SOMEDAY, the beloved train horn, with its old, dreamy call, could cry across the prairie above a new, equally captivating sound: the roar of several tons of high-tech electronics and steel rocketing along at 200 miles an hour.
If the Midwest High Speed Rail Association has its way, before long, rapid trains will rush passengers between the largest cities in the Midwestern section of the United States.
The association of politicians, financiers, engineers, and lawyers envisions a high-speed railroad linking Kansas City, Mo.; St. Louis; Minneapolis; Milwaukee; Cleveland; Detroit; Cincinnati; and Indianapolis. Chicago would be the hub.
Estimated costs for the project range from $800 million to $2 billion, depending on whether the trains would use existing tracks or new ones.
The trains would compete with road and air passenger services and so hold down travel cost within the region. Train fare would, on average, cost 20 percent less than air fare, association member Dennis Minichello says. The electrified trains would also help reduce pollution and congestion on roads and at airports, says Mr. Minichello, a lawyer who specializes in transportation.
Moreover, the railroad would bring jobs and business to city centers, rather than scatter economic vitality along a highway or around a suburban airport, Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist says.
``Whereas highways tend to spread the economy over more landscape and waste land, and spread jobs farther and farther away from those who need them, high-speed rail tends to concentrate the jobs, save energy, be more efficient, and reinforce the value of cities,'' Mayor Norquist says.
At this point, the rapid locomotive is no more than a silent, shimmering mirage on the prairie's horizon. Indeed, in a brochure promoting the Midwest High Speed Rail Conference in Chicago June 3, the association called rapid trains a ``dim possibility in the far-off future.'' It has only just begun to bring its proposed railroad before the public for broad debate.
Although high-speed trains going 150 miles per hour to 200-plus m.p.h. have thrived in France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and Spain, the process has been more burdensome in the US. Rapid-train proponents have announced grand schemes in Florida, Ohio, and Texas, only to later see them run out of steam.
STILL, due to increasing airport congestion, the Midwest and other regions will eventually have to build rapid railway for short trips, says David Schulz, director of the Infrastructure Technology Institute at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. ``It will be excruciatingly difficult to build new airports or expand existing [ones] well into the next century,'' says Dr. Schulz, a former Chicago deputy commissioner for public works.
As overseas travel increases, airports will become more congested, and airlines will favor long-haul flights over shorter, less-profitable regional flights, he adds. ``We're going to have to figure out ways to move people between cities that are 250 [miles] to 400 miles apart on the surface, and high-speed rail appears to me to be clearly the most attractive alternative,'' Schulz says.
Judging from other US initiatives, the biggest obstacle for Midwest rapid trains is financing. Similar projects were promoted as feasible largely through private funding. But they have either slowed to a crawl or have been halted altogether because of insufficient finances. ``The public sector and private sector need to partner up, each doing what it does best,'' Schulz says.
The public sector would most likely have to buy land for the railroad and contribute to the cost of the rails and stations. Private businesses would put up the remaining capital and handle operating expenses for the railroad, he says.
Association members predict that Midwesterners would take quickly to rapid trains. Within two years of launching service, operators of high-speed trains in other countries have had to expand their timetables. The association says it can count on public affection for railways and a general preference for efficient trains over other forms of travel. ``No one ever put a model of a highway under their Christmas tree,'' Norquist says.