Return of the iron horse?

May 19, 1999 at 12:00 am

Railroad lover Peter Maiken, who grew up in the Midwest half a century ago, recalls the joy of traveling by train. Just going to the bustling station was a thrill, says the 64-year-old retiree, now living in southern Wisconsin.

Now it could happen again, in light of a new proposal to bring the iron horse back to the Midwest. Governors and the Federal Railroad Administration envision a hub-and-spoke system radiating out of Chicago, with service to a dozen midsize and large cities, including Milwaukee, Cleveland, Minneapolis-St. Paul, St. Louis and Detroit. Could it happen, and if so, will it succeed? If history is any indication, it could.

Maiken remembers when railroad stations were the place to be. Travelers coming and going filled restaurants, bars, lounges and "cigar counters, where one could pick up smokes, snacks, comic books, newspapers and magazines — everything necessary for a comfortable journey," he reminisces. The bursts of steam, the throb of mammoth train engines, and the smell of burning coal still linger in his childhood senses.

On board the trains of old, passengers sat in comfortable chairs beside large windows, dozed in men’s and women’s "lounges," played cards, or tipped a bottle in the tavern car. Hungry travelers could visit the full-service dining car, which featured "real linens, silverware and fresh flowers, plus impeccable service," says Maiken.

The rail experience was synonymous with "the joy of travel."

With or without the perks, the railroad was literally the only way to go. The rails were the fastest, most efficient and most comfortable means of travel available. "The highways were narrow and slow," says Maiken, and the airlines were still a novelty. People and freight moved on the railroad.

In contrast to today’s mediocre rail service, decades ago train travel was convenient. Service was safe, reliable, comfortable and fast. The Midwest sported some of the fastest trains in the world, according to Jim Scribbins, a train historian who worked for the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad for some 40 years. Running speeds for the Burlington line, which ran on the Chicago-Twin Cities route, ranged from 85 to 100 miles per hour. And the train would often be pushed to more than 100 miles per hour if it was running behind schedule.

Like Maiken, Scribbins fondly recalls the luxuries of train rides past: "Basic coach travel was far roomier than anything you’d find on an airplane today. … They all had dining and tavern cars." A 1942 menu from a Chicago-Twin Cities train confirms Scribbins’ recollections. The prix fixe menu allowed diners to choose from baked Lake Michigan trout, roast prime rib of beef or chicken Georgian, plus vegetables, salad, cheese, dessert and coffee — all for $1.50. Cocktails were 40 cents extra. (Translated to 1998 dollars, that $1.90 total would be roughly $19.)

It all seems a part of some grainy black-and-white film. But there’s a chance we’ll get to experience the warm, busy commotion of the train station once again.

The Midwest Rail Initiative calls for a 3,000-mile railroad network to be phased in over the next decade. The scenario is a cooperative vision of nine Midwestern states and the Federal Railroad Administration.

In the nationwide effort to jump-start a rail renaissance, transportation officials give the Midwest the best odds of building a successful regional railroad service outside of the northeastern United States. Amtrak earlier this year unveiled new 150 mph service there, providing transportation between New York and Washington, D.C., at speeds that rival air travel plus drive time to and from airports. Rails shuttle as many passengers between the Big Apple and D.C. as airlines do, and the service provides a large portion of Amtrak’s operating income.

Here in the heartland, the plan has two important things going for it — money and political will. Michigan Department of Transportation spokesman Gary Naeyaert acknowledges that observers might be skeptical in light of perennial rail proposals. But he says that the current plan is unique in that it is based on a "legitimate business plan that shows a return on our investment." That’s right, if it performs as expected, the passenger service will make money. Revenues are predicted to grow gradually through 2010, when the Midwest passenger rail service would earn $100 million per year in profit.

What is more, the plan has strong support in political circles. Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson, who is chair of the Board of Directors of Amtrak, strongly supports the plan, as does Governor John Engler. Naeyaert says the plan is a priority for the Engler administration.

"We have been pursuing high speed passenger rail in the Detroit-Chicago corridor since the 1970s," says Naeyaert. Having nine states on board makes it much more likely that the region will be able to successfully lobby Congress for funding. The plan calls for the federal government to finance 80 percent of the cost of the network, with the states coming up with the other 20 percent.

Total costs are projected at about $3.5 billion. Some $500 million would purchase the trains themselves. The bulk of the money would be spent on infrastructure — primarily upgrading tracks and signals. The cost, while not pocket change, is relatively small compared to federal spending on highway maintenance and construction costs. Rail advocates point out that at about $1 million per mile, the rail system is cheaper than rural interstate highway construction, which runs $5 million to $10 million per mile. And it’s an outright bargain compared to $10 million to $20 million per mile for a new urban expressway. "It’s much less costly than adding a lane to I-94," agrees Naeyaert .

Some state money and $25 million from Amtrak is already being spent on track upgrades and studies. States hope to choose equipment by the end of 1999; after that it is a matter of getting the money from the federal budget. If the feds cough up the cash, service could be operational as early as 2003.

But would Midwesterners board these trains if they were available? Maybe, maybe not. But planners believe that they can offer an alternative to intercity drivers and flyers, cutting congestion on roads and at airports. By 2010, the Midwest rail network will be attracting 8 million passengers a year, according to a study of the plan performed by a consulting firm for nine Midwestern states and the Federal Railroad Administration.

And since the railroad emits less air pollution per passenger mile than cars or planes, we’ll be breathing cleaner air than we would otherwise.

Another benefit of the railroad system is that it offers a potential solution to what Rob Kennedy calls "the biggest environmental concern we’ve got — sprawl." Kennedy, a Madison, Wis.-based economist with Citizens for a Better Environment, a regional environmental group, sees the rail lines as a magnet to bring people to central cities throughout the region.

"If employees can walk two blocks and get on high-speed rail from downtown to downtown, a lot of employers will want to locate there," he says.

This could also lead to central cities that are more "pedestrian-friendly," making shops, restaurants, hotels and other services more accessible to those on foot.

Still, it may take some adjustment before business and pleasure travelers hop the train. One reason is that low gas prices and subsidized roads have made it cheap and easy to drive. The deck has been stacked against the train, says Kennedy. "Railroads are expected to pay their own way," yet public money helps support auto-related costs. Kennedy and others say perhaps it’s time to provide less financial incentive to drive. Until that happens, though, traffic and parking hassles may be discouragement enough for some.

For many travelers, the alternative to a long drive is going by plane. But swelling numbers of travelers, airline delays and hassles in getting to, through and from airports is taking a toll. "My air travel is screwed up half the time, " says Kennedy, echoing a common complaint.

Despite the widespread belief that trains are unreliable — an unfortunate result of the past several decades of declining service — trains are actually more reliable than air or auto travel because congestion and severe weather rarely cause delays. For many travelers, railroad stations are closer than airports and there should be less waiting once there.

Plans call for six round-trips between Chicago and the Twin Cities, 14 between Milwaukee and Chicago, and 10 trips between Chicago and Detroit. The plan calls for notching up speeds on the rail lines so that, with trains traveling as much as 60 mph faster than the top speeds now achieved, the Chicago-Detroit route will be cut to 3 hours, 41 minutes from the current 6 hours .

The plans also call for touches of luxury. Stations are to feature restaurants and shops, lounges and business clubs — with computer facilities, fax machines and photocopy services — banking and information kiosks. Baggage handling services will also be available. Larger rail stations will house specialty shops, bookstores, and video arcades. Ground transportation — including buses, taxis, auto rentals, parking and even commuter rail connections — should be readily available.

Michigan DOT’s Naeyaert says his agency is planning a new train station in the New Center area of Detroit and hopes to award a design contract this year. The "intermodal" facility will accommodate rail, bus and taxi service, he says. It’s not clear when such a facility might be built.

But the perks don’t end with the station. The comforts of the ride itself will beat the auto or plane trip hands down. The trains themselves are to be roomier and more comfortable than coach-class air travel and will have phones, outlets for laptop computers and for modems, and television monitors. Video screens will keep passengers informed of arrival information — and those meeting passengers can check arrival times by phone or the Internet. Coffee and food will also be served from carts on board the trains. Soundproofing and shock-absorbing technologies should make the ride more comfortable and quiet than train travelers have come to expect.

The trains themselves will look a bit different from the "Milwaukee Road," 1940 vintage. Gone are the mammoth orange and maroon steam engines. Although the final train equipment hasn’t yet been decided upon, one proposal calls for train cars equipped with their own motor so no "engine" car will be required, an approach widely used in Europe.

Much of the work needed to be done to put the rail system in place would take place on the ground — at the track level — for speed and safety. Tracks will need to be upgraded to handle faster trains at speeds of 79-110 miles per hour. In light of accidents such as the Amtrak derailment by a semi-truck near Chicago earlier this year, crossings will be eliminated — with over- or underpasses — or improved with sensors and other devices.

Fares would rise, but would remain lower than air travel prices, according to the plan. One-way, full fares will be about $35 for the Milwaukee-Chicago route, $100 from Milwaukee to the Twin Cities, and $66 to go from Chicago to Detroit. But special fare options, such as monthly passes, family fares and weekend discounts will be offered in order to encourage commuter and off-peak use.

Rail historian Jim Scribbins reminds us that the "new" proposal for a regional rail system "would in effect return — somewhat improved — the service that existed throughout the upper United States in the 1930s to 1950s." If it’s true, as Scribbins argues, that the Interstate Highway System and the airline industry were what did in early passenger rail, it’s perhaps fitting that the failure of those systems to meet the needs of travelers today might bring the iron horse back again.


Current plans call for continual upgrades to Michigan service. By 2005 or 2007, planners expect 10 round-trips daily between Chicago and Detroit. Travel time would be cut to 3 hours, 41 minutes from the current 6 hours.

A new station inthe New Center is planned, although it is not clear when construction would begin.