The March 10 Kenosha News travel section featured a column by Arthur Frommer, the “Budget Traveler,” with the headline, “Ocasio-Cortez points the way to a wiser transportation policy.”
Frommer states that “her (Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s) proposal to substitute some high-speed trains for airline flights makes a lot of sense to me, especially if you limit her plan to short trips.” He advocates high-speed rail connections between sites less than an hour apart by air, to “maintain our environment and improve our economy at the same time.”
His proposal has a number of problems. Many short flights are between destinations that are infrequently traveled. For example, O’Hare International Airport has flights to 260 cities, of which 47 are (by my back-of-the-envelope calculation) within one hour flights. Most are smaller towns.
Further, many destinations that are an hour’s flight apart are separated by geography that presents major obstacles to rail.
However, the biggest obstacle is infrastructure. For example, the March 11 Wall Street Journal carried an article on Illinois’ attempt to build a high-speed rail line between Chicago and St. Louis. That project has everything going for it: high volume of traffic, flat terrain, existing infrastructure.
Yet when it is completed, at the cost of $2 billion, train speeds will have topped out at just over 100 mph, and will have reduced travel time by about an hour.
I support rail travel enthusiastically: it’s a rare week that I or my wife don’t use Kenosha’s Metra connection to Chicago. And some high-traffic routes need investment and development; Amtrak’s Hiawatha Express between Milwaukee and Chicago is a good example.
However, Frommer’s — and Ocasio-Cortez’s — notion of high-speed rail replacing short-haul air travel is a fine illustration of the old engineering motto that “For every problem there is a solution that is simple, elegant and wrong.”