Making a case for Midwest high-speed rail — from Spain

On Monday, Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle outlined to Milwaukee business leaders how he would suggest spending any federal economic stimulus funding the state received under President-elect Barack Obama’s proposed plan. One of the top priorities: a Midwest high-speed rail system linking Chicago and Minneapolis, with stops in Milwaukee, Madison and Green Bay.

"If you could get from the Twin Cities to Chicago in equal the time it takes you to go to the airports and fight through everything and you can end up in downtown Twin Cities or downtown Chicago and it's on a good, new high-speed, comfortable train, then I think you're going to see a lot of demand for it," Doyle told members of the Greater Milwaukee Committee, according to a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel report.

That’s exactly the point members of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association have been trying to make for years. This week, some association members are in Spain, touring the country’s high-speed rail and other passenger-rail systems, and pondering how Spain’s rail network could be duplicated in the Midwest. Participants also are meeting with officials from Spanish railways to learn about their rail expansion plans and the progress to date. They’ll also tour Talgo’s manufacturing facility.

“Spain offers the best example for what we should be doing with high-speed rail and rail transit in the Midwest,” according to the association’s Web site.

In addition to its high-speed rail system, which operates trains at speeds up to 220 mph, Spain has doubled its transit network during the past decade, adding new light-rail lines throughout the country. Spain’s commuter-rail lines also are being upgraded to handle 155 mph trains.

In 2005, the Spanish government allocated nearly half of its total transportation budget to railroad construction and improvements. Once the improvements are made, no city in the country (“A territory embracing an expanse equal to the distance from Minneapolis to Pittsburgh and from Kansas City to Detroit,” according to Midwest High Speed Rail Association Executive Director Rick Harnish) will be more than three hours away from Madrid by train.

Tour participants are learning just how convenient Spain’s high-speed rail system could be if it were replicated in the Midwest. Last weekend, they took a day trip to Seville, about 300 miles from Madrid (or, about the same distance between Chicago and Detroit or St. Louis). The group left Madrid at 7:30 a.m., spent five hours sightseeing in Seville, and got back to Madrid in time for dinner.

“This trip illustrates how high-speed rail changes the relationships between cities,” Harnish wrote in his daily wrap-up on Jan. 11. “My summary for the day: We really need high-speed rail in the Midwest.”

As a fellow Midwesterner, I concur.