, it's hard to buy the idea that the highway corridor between Iowa City or Des Moines to Chicago is so congested that passenger rail--whether conventional or high speed--is justified as an alternative to a cheap intercity express bus, the automobile, or flying. Business travelers, the primary market for intercity rail, will alost always choose flying.

I doubt this proposal would go anywhere if the state had to front the full costs, let alone depend on passengers to cover the operating costs through their fares.

Samuel Staley is Research Fellow


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