High-speed rail 

A parallel universe

If you want to know what it means to live in a parallel universe, try this on for size: Last April, in France, they broke the world record for a high-speed train on conventional rails. The train, which consisted of two engines and three double-decker cars, reached a top speed of 356 mph on a stretch of track between Paris and Strasbourg.

I’ll bet you didn’t hear about this. That’s because in the parallel universe we call the United States, high-speed rail is practically unknown — and in the part of the United States called Indiana, we hardly even talk about it. Here, the latest thing in transportation involves paving a highway between Evansville and Indianapolis that nobody seems to want except politicians and the concrete, construction and billboard companies that contribute to their campaigns.

There is one Hoosier, though, a gentleman named Dennis Hodges, who loves talking about high-speed rail. Hodges is president of a group called the Indiana High Speed Rail Association. For the past 15 years, Hodges and the IHSRA have been advocating for a plan called the Midwest Regional Rail System, a proposal to connect Indianapolis with other cities in our region like Chicago, St. Louis, Milwaukee and Cleveland. Hodges argues that this system would create at least 15,000 new jobs, increase commercial investments throughout the region, reinforce national security and promote business development and tourism.

Hodges says that Midwest high-speed rail is the common-sense complement to take our current transportation system to the next level. Given ever-rising fuel costs and the airlines’ waning interest in providing short-haul service, not to mention the time-consuming hassles involved in dealing with airports, Hodges believes the time has come for policy-makers to get a grip on high-speed rail’s potential. “People are looking for alternatives,” he says, “they’re looking for options for travel.”

The IHSRA holds meetings periodically at the law offices of Barnes & Thornburg in downtown Indianapolis. At a lunchtime gathering last week, most of the people in attendance were teenagers, members of Dr. Helen Hudson’s English honors class from Crawfordsville High. This group has gone so far as to refurbish and help maintain the Amtrak station in their town. Their enthusiasm for rail travel was encouraging but a little poignant. Where were the adults?

Still living in a parallel universe, I guess.

Charles R. Wochele, an executive with Alstom, one of the world’s leading builders of high-speed rail systems, was the speaker that day. Alstom built the train that broke the speed record in France, and Wochele showed us a short film about it. The similarity between the French countryside and the landscape here in Indiana was striking. The French train sped across green and relatively flat farm terrain. The film made clear what Wochele would later say, that our part of the country provides an ideal setting for the creation of a dedicated high-speed system.

Our terrain, of course, is probably what the engineers are thinking about as they contemplate bulldozing that corridor between Evansville and Indianapolis. But it’s interesting to note that a high-speed rail line requires half the land that a highway does. What’s more, high-speed rail beats automotive transport when it comes to safety, comfort and maintenance. Rail also reduces greenhouse gases.

In Europe, they’re planning on expanding and integrating high-speed rail systems, so that by 2020 there will be 5,600 miles of rail, uniting all the countries in the European Union, including Russia. High-speed rail has been a boon to the European economy; it is clearly the favored form of transport by business travelers.

here was a lot of European opposition to high-speed rail before it was built. It’s expensive to construct — about $50 million per mile — and farmers feared what it might do to their historic landscapes. But the trains have more than paid for themselves, and their environmentally sound approach to design and construction, not to mention the economic growth along routes, won people over.

In this fall’s election, Californians will consider funding a $10 billion bond issue to begin building the first dedicated high-speed rail system in the United States. If the proposal is approved, it won’t be that long before people in Los Angeles will be taking the train for lunch meetings in San Francisco. And they’ll be home in time for dinner.

Imagine what a similar service could do for the economy in Central Indiana. Imagine, that is, being able to travel from Indy to Chicago in an hour — or less. This would reinvent the living and working patterns of our entire region.

Then our parallel universe would be … the universe itself.

For membership information about the Indiana High Speed Rail Association, call 219-887-1351 or e-mail wdh.2016@att.net.

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David Hoppe

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