Economic geography tells us that market potential is important. If you want to be a rich place, it helps to be close to other rich places. This is one of the problems with the Rust Belt. Individually, Rust Belt cities are weaker than cities on the east coast — they have smaller economies and less human capital. This is complicated by the fact that they’re fairly isolated. The rich cities of the northeast corridor are squeezed together, while Rust Belt cities are far apart — from each other and from the rich cities of the east coast. This means that they have less to work with, and they’re less able to leverage that strength in a regional economy. For this reason, I’ve argued that it’s important to invest in individual cities in the Rust Belt, but it’s also important to improve connections between the cities. To effectively bring them closer together.

Why do I mention this? Well, I just saw this story about how Big Three executives may carpool to their next big meeting in Washington, since their private jet habit seems to have gone over poorly. Carpooling will certainly be greener and less extravagant than flying, but it will also take them a loooong time — nine hours if they don’t hit much traffic. The trip, after all, is just over 500 miles.

You know what else is just over 500 miles? The trip from Sacramento to San Diego, which will, in the not too distant future, be spanned by a high-speed rail line. High-speed rail could cut travel time between Detroit and Washington from nine hours to three — just a smidge longer than the train ride from Washington to New York, from downtown to downtown. And you’d never have to take your shoes off, unless you wanted to. High-speed rail would also cut a five-hour drive from Detroit to Chicago to just over an hour. Detroit to Cleveland? Just under and hour. Detroit to Pittsburgh? About an hour and a half.

High-speed rail would, in other words, turn Rust Belt distances into northeast corridor distances, while also shifting the Rust Belt closer to the northeast corridor. It would increase the return to doing business in every city in the region. It would be the Erie Canal and the original railroads on steroids.

And here’s the thing — California is estimating that its 800-mile high-speed rail network will cost it about $45 billion over twenty or so years. The actual cost will probably be higher than that, and a Midwest network would be larger and therefore more expensive, but the total cost is in the same ballpark as the $50 billion in aid automakers are begging for (which wouldn’t even be spread out over a period of years).

Given all this, there are a couple of questions worth asking. One, what’s the best way to secure the long-term economic future of the Midwest? And two, is a bail-out for automakers likely to make the realization of a Midwest high-speed rail network more or less likely?


  1. Reid says:

    Have they just never heard of flying coach?

    I once investigated taking the train to Detroit. It was a ridiculous trip. One suggested rout went through Albany for christ’s sake. Even the short trip still required a trip through Chicago, which is still really out of the way. The quickest trip involved taking a bus from Toledo.

    I imagine you could make Detroit a lot more accessible if you just put a rail line from Toledo to Detroit. It’s preposterous that one doesn’t already exist. Not that I find myself wanting to take rail to Detroit (or air, for that matter) very often, but for Cleveland, a short train ride to Detroit may be desirable.

    Also, I looked into taking a train to Pittsburgh recently. Jesus it would have been a long trip. I guess I get spoiled by how fast the NE corridor runs. Just imagine if the DC to Chicago corridor were as fast.

  2. digamma says:

    “And you’d never have to take your shoes off, unless you wanted to.”

    I’m as pro-rail as anyone but I’ve always found this a bad argument. The government has made one form of travel unbearable, therefore it should subsidize another. The real solution to that particular is for the government to stop doing stupid things like making people take their shoes off.

    Worse, if we accept the TSA standards for airport security, we are only one small train bombing away from applying those same standards to rail.

  3. Ben Ross says:

    Rust belt cities don’t necessarily have less human capital than the east coast corridor, but they have a different kind. There is all kinds of hard-to-replace expertise in metal fabrication, machine tools, etc. etc. This is the industrial base that a GM bankruptcy would put at risk. It could not be waved back into existence easily.

  4. Well, the difference between a train and a plane, of course, is that you can’t hijack a train and take it hundreds of miles off course to ram the Pentagon.

    Naturally, visions of joining the 21st century with some high speed rail are seductive, but I have some serious doubts about who would want to go from Washington DC to Detroit- or vice versa. And there’s some seriously wrinkled landscape between the two cities which would add to the challenge.

    The real question is how serious we are about making this country work. If we’re serious we’ll find corridors suitable for upgraded rail that can take market share from airplanes. We’ll also find something to do in those corridors that we can sell abroad. I’m guessing that at the present time we’re better at educating people than we are at building high speed railroad locomotives, but making education an export product would require some serious investment in education that we haven’t been making lately.

    Right now the corridor action is in cooperation between states that are subsidizing rail. In the Pacific Northwest the Washington state DOT is basically the lead agency for a corridor that expects to see train speeds over 100 miles per hour by 2020. Downtown-to-downtown this should be very competitive with planes. A few more corridors of this nature and we’d be in the business.

  5. Doug says:

    First, just a note that the lack of mountain ranges in the midwest might hold down the cost as compared to California’s plan.

    Second, I would be very flexible with the meaning of not-to-distant future. I’m involved with a much smaller California project which was expected to take two years and is now four late.

    But, last, this is my concern with infrastructure spending: Is it efficient to invest in the efficiency of the present geography of the rust belt? Battle Creek and Kalamazoo are nicely situated for their more sustainable economies. Ypsilanti, Toledo and Flint mainly make sense because they are about an hour from Detroit and Detroit is the center of the auto industry.

    It seems like with big manufacturing there once must have been some logic to a radial distribution of factories around a hub, and medium sized cities surrounding larger ones. I imagine there might have been some optimum of land, labor and transport costs achieved. If the economic model has broken down, does it make sense to invest in maintaining the current arrangement or would we really just be incenting an otherwise inefficient geography?

  6. Doug says:

    Bother, not-too-distant, I meant. Would someone please fetch me an editor?

  7. Mixner says:

    The trip from Sacramento to San Diego, which will, in the not too distant future, be spanned by a high-speed rail line.

    Highly unlikely.

    Well, the difference between a train and a plane, of course, is that you can’t hijack a train and take it hundreds of miles off course to ram the Pentagon.

    But you can explode a bomb on it, or on the track as it approaches, derailing the train and killing hundreds, maybe thousands, of people.

    A repeat of 9/11 seems unlikely. The terrorists only succeeded because the passengers didn’t know they were planning to use the planes as guided missiles. Future hijackers won’t have that advantage.

  8. tom veil says:

    The best part is, the state of Ohio has already done half of the legwork:

  9. BruceMcF says:

    It might bear considering plans that have already been developed, such as the Keystone Corridor, the Ohio Hub and the Midwest Hub.

    That is, we can most of the benefit of a matrix of full-HSR corridors for less than a fifth of the cost and much more quickly with the existing semi-HSR projects already laid out … the Ohio Hub and the Midwest Hub.

    And that can be fit into the critical strategic need to electrify the national STRACNET, which is a program that can be pursued with bonding authority alone for the finance, without any need for tax funding … electrification of freight rail can easily be self-funding, since electric rail reduces operating costs and capital costs other than the electric infrastructure even at low oil costs, so a public authority building the electric overhead can refund the bonds with user fees.

    Establish high speed freight lines (110mph) for fast electric freight that meets the FRA guidelines to run on regular freight lines and also has the control equipment to run safely with world standard lighter weight passenger tilt-trains, build up high speed lines with the appropriate elevations around curves for higher speed operation next to the heavy freight lines with the elevations around curves appropriate to low speed operations, and we can have 110mph passenger trains on both the Ohio and Midwest Hubs, linking through to the New York State system at Buffalo and the Keystone (Pennsylvania) corridor at Pittsburgh … and the capital costs can be shared with the high speed freight.

    With that in place, we get a large number of true HSR connections between the Northeast Corridor and the Ohio to Midwest system with a single true HSR corridor, New York to Chicago.

  10. All this talk about the HSR makes me think it should be one of these infrastructural improvement projects Obama has been talking about. He could make it a government project to build a Midwestern HSR network, creating jobs in the process and in the end enjoying the fruits of a HSR system.

  11. Why, yes, this should be part of a large infrastructure improvement project.

    It’s easy to see an expanded role for electricity in our energy future. Schemes to expand the production of electricity depend on schemes to expand the use of electricity, and moving stuff by rail is a pretty efficient way to provide large and stable markets for electricity.

    And we have a very big reason to make changes- global warming. Eight years of the Bush administration did not make the problem go away, in fact, it seems to have become worse!

    Whether the Congress can get this sorted in their own minds remains to be seen. Eight years of Bush has stimulated a lot of local and regional thought on problem-solving, and there are projects worth funding. If we want to do it, we probably can.

  12. I’d be pleased if the Midwestern regional rail offered the speeds and the frequencies of, oh, 1951. (You could look it up.) Some of those could be accomplished with much less spending on infrastructure than Bruce McF envisions.

    For longer distances, the speculation about something very fast running Chicago-Detroit-Cleveland-Pittsburgh-New York conjures up memories of the Chicago-New York Electric Air Line, a project that did substantial fund raising by sale of stock and actually built seventeen miles of arrow-straight and level track in northwest Indiana.

  13. BruceMcF says:

    Some of those could be accomplished with much less spending on infrastructure than Bruce McF envisions.

    But we have lost substantial rail capacity, both in terms of number of trainsets per hour and speed, since 1951. While road and rail has been heavily subsidized, rail has been on the YOYO principle, so they have specialized to the slow, heavy freight that paid the bills in the age of ultra-cheap oil.

    So upgrading the existing rail corridors in Ohio and the Midwest so that it has the capacity for trainsets and can support the speed that it supported in 1951 … so that the existing 79mph regional passenger rail is not sitting for hours waiting for a 20mph coal train to clear out of a long single-track section … that is the first level of the Midwest and Ohio Hubs.

    The most recent projections for the full Ohio Hub was $2.6b for 79mph and $3.3b for 110mph, with the Cleveland/Columbus/Cincinatti segment costing $1.2b.

    The electrification of STRACNET to allow the nation to move freight coast to coast would, at the 79mph freight speed target, cost around $250b, and for the 110mph freight speed target, cost around $450b … of course, there is about 36,000 miles of track designated by the DoD as strategic in the STrategic RAil Corridor NETwork (STRACNET), and at full commercial urgency would be a six year program.

    But since it would be self-funding, and would substantially reduce the cost of publicly funded projects like the Keystone Corridor, Ohio Hub and Midwest Hub, (and similar systems across the country), I’d argue that the $75b/year bonding authority merits serious consideration.

  14. Christopher says:

    Illinois has done the legwork on this as well. I think there may even be an Illinois High Speed Rail Authority studying all this. The biggest issue is that there are lots of mid-sized cities in Illinois who have airports but have seen the major carriers continually cut back service. So the idea of rail connecting Rockford and Peoria and Springfield and Normal and Champagne and Rock Island to Chicago is very, very appealing. I expect it will happen, especially as the economic and technological advantages of the California experiment become very, very clear.

    The train is pretty popular in the midwest. I’ve taken the train from Chicago to Milwaukee — with commuters! — and the train to Pontiac, MI from Chicago. All well traveled.