Will the Midwest step up for an improved economy?

Jeff Fox
What's going on

Let’s take a minute to think about how things might look in a generation or two. What if we had a robust passenger rail system that gave business travelers good options beyond just the Northeast, California and parts of the upper Midwest? 

I would argue that you can make a good business case for that idea. 

Jeff Fox

Where to start? The Federal Railroad administration this month issued its final report on the Midwest Regional Rail Plan. 

Don’t get your hopes up. 

Mostly it's a 198-page pile of generalities rendered in brain-deadening government jargon. But a clear and helpful statement or two did survive, including this one: “Building a regional rail network is a multi-decade commitment requiring sustained support from multiple states over a long period.” 

Basically, this final report is a call for more studies and more reports, but at least it broadly acknowledges that none of this is happening anytime soon. The 12 states involved – from the Dakotas to Ohio – have different needs, agendas and levels of commitment.  

The upside? “The proposed Midwest network offers access to more markets with shorter travel times,” the report says. It also suggests that a more robust system – i.e. direct, fast, frequent service from A to B – could charge higher fares and more than cover operational costs. 

The report seems to suggest service from Kansas City to Des Moines to Minneapolis-St. Paul could be on the table, though inexplicably Kansas City to Omaha is not. There is a brief mention of a service connecting Kansas City, Wichita, Oklahoma City and Fort Worth – an overdue idea that's been kicked around for years. 

It also suggests in passing that Kansas City and a handful of others – St. Louis, Indianapolis, Minneapolis-St. Paul – could become hubs in an expanded system. Kansas City is far from that today, and if you just glance at a map that makes no sense. 

More immediately, the report strongly suggests that expansion of service will generally focus on Chicago as a hub, such as more trains from Chicago to Michigan or Minnesota. In other words, present trends are likely to continue, but the possibility of doing more and doing better is out there if states and Washington, D.C. are willing to step up. 

Here's another way of looking at it. Expanded service – especially at higher speeds, making it more competitive with short flights – does more than add options for business and leisure travel. Adding a robust layer to the transportation system adds a layer of resilience to the economy overall.  

We don't know what tomorrow brings, but in just the last two decades we've experienced crises that before had seemed unimaginable, and we’ve been caught flat-footed more than once. Also, if we want more efficiency and less pollution, rail has a lot to offer. 

What we’re doing now, in transportation, isn’t working all that well, Even here in the Midwest, some states are realizing that adding more highway miles is a mediocre solution with a big price. It’s the comfortable status quo. We should challenge that idea. 

To just keep doing what we’re doing carries risks known and unknown. We can take steps to reduce risks. We can add options. That’s what resilience is about.  

Jeff Fox is the editor of The Examiner. Reach him at 816-350-6365, jeff.fox@examiner.net or on Twitter @FoxEJC.