The Future of High Speed Rail in the Midwest

Dr. Tsung-Chung Kao, a professor and scholar from the Railroad Transportation & Engineering Center at the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign visited St. Louis this week and gave a highly enlightening glimpse into what High Speed Rail (HSR) in the United States-more specifically the Midwest region-would look like.

Drawing from his experience in his home country of Taiwan, Dr. Kao showed how Taiwan, a country of a little over 200 miles in length, was able to draw the necessary resources to accomplish a High Speed Rail line which opened in early 2007.  He then gave a direct comparison to scale of Taiwan and other HSR projects around the globe to the proposed line throughout the Midwest (with a focus on the St. Louis-Chicago line).  Additionally, Dr. Kao gave an overview of the Rail Transportation Engineering Center (RailTEC) at the University of Illinois, a one-of-a-kind program in the U.S.  It the first research center (with seven university partners across the country) on a collegiate level to put funds towards educating students for rail-specific careers.

The idea for Taiwan’s HSR line, stretching 214 miles in length, came about in a feasibility study in 1987 when the country realized with a growing GDP and therefore population, they needed to combat the 24 hour/day traffic jams which were piling up.  In order to travel from the southern to northern end of Taiwan, it would require up to eight hours in traffic to make a trip not that much shorter than the distance to Chicago from St. Louis.  A change needed to happen.

Now residents of Taiwan can travel that distance in about 90 minutes, passing through 14 cities and 77 towns!  Their High Speed Rail line broke ground in March of 2000 and by 2006 was finished, with ridership beginning in 2007.  Along with the minimization of car trips and flights necessary, the line has spurred an immense amount of development around the stations, as well as catalyzed a 25% hike in tourism each year after its inception.  The country is growing closer, physically and metaphorically–people who could only visit their families a couple of times per year are now visiting a couple of times each month!

But Dr. Kao noted that the Midwest portion of the United States is just as suited for HSR.  He compared the middle portion of our country to a area of similar scale, France, and elaborated on how successful that infrastructure has been for not only the country, but its neighbors as well.  Despite the challenges that many fear we face for High Speed Rail in the U.S., it was uplifting to hear that Taiwan faced many, if not all of the same challenges which our current economy and government possess, and still rose above to produce an highly successful and sustainable infrastructure system, which meets of the needs of their residents each and every day.

Presentation to be posted soon.