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Dec 012008

What’s the state of high-speed rail in the rest of the country, and the rest of the world? Japan and Europe have enjoyed high-speed rail service for years, but recently Spain has taken the lead in developing high-speed rail. Spain’s national government has committed over $5 billion per year for 15 years to upgrade existing lines for freight and passengers and to build new high-speed passenger lines.

The Chicago-based Midwest High Speed Rail Association is sponsoring a trip to Spain early next year to study what government investments in high-speed rail have done for Spain’s economic growth and social development.

“Spain is the closest analog to the Midwest in the way the cities are layed out, the distances between them, and the existing rail service before the high-speed rail project was built,” said Midwest High Speed Rail Association Executive Director Rick Harnish. “Madrid and Seville are the same distance apart as Chicago and St. Louis.”

Spain laid high-speed rail between Madrid and Seville for the World’s Fair in 1992.

“Folks in Spain assumed that after the World’s Fair, everyone would go back to riding the same slow trains they’d always had. But what happened is, everyone loved high-speed rail,” Harnish said. “Getting one line in proved the case, and now Spain is building it country-wide.” Harnish thinks if high-speed rail can be done in Spain, which has to contend with mountain ranges, it can certainly be rolled out across the flat Midwest.

But Frank Busalacchi, Secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Transportation and chair of the States for Passenger Rail Coalition, an alliance of 23 state transportation departments calling for expanded federal support of intercity passenger rail, thinks California is a better proving ground for green, high speed rail than the Midwest.

“Electrification is a great idea,” Busalacchi said, “but here in the Midwest we are many years away from that.” Busalacchi has testified to Congress about the importance of passenger rail and is working toward a plan for new high-speed rail service in Wisconsin.

“What we’re talking about in the Midwest is 90 to 110-mph service,” Busalacchi said. “The difference between California and the Midwest is that the Midwest rail corridors run 500 miles or less.” He believes the first step is to “connect up these corridors so we can have mass-transit at a reasonable rate.” Busalacchi and the SPRC’s approach is to start by utilizing and expanding the existing freight rail network.

Midwest High Speed Rail Association Executive Director Rick Harnish is more bullish on the prospects for high-speed trains zipping through the Midwest in the not-too-distant future.