|Sunday, September 9, 2001
The case for high-speed rail
After a good start, hardest part of train revival lies ahead
by Joe Beck
The Journal Gazette
More than nostalgia for Fort Wayne's past as a railroad town drew hundreds
of people to a public hearing last month about an ambitious proposal for
introducing high-speed passenger rail service.
The Indiana Department of Transportation was looking for signs that
the public would support the establishment of a line connecting Fort Wayne
with Chicago and Cleveland. The answer was a resounding "yes," judging
from the crowd that overflowed from the Allen County Public Library auditorium.
"It was overwhelming to see that much support," said Geoff Paddock, who
is leading a public-private task force formed to resurrect passenger rail
If it returns, riders will be in for an experience unlike anything they
knew before the last Amtrak train pulled out of the city almost a decade
ago. High- speed trains are designed to do much more than provide rail
buffs with a romantic traveling experience; the main goal is to compete
with cars and airplanes in speed, cost and passenger comfort.
INDOT officials are confident it can be done. They say a high-speed
train route between Chicago and Cleveland can complete a one-way run in
three hours and 46 minutes. Amtrak now requires at least six hours and
32 minutes. Speeds of up to 110 mph, comfortable seats and more leg room
would be the biggest improvements. Fares would be slightly lower than discount
Despite the public hearing's success, passenger rail service in general
and Fort Wayne in particular must overcome formidable fiscal, political
and economic hurdles before trains begin arriving again at the Baker Street
station. Impending decisions in Washington and Indianapolis are the biggest
One of the most important events will fall in November or December when
an infrastructure consultant hired by INDOT delivers recommendations on
the most suitable route for new passenger train service. The consultant's
recommendations will heavily influence whatever final route decision INDOT
makes. All depends on which of two routes under consideration is projected
to produce the highest ridership for the least cost.
Meanwhile, INDOT is awaiting a funding decision in Congress. The General
Assembly must also deliver some money if Congress comes through. Paddock
estimates at least six more years before passenger trains roll through
Fort Wayne again - if ever. Here are a few questions and answers that weigh
heavily in determining the final outcome.
Q. What can high-speed rail offer
Fort Wayne travelers that cars and airplanes can't?
A. Airplanes remain more practical for long distances and cars
are unbeatable for short trips. But high-speed trains hold unique advantages
for those bound for specific cities, such as Chicago or Cleveland.
Trains are safer and more reliable in bad weather. Rain, snow, ice, fog
and extreme cold are much less likely to interfere with train service.
Those traveling from one city's downtown to another will arrive within
a few blocks of their destinations, thus eliminating the time and expense
of renting a car or traveling by cab from an airport. Parking is not a
Traffic is bogging down in the air as well as on the road. Some speakers
at the public hearing noted that Fort Wayne faces continued difficulty
in offering direct, low-cost air fares to Chicago. Bob Wearley, director
of marketing at Fort Wayne International Airport, endorsed high-speed trains,
noting that the runways at O'Hare Field in Chicago are "absolutely saturated"
and likely to remain so for the next 10 years. "High speed rail can
be a safety valve to relieve that pressure," Wearley said.
Q. Is high-speed rail important to economic development?
A. Karen Goldner, the city's economic development director, regards
it as critical. She believes high-speed rail holds more promise for the
city than the much-discussed extension of Interstate 69 through southern
Indiana. Goldner argues high-speed rail will grow in popularity through
the 21st century and become indispensable to city transportation networks.
Cities have flourished and died according to whether they have access to
railroads and highways, she says. "If you can't travel somewhere,
you tend not to go there," she said. "That's certainly true of business."
John Gerni, a lobbyist for Lincoln Financial Group, told INDOT officials
at the public hearing that passenger train service would be a major asset
for his firm. The many Lincoln employees who attend conferences and meetings
in Chicago would gladly board the trains arriving and departing within
a block or two of their offices, Gerni said. High-speed rail can
help Lincoln more easily fulfill its plans for expanding its annuities
operation, he added. "We intend to grow this business more, and we
intend to grow it in Fort Wayne," Gerni declared.
Q. What alternatives to Fort Wayne is INDOT considering for passenger
A. Any high-speed rail service in Indiana will be part of a nine-state
regional rail network headquartered in Chicago. Northeast Indiana will
retain passenger trains under either of two options under consideration.
The only question is whether the route will essentially follow the existing
Amtrak route north through Waterloo, Elkhart and South Bend, bypassing
Fort Wayne. A new route through Fort Wayne would include Warsaw and Valparaiso
Q. What's wrong with the Amtrak service available in Waterloo?
A. The main problems are accessibility, size and comfort. The
Waterloo stop is much harder to reach for most Fort Wayne residents than
the Baker Street depot. The stark plastic hut marking the Waterloo stop
can't even be called a depot. It offers only limited protection against
the elements and is a dark and forbidding place at night. In contrast,
the Baker Street depot is on its way to restoration as a magnificent, centrally
located landmark that stirs warm memories among those who once took trains
Q. What other advantages does Fort Wayne have to offer as a train
A. The city is a major population center roughly equal distances
from Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Indianapolis and Cincinnati. The more
northern route is already hard pressed to handle all the trains using it,
mostly for hauling freight. Additional track would probably require buying
more private land, businesses and homes, a process often fraught with uncertainties
and delays. The route connecting Fort Wayne to Chicago and Cleveland
has the right of way in place. Laying new track on existing roadbeds is
all that's required.
Q. How much will this cost and how will it be paid for?
A. Paddock estimates up to $1 million per mile. Financing depends
on Congress passing Senate Bill 250, the High Speed Rail Investment Act.
It authorizes Amtrak to sell $12 billion in bonds over 10 years to pay
for high- speed rail corridors across the country. The money would
be used for signals, improving or eliminating grade crossings, upgrading
and buying railroad equipment and constructing lines. States receiving
the federal money must commit to meeting at least 20 percent of the project
costs with their own funding.
Q. What position are our members of Congress taking on the federal
A. Nobody is against it, but enthusiasm varies. Sen. Evan Bayh,
D-Ind., has signed on to the bill. Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., is holding
back for now. He has been peppering Amtrak officials with questions focusing
on whether Indiana will get its fair share of money if the bill passes.
Rep. Mark Souder, R-4th, is the most skeptical. He doubts the bill will
pass, despite sponsorship from senators as diverse as Ted Kennedy, D-Mass.,
Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., Jesse Helms, R-N.C., and Strom Thurmond,
R-S.C. Souder insists "mass transit is a difficult option," compared with
the ease of car and air travel. Nevertheless, he says he will try to obtain
any money for high speed rail that Congress makes available. "I want
to do what I can, that if there's high-speed rail, it comes to Fort Wayne,"
Citizens and civic leaders have made an excellent case for the city
to state transportation officials. Unfortunately, the heavy turnout at
the public hearing is far from a guarantee of success. The next step is
to turn up the pressure on members of Congress and the General Assembly
whose commitment to high-speed rail isn't as strong. The hardest part is
yet to come.