A Milwaukee Road rail line coal-burning locomotive was clocked going 124 m.p.h. on a stretch between the Twin Cities and Chicago -- in 1939.
Bringing up the rear of the Art Deco-style Hiawatha train was the "Beaver Tail" parlor-observation car (so-named for its downward-sloping shape), where passengers lounging on recliners and couches watched the countryside pass by.
Such long-distance trains routinely barreling across the Midwest at speeds exceeding the century mark may have been far ahead of their time 70 years ago. On the other hand, today's back-to-the-future plans by the federal government to encourage development of 110-m.p.h. train service in parts of the U.S. may simply lack the spirit and forward-looking approach that was alive back then, or even as recently as the 1960s, when 200-m.p.h.-plus "bullet train" systems were built in Asia and Europe.
It's a touchy subject that has received scant attention as politicians glom onto the idea of investing billions of taxpayer dollars on high-speed rail to stimulate the U.S. economy. But much more is at stake, according to transportation experts and scientists studying the impact of climate change. Through careful planning or just by default, passenger rail could become the nation's primary transportation system for inter-city travel in the next 30 to 50 years as world oil supplies shrink and fuel prices skyrocket.
The question is whether that transportation system will be the envy of the world, or barely exceed speeds and travel times delivered by past technology.
"I am shocked by the timidness of America. If billions of dollars are going to be spent, why end up with a rail system that is only half as good as what the rest of the world has?" said Andy Kunz, president and chief executive officer of the US High Speed Rail Association. The non-profit association was created in July after the Obama administration announced $8 billion in economic stimulus funding to start construction of a high-speed rail network.
The association's goal is to advance and coordinate a state-of-the-art system connecting major U.S. cities by 2030. The vision includes building track dedicated to serving 220-m.p.h. electric-powered trains, advanced control systems, top-of-the-line passenger coaches and elegant stations.
The focus of the federal investment should be on offering incentives to states and private-sector partners to build a robust system that serves the nation for 100 years, rather than settle for inferior infrastructure that fails to deliver capacity or high-quality service and will need to be replaced after a relatively short time, Kunz said.
"After seeing $700 billion bailout packages [for banks and other companies] and a trillion-dollar war [in Iraq], people would not flinch at the cost," Kunz said. "We didn't skimp on building our highways or airports. We shouldn't do so here."
The U.S. government did not regulate train speeds in the early 20th Century, effectively encouraging manufacturers to build lightweight, streamlined trains and prompting railroads to rehab their tracks with heavier rails.
In his book "The Hiawatha Story," Jim Scribbins, who spent his career working for the Milwaukee Road, described Hiawatha equipment designed to cruise at 100 m.p.h. and reach speeds of 120 m.p.h., with reserve power if needed. "Ninety-one m.p.h. seemed like 45," Scribbins said about a run on May 15, 1935, between Milwaukee and New Lisbon, Wis., during which 112.5 m.p.h. was maintained for 14 miles.
"At 100 m.p.h., a shout erupted from the mechanical department personnel doing the timing -- 103.5 ... 105 ... 105.5 ... 109, and still comfortable. Finally came 112.5, and the train rode like a dream. In the diner, a full glass of water held every drop."
The Burlington Railroad as well as the Chicago & North Western Railroad also participated in the speed-up on the Chicago-to-Twin Cities route.
"I remember the Chicago & North Western trains very well. The train we usually took would leave Kenosha at 8:16 a.m. and after one stop in Waukegan, arrive at Canal and Madison (in downtown Chicago) at 9:05 a.m. We barely had time to finish our eggs," said Fritz Plous, a lifelong rail buff-turned-expert.
The first priorities outlined in Illinois' preliminary application for federal stimulus funding include operating 110-m.p.h. trains from Chicago to St. Louis; to Detroit/Pontiac; and to Milwaukee/Madison within three to five years. The effort represents an improvement over the 79-m.p.h. top speeds of today's Amtrak service. Supporters, including President Barack Obama, characterize it as a game-changer that would entice hordes of travelers into train stations.
But the projected time-savings are modest compared with 220 m.p.h. service. The current 5 ½ -hour trip between Chicago and St. Louis at 79 m.p.h. would be reduced to four hours with 110 m.p.h. service, and slashed to just under two hours using 220 m.p.h. trains.
At the behest of a rail advocacy group, Illinois is seeking federal funding to study the concept of expanding service at up to 220 m.p.h. in phases over several decades, according to the Illinois Department of Transportation. IDOT officials said ramping up train speeds to 220 m.p.h. is an attractive idea, but too costly in today's economy.
However, the problem is that 110 m.p.h. vs. 220 m.p.h. is an apples-and oranges comparison. The components for building each system are distinct and separate, preventing a phased approach, experts say.
Going well above 110 m.p.h. would require electrification of the train lines to replace diesel-powered locomotives, installing new signaling and train-control systems and closing railroad grade crossings or replacing them with tunnels or bridges to eliminate the possibility of high-speed accidents between trains and other vehicles.
Only California and Northeast states, where Amtrak Acela trains now hit top speeds of 150 m.p.h., are dreaming big right out of the gate. California's funding application proposes building 800 miles of 220-m.p.h. track between Sacramento and San Diego, at an estimated cost of $40 billion.
Obama says such an ambitious project will serve as a model for other states and that the U.S. will end up with a world-class system.
If so, it just seems that the president's home state is taking the long way to get there.