Will Springfield derail high speed rail

For months now there has been a heated debate in regards to high speed rail in Springfield, Illinois. There are many things that make this debate interesting. But the one point that can’t seem to sink into peoples minds is that they aren’t even debating high speed rail. If all the federal and state money gets spent on upgrading rails lines from Chicago to St. Louis. We will still only have passenger service that runs at 1960 – 70 speeds. Local citizens also can’t seem to grasp that it isn’t “high speed” rail they should be fighting. Even if no rail line upgrades get done for faster passenger service. The community will still see an increase in freight traffic. Let me say this again – you can scream about high speed rail being evil all you like. Increased train traffic will still be coming to your area. This is a guaranteed fact!

The current federal funding honestly is little more than a subsidy to help Union Pacific upgrade their track. A minor benefit of that will be that Amtrak passenger trains will be able to run at slightly faster speeds if these upgrades are done along the whole route. Springfield Illinois could be one of the cities along those tracks that holds up rail line improvements. Decades ago towns would fight to have a railroad coming through. In modern days at times you see the exact opposite. Towns want rail traffic reduced.

What we are seeing in this community is a lack of desire to change and advance. The United States has been lagging behind in regards to train technology for decades. Let me put it another way. The supposed greatest and most technologically advanced nation on the planet is traveling using upgraded 1800’s technology. The most frustrating thing about that is the general public doesn’t understand this to be a problem. If our nation actually built a true high speed rail system. A good majority of equipment and parts would have to come from foreign manufacturers? Why? Because like many other industries within our country modernization hasn’t been taken seriously. So we are no longer ahead of the curve and producing the latest technology.

So what scares Springfield about “high speed rail”? Traffic, noise, cost, vibration and destruction of the look and feel of the city from what I have read. Although I can’t recall one person being concerned about pollution. Keep in mind trains are less polluting than airplanes. Trains also serve more communities per route and transport more people and freight than planes or trucks. With passenger service traffic backup is slightly less compared to a freight train. Although many in our area would debate that when Amtrak is boarding passengers in Springfield. The fact is Amtrak trains aren’t anywhere near as long as their freight counterparts. So any concerns in regards to traffic congestion within the city should be aimed at freight trains.

Train noise is an issue currently. Years ago two rail lines near the Westchester subdivision were combined on a route next to I-72. One set of tracks later became the Wabash bike trail. The other set has no current use. But would make a nice bike path. When the two lines became consolidated there was no other neighborhood in that area. Where a sod farm use to grow now their is a subdivision. That neighborhood of course is directly affected by rail traffic noise. So is Westchester – even though rail lines aren’t located directly in that area anymore. The noise from the freight trains travels a good distance.

The situation is the same in Chatham, IL. Even though we live a good distance away from the rail lines. It isn’t unusual for someone in our house to hear Amtrak or a freight train coming through. My point is even those who live a decent distance away from tracks can be affected by the noise. The only way I can think of to reduce this would be to upgrade to a much more advanced train technology for passenger service. Current cost estimates for upgrading what we use now has people up in arms. For a much more advanced system the price would most likely cause a riot in this community.

Cost can be debated in many ways. Value for money can become an argument. Any time you have government spending large amounts of money someone is going to be unhappy. People will always spin the “facts” to try and favor their opinion. I want true high speed rail. Supporters are saying that any money spent towards railway upgrades is money well spent. However what are the realities of this expense? Is it really worthwhile to once again do halfhearted upgrades that aren’t really technology advancements? High speed passenger service is desired by many of us. But will we really have this after the money gets spent?

Spending taxpayer dollars on these upgrades does have benefits. It keeps current rail employees in jobs. There will be an increase in demand for construction. Some of these workers many not be local. So you get income and tax revenue from them during their stay in your community. Materials for the upgrades are likely to come from regional sources. This stimulates the local economy. What is up for debate with many stimulus programs is the amount of jobs – especially long term that will be created. Larger scale projects over several years of course will produce the greatest benefit. Which supports my argument that upgrading to newer train technology would best benefit our country economically. The major hurdle in doing something like that is the rail lines are privately owned. Freight haulers have no interest in passenger services. I’d venture a guess that most train companies in the United States would love to see Amtrak fail. That reality has been close several times. Currently ridership is up in most regions.

Unless we have new age railroad barons decide to invest in passenger service. This country will be stuck with older outdated train technology. It was private investment with a ton of political pressure that got the current rail system built.

One of the last things I bet most people think about with train systems is vibration. Of course engineers take this and many other factors into account when designing and building trains and their tracks. The citizens of Springfield IL are worried that vibration from train traffic at high speeds would cause problems with our upcoming medical district. I have several issues with this. My first thought is there have to be other communities with high tech medical districts that have trains travel past them. The second and most important thought I have is that train traffic would most likely not be running full speed through town. Amtrak currently runs at reduced speed when entering our community. So the only argument for excessive vibration might be do to increased freight traffic.

The last argument that gets major press in our community is keeping things beautiful. Over the years several studies have been done on how to beautify Springfield. Honestly I can say that many of the local neighborhoods Amtrak travels through currently have been in need of repair and revitalization for many years. For a long time people have been moving out west and leaving homes in the city to decay. Some of the Springfield neighborhoods Amtrak passes have been in disrepair and high crime areas since I was a teenager. I’m not saying that these people shouldn’t have a voice. But claims have been made that trains currently run through some nice parts of the city. That is far from true. A simple drive around town following the Union Pacific tracks proves my opinion correct. I do agree that having a large amount of freight traffic coming through the downtown area is a major problem.

A large amount of freight traffic coming through any city center is a concern. Not only does this create traffic congestion. It reduces the chance of any revitalization taking place. There are many in our area who are trying to preserve historic buildings and fixing up neighborhoods. But there is a lot of decay along the Union Pacific line. I’m fully aware that for political and logistics reasons. It is unlikely we would ever see a plan become reality that moves all freight traffic around the city. My opinion is passenger service should always come into a city center. We have two competing rail lines coming through Springfield. One is owned by Norfolk Southern and the other belongs to Union Pacific. Many voices are wanting all freight traffic consolidated onto the Norfolk Southern tracks. Of course Union Pacific would prefer not to run on a competitors line when they have their own rail in a town. Some residents also feel moving all the freight traffic in this direction further creates a class and racial divide.

The Norfolk Southern tracks which has a switch yard if I remember correctly are located in between downtown and a lower income section of town. That area has seen only slight reinvestment and development over a long period of time. Residents who live there feel moving all freight traffic to these tracks will just increase the divide that already exist. Reducing the chance of future growth. These residents have voiced safety concerns as well. No one really wants a large amount of train traffic in their backyard. The fears that have been raised are for the safety of children and those who are less fortunate. It could be argued that this needs seriously looked into. I know that over many years several rail crossings on these tracks have had serious accidents and unfortunately deaths.

What I have not come across is the reaction of other communities that are along the St Louis to Chicago Union Pacific tracks. The uproar here in Springfield has been extremely nasty. A wide range of opinions can be found. I’ve tried to cover some of that above. Very few people can see the benefit of high speed passenger rail service. It has been argued that Americans love their cars to much & high speed trains could never compete with airlines. These comments show that those who say them haven’t done any reading on the subject. When true high speed rail is constructed. Competition does come into play and these trains easily compete with the airlines. Even the Acela Express Amtrak’s only route close to high speed has had success gaining customers over air travel. The Acela Express is also a shining example of the United States making a half hearted attempt at high speed train service.

I think the demand for rail service is underestimated. While many of us love our cars. My household has taken several cross country trips in our vehicle. There are others like me who have given Amtrak a good amount of business. The past two years I’ve actually increased my usage of their service. With mixed results customer service wise. What I have seen confirms the numbers. The Chicago to St Louis Amtrak route is highly used. I’ve ridden the route at different times of day. My journeys have been at different times of the week. I can truthfully say the trains weren’t empty by any means. Amtrak has customers for this service. Demand would most likely increase if the service offered even faster destination times than what is currently available. How much of a time improvement would be gained with the current plan is what has some taxpayers up in arms. They feel the performance gains aren’t great enough for the money being spent. Many feel these funds should be spent on roadways.

American highways definitely could use some upgrades. Just keeping what we having in working order seems to be failing. From my experience our nations highways are jammed packed in some areas. Although it is highly debated I-55 around Springfield is one such clogged Interstate. Having a good passenger rail system in place allows for choice. It also helps to reduce some of the strain on this countries highway system. We need both options available to meet current and future transportation needs. Keep in mind that Amtrak can serve more passengers and in a somewhat less polluted fashion than an airplane. This is a more efficient use of our nations resources. Which unfortunately few people think about. With a true high speed rail system in place. These trains could provide speeds that compete with air travel. In countries that have such technology in place this has been shown to be true time and again.

It’s sad that so few voices are ashamed at how little progress we have made in regards to transportation technology. This mentality is an example of why our country is in the mess it is in. There is still a bunch of chest beating about how great a nation we are while we are getting out classed on the world front. We should be ashamed as a nation that others have had high speed rail for decades while we have sat back and not advanced. Using upgraded 1800’s technology in 2010 isn’t what I would call progress. It’s frustrating to me that citizens aren’t angry for change. When you manufacture and put new technology to use. You increase jobs, improve communities and help to more efficiently use our resources. A small amount of reading shows that technology such as high speed rail improves the quality of life.

I guess American’s are now proud to be getting out classed by the Japanese, Russians, Chinese, British, French and Germans just to name a few. The Japanese have been leaders in high speed rail technology since the 1960’s. Our current plan in Illinois to upgrade Amtrak won’t even bring our level of service up to what Japan had then. It amazes me that this doesn’t upset people and have them demanding that our country take action. Honestly it’s rather shameful. Flying cars in 2010 – heck we can’t even get 200 mile per hour trains in this country. At best after billions spent to help Union Pacific upgrade their tracks we might see 100 MPH if Springfield and other communities don’t put a monkey wrench in the process. The thought of the United States ever having something along the lines of a Maglev train seems to be near impossible.

What interest me is that those that have the most to gain by these advancements are the ones fighting against them.

Even though the Midwest High Speed Rail Association wants us to thank President Obama for the money that has been allocated for current projects. I won’t join the praise. Because it’s more of the same. Coming in the future never to be seen. None of the current projects will give this country an edge in train technology. This nation isn’t even a follower in regards to this industry. We should have been leading by example for years. Instead we are locked in a nasty debate over service levels that won’t compare to what some nations had decades ago.

Last month riding Amtrak home from Chicago Union Station after going to the Tesla Motors opening I had to laugh. When we reached Springfield Illinois some guy from business class comments about how great 3 hours and 15 minutes was for travel time. I promptly expressed the fact that this time was more of a joke. Yes with current trains on that line the time was in fact great. However it’s frustrating to no end that this person doesn’t expect more. Of course I made mention of how better trains would trash that time without blinking. Then because we were by a high end auto store across from Amtrak. I mentioned I was coming home from riding in a $145,000 all electric sports car.

If you ever take a long distance trip on Amtrak and run into someone from across the sea. Listen or even ask them how disappointed they are in our passenger rail service. I’ve heard the comments time & time again. They can’t understand how we are suppose to be this great nation. But have really lousy train service compared to what they are used to.

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