Written by Carmella Whittaker
Live in Madison, work in Chicago, and get dinner in Minneapolis – the possibilities of high-speed rail in the Midwest are endless.
As winter break approaches, the stress of finals might finally dissipate for UW-Madison students. But as thousands of students plan to travel home for the holidays, the burdens of the semester are replaced by overbooked Badger Buses, long layovers, and delayed bags. What if the solution to this struggle was what first connected America from coast to coast? What if there were trains?
The vision of a more connected Midwest is one that the Wisconsin High-Speed Transportation Club (WiHST) has been trying to bring to Madison for almost a decade. With the initiative of PhD student and real estate instructor Mike Schlicting, what was once the Badger Rail Society evolved into an interdisciplinary group of engineering, business, and humanities students. They share the mission of bringing high-speed rail to America, and “to teach Americans what efficient transportation is supposed to be like,” explains Schlicting.
Since WiHST’s inception, the club has extended its reach across the states. They coordinated with Badgerloop, a former Hyperloop competition team, on a pod design winning them an Innovation award in the SpaceX Competition in 2017. They also proposed a transportation hub that won Foxconn’s Smart Cities-Smart Futures 2019 competition.
In recent years, the club has shifted its focus back to the local scene. Johnny Kohlbeck, a graduate student at UW-Madison and seven-year WiHST member, says the club moved from “looking at very futuristic, pipe-dream technology like a Hyperloop [to] getting away from those competitions.”
While it can be hard to imagine rail in America, the members of WiHST spent years up close with it across the Pacific. WiHST participates in an internship with Japan Central Railways; through this program, almost 50 UW-Madison students experienced the 200-mph bullet train Japan has been developing since the 1960s. Schlicting believes that “once Americans experience the technology, they’ll say, ‘Why don’t we have this?’” Introducing just one high-speed rail in the United States may be enough to revolutionize transportation as we know it.
When it comes to bringing high-speed rail to America, WiHST President Noah Sobczack believes there is no better place to start than right here in Wisconsin. “Our goal is Chicago to Minneapolis,” he explains. “They’re two metropolitan areas, and in order to get to both of those cities, you have to go through Milwaukee and Madison.”
Eliminating the costly connecting flights between Madison, Minneapolis, and Chicago and allowing feasible work commutes across state lines are just two possible benefits of rail. Among all the cities on this theoretical line, Madison may benefit the most. “You go from isolated economic cities to one super-connected economic region,” Kohlbeck states. More people would move through the state. By making cities like Eau Claire and Kenosha practically suburbs of Madison and Minneapolis, more people may want to settle here in Wisconsin.
Despite the positives, the United States is behind in rail due to several obstacles. Political polarization and lack of public awareness both earn spots at the top of this list. However, Sobczak finds even more passion toward high-speed rail because of this. “I should invest my time into this because I know it’s possible. I want to bring more people into our vision,” he states. Sobczak plans to bring Amtrak speakers to WiHST and to continue their collaboration with the High Speed Rail Alliance, the nation’s leading high-speed rail advocacy group. “It’s a foreign subject,” he admits, “so half the battle is just explaining what we do as a club.”
“It’s a question of when, not if” concludes Schlicting, “because everyone likes trains.” While the rest of the world gets to enjoy faster speeds for cheaper costs, the United States is still waiting around. It’s time for America to go full speed ahead toward the future of high-speed rail.