In the midst of the ongoing national discussion on high-speed rail, there's one exciting use for high speed rail that should be taken more seriously. This new use would generate economic growth and jobs, ease travel congestion, and positively impact the environment.
The surprising answer? Connecting our nation's airports with high speed rail.
One reason high-speed rail has been slow to gain traction in the U.S. is the uncertainty over its ridership potential and how that affects funding. But high speed express rail between airports would make a much more robust business case, one that may be easier to form consensus around.
The best part about airport-to-airport high-speed rail? It provides a template for the kind of innovative thinking that must be applied to our entire transportation system.
Connecting the Dots
A major reason America's transportation system is falling behind is that our various modes of transportation are only loosely connected. To compete globally, a nation's transportation system must function as an organic whole, greater than the sum of its parts.
The key is to find new and powerful ways to integrate various modes of transportation. Countries in Europe and elsewhere are far ahead of us in this regard. But we can catch up and even move ahead. Connecting our nation's busiest airports with high speed rail is a great example of the possibilities.
The Future of Travel
One of the few positives of the current recession is that it has tamped down air travel, temporarily holding off a crisis in delays and congestion that could put a chokehold on our economy. As we recover from the recession, however, that future will be upon us. Air traffic is already rising, and FAA predicts that the number of passengers flying on U.S. carriers will break the one-billion mark in ten years — a nearly 40 percent increase over today.
To alleviate this impending travel bottleneck, we need fresh thinking and innovative solutions.
High speed rail may offer a path forward by addressing travel congestion while adding jobs and helping to improve the economy —and be financially viable.
Imagine if congested major airports, such as O'Hare, were directly connected to one or more regional airports by high-speed train. Such a train — between O'Hare and Milwaukee's Mitchell International Airport, for example — would be accessed after passengers passed through the security checkpoint.
We can think of it as the equivalent of today's tram systems at many airports, which connect different terminals. This "tram" would take passengers to terminals in another city — usually in about the same time as a short jet flight — or even less. Consider the possibilities that would arise from this airport-to-airport high-speed connection.
As with a number of other major airports, the majority of travelers to O'Hare are actually on their way to somewhere else — O'Hare is a major hub for connections to final destinations. Of the more than 1,100 daily arrivals at O'Hare, about half are small regional jets, each carrying 50 or so passengers destined to change planes and head elsewhere.
If an airport-to-airport high-speed express train were in place, the bulk of these small regional jet arrivals — possibly as many as 300, for example — could be scheduled into Milwaukee, rather than Chicago. In such a scenario, the 15,000 arriving passengers would deplane, take the 35-minute high-speed train trip to O'Hare, and then proceed to their connecting flights — all without having to pass through security again. On the return trip, the reverse would occur. Airline connection schedules would be adjusted to accommodate this model.
Airport-to-airport high-speed rail would open up new revenue opportunities, and create sustainable jobs. In our O'Hare example, consider that we have now freed up 300 arrival/departure spaces at the airport that had previously been used by the small regional jets.