NOAH ADAMS, host:
From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Noah Adams.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
This week, we've been examining the prospects for developing high-speed rail in the U.S. The Obama administration has pledged at least $8 billion for a faster, more efficient system. Among the regions vying for federal funds, the Midwest stands out. Its goal is ambitious: to connect 12 metropolitan areas with Chicago as the hub. For a closer look at that plan, we turn now to our two Chicago-based reporters, NPR's David Schaper and Cheryl Corley.
DAVID SCHAPER: We're starting off here at Union Station in Chicago, the fourth busiest station in the Amtrak network.
CHERYL CORLEY: Last year, more than three million people boarded trains at this station.
SCHAPER: And under the Midwest high-speed rail proposal, this station would become the hub.
CORLEY: There are several routes in the works and three would have priority.
SCHAPER: Those lines would go from here in Chicago to St. Louis, Detroit, and to Milwaukee and Madison, Wisconsin.
Unidentified Man: All aboard.
CORLEY: And I'm about to board the most popular of those lines, the Hiawatha, which currently ends in Milwaukee.
SCHAPER: So, Cheryl, I'll check in with you later to see what riders think about high-speed rail.
CORLEY: Okay. Talk to you soon.
Governor PAT QUINN (Democrat, Illinois): Okay. This is a historic gate.
SCHAPER: Back in July, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn hosted a Midwest high-speed rail summit with several other Midwestern governors. They signed an agreement to work together to bring high-speed rail to and through their eight states: Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa and Missouri.
Gov. QUINN: It is important that we understand this is not just transportation. It is job economic development. And investing in rail is a tremendous economic dividend for our region.
SCHAPER: Quinn and the other governors envision 110-mile-an-hour trains that would speed travel between Midwest cities while reducing greenhouse gas emissions and traffic congestion. Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm, head of a state reeling from manufacturing job losses, says high-speed rail will bring new opportunities.
Governor JENNIFER GRANHOLM (Democrat, Michigan): Economists have projected that this project in the Midwest would create 57,000 permanent jobs and 15,000 construction jobs, which could last a good number of years given how long the investment will last.
SCHAPER: Already, some Midwest manufacturers of locomotives, train cars and parts report an uptick in business because of this new push into high-speed rail. And the state of Wisconsin has a deal with the Spanish company to build new high-speed rail cars that will be used on that line from Chicago to Milwaukee and Madison. Speaking of, let's check back in with Cheryl who's on the train to Milwaukee.
Cheryl, how do your fellow passengers feel about boosting the speed of the train?
CORLEY: Well, David, I've been talking to business travelers, to commuters and to people just traveling for leisure, and plenty of them just love this idea.
Mr. DENNIS KENNEDY: Wouldn't it be great?
Ms. JUDY MUSIL: That's the only thing I hate about going to Chicago is the length of time it takes to get there.
Mr. CHAD BENEDA: If you're only cutting off 20 minutes, it really wouldn't make sense. But an hour difference, you know, that's something that I think that would be great for both Milwaukee and Chicago.
CORLEY: That's travelers Dennis Kennedy, Judy Musil and Chad Beneda, who likes the idea of 200-mile-per-hour trains even better. But that would significantly increase the cost of a network that's already tagged at running into several billions of dollars.
SCHAPER: And, Cheryl, do any of the riders see any other hazards on this -forgive the pun here - but this track to higher speed rail?
CORLEY: Yeah, they absolutely do. I talked to Jeff Crump, a computer consultant, who likes the idea but thinks it would be difficult to achieve, unless the high-speed trains had a dedicated track.
(Soundbite of train horn)
Mr. JEFF CRUMP (Computer Consultant): Because I know that this train shares tracks with commuter trains around Chicago and the freight between Wisconsin and Illinois, and there's a lot of stopping.
SCHAPER: Back here at Union Station, a quick check of the board shows a few Amtrak trains are delayed. That's a frequent problem because Amtrak runs on freight railroad tracks that are shared with more than a thousand freight and commuter trains each day. Transportation officials say trains simply cannot run at high speeds in and out of Chicago until the tangled mess of chronic freight rail congestion is fixed. And Rick Harnish, executive director of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association, says while these incremental improvements are being made to boost Amtrak trains to 110 miles an hour in the Midwest, the region also needs to be planning for trains that go twice as fast.
Mr. RICK HARNISH (Executive Director, Midwest High Speed Rail Association): We also need to figure out where we're going to put the new dedicated 220-mile-an-hour tracks that will get Chicago to St. Louis to two hours, Chicago to Cleveland, two hours, Chicago to Minneapolis/St. Paul, two and a half.
SCHAPER: Cheryl is on a much slower train. So let's check in with her one last time.
CORLEY: Yes, it is considerably slower. Amtrak's top speed is about 79 miles per hour now. And even though there's going to be this coordinated push for high-speed rail in the Midwest, folks with clout like Senator Dick Durbin say this project will move in increments. He says it's not like cutting a ribbon for a highway and soon seeing cars on that road. So on the train between Chicago and Milwaukee, I'm Cheryl Corley, NPR News.
SCHAPER: And I'm David Schaper, NPR News at Union Station in Chicago.