article Fall 2016

Your Next Flight is On-Track

By Chris Hanko

While the United States consistently showcases their impressive engineering and advanced technology on the global stage, there seems to be a large void of progression in one of the most substantial fields: high-speed rail transportation. Sure we have cars, taxis, buses and airplanes, but it seems we are missing a key ingredient that so many countries are enjoying. This ingredient is the prominence of high-speed rail systems that have benefitted so many people worldwide. However, one idea in our local community can start a chain of advancement — at least that’s the hope of Mike Schlicting, UW — Madison masters student and mastermind behind the Railflyer.

High-speed rail is by no means a new technology, but it is a technology that struggles to gain support within the United States from the government, especially in the state of Wisconsin. Mike states, “Ironically, the State of Wisconsin has spent more trying to stop higher speed trains, than had Wisconsin started operating them.” In 2009 there was a plan to build new high-speed trains for Amtrak’s Milwaukee to Chicago service. Governor Scott Walker eventually discontinued the plan even though two train sets and a factory in Milwaukee had already been built by the train manufacturer, Talgo. Talgo later sued the State of Wisconsin and won, settling for $50 million in damages, as well as keeping the trains they built. Mike commented, “High Speed Rail in the US has somehow become a political issue when it is not! It is in everyone’s interest for the US to catch up to the rest of the world!”

Model countries for high speed rail such as Japan, China and France have had trains that travel at up to speeds of 220 mph and can hold over 1000 people per train. These trains have become increasingly popular and vastly preferred by the customers. Mike chuckles, “In Japan, you can set a watch to the arrival of bullet train because they’re so reliable.”

Bullet trains have many advantages such as decreasing traveling time, reducing traffic and being more eco-friendly. However, in order to create a flame of popularity in the U.S., there needs to be someone who ignites the match.

Reluctantly enough, the torchbearer, Schlicting, may be on his way to bringing a more efficient, comfortable, and greener mode of transportation to our local communities in the near future. If you have ever taken a connecting flight from Milwaukee’s Mitchell International Airport to Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, you may be able to relate. Mike says, “Flying from Milwaukee to Chicago is the equivalent of taking a semi truck to a grocery store.” This may be due to the fact that your flight is “on approach” to O’Hare before you even leave the runway in Milwaukee. There has to be a better way to travel such a short distance. Available alternatives include driving, busing and if you don’t prefer traffic; Amtrak. However, none of these options seemappropriate for the day and age of technology that we live in.

Comparing times and prices of various methods of travel.

This is where the idea of Railflyer comes into play. Railflyer is a research project for linking airlines, airports, and trains. By building a higher-speed train with a maximum speed of 110 mph (almost twice that of Amtrak) from downtown Milwaukee to downtown Chicago with stops at Milwaukee’s Mitchell Airport and Chicago O’Hare, Railflyer could help eliminate over 30 flights a day; cutting costs for the airlines and provide a more comfortable, reliable, and greener experience for the airline passenger. Each train would carry up to 500 passangers and take less than an hour. Airline passengers would purchase tickets with the airline like any other flight, meanwhile local passengers would buy tickets directly with Railflyer, costing about $29 each way. Mike states his confidence in his project by saying, “The airlines and airports want Railflyer, and Railflyer could happen next year if we just got all the parties together. In fact, the total startup cost would be the same price that the State of Wisconsin had to pay Talgo.” This cost is low due to the fact that Railflyer can exist on the current Canadian Pacific rails, and the only cost would come from upgrades to signals, crossings, and a new interchange north of O’Hare. The purpose of Railflyer is not to stop using airlines, but to merely efficiently join the two together.

This new technology would not only be beneficial to the riders, but is supported by the airlines, and would greatly assist the economies of Milwaukee, Chicago and even the community of Madison. “The route turns from barely breaking even today with Amtrak to making about 12 million dollars a year,” Mike says. There is a very promising future with Railflyer, but it takes everybody on board to support such a vast, and beneficial change. Mike states, “below 400 miles it is much more efficient and much more comfortable to use high speed rail over airplane.” It just makes sense, and this is just the tip of the iceberg in a mode of transportation that has already proven itself around the world.

This is where UW-Madison and the Badger Rail Society are important. While Mike’s interdisciplinary research here at UW-Madison spans Engineering, Human Ecology, Business, Urban Planning, and even Sociology; the Badger Rail Society is where Railflyer will really happen. As a student chapter of AREMA, The Badger Rail Society is starting to work with other universities, business professionals, and companies to bring high speed rail to the Midwest. “What is awesome about the Badger Rail Society is that not only are we trying to change the world, but we are meeting industry professionals and recruiters while doing it.”

The long term plan for Railflyer is to show that trains can be profitable. After proven, the Railflyer plans to expand throughout the Midwest. The domino effect would benefit everyone, from the riders who enjoy high-speed, low congestion travel to the communities who thrive. It appears that the tracks to the future have already been laid. Now it is just “Full Steam Ahead” for Mike and the Badger Rail Society!

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