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Take five: Rick Harnish, advocate of high-speed rail

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 9, 2011 - For many Americans, train travel has taken a back seat to the romance of cars and planes -- the lure of the open road and the open skies. But with gas prices climbing over the last decade and air travel becoming more arduous, some of the nation's decision-makers see high-speed as a more feasible alternative. Some politicians, including President Barack Obama, have embraced high-speed rail as a ticket to modernize infrastructure, connect cities and create construction jobs.

But some Republicans, such as Florida Gov. Rick Scott, haven't been as eager to embrace the idea, even going so far to reject federal funds for what they see as a boondoggle.

Locally, a train line between St. Louis and Chicago has been gathering steam over the last few months. In May, for instance, Illinois received an additional $186 million to help pay for track and other improvements on a corridor between the two cities. 

Rick Harnish, the executive director of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association, will be in St. Louis on Thursday to meet with local elected officials and participate in a program at St. Louis University. The Chicago-based group, among other things, regularly meets with policyholders, speaks with local organizations and writes policy papers advocating rail.

Harnish helped found the association in 1991 and became the group's first paid executive director in 2001. A graduate of Elmhurst College, Harnish was logistics manager at American Presidential Lines and JB Hunt. He also managed industrial real estate in Chicago.

The Beacon talked with Harnish before his visit about high-speed rail, the possibility of a train link between St. Louis and Chicago and the politics of the transportation method.

How would you define high-speed rail? How does it differ from rail systems in Japan or Europe? And how would you differentiate it from what exists in the United States?

Harnish: High-speed rail is part of a bigger transportation system that includes strong bus connections, strong transit connections and much better Amtrak-style service than what we have. It's a big package. And high-speed rail is just one piece of the bigger package. But the core of it is getting major cities within two or three hours of each other. So, St. Louis to Chicago within three hours -- with completely new infrastructure the entire way, it's possible you get it down under two.

Other countries have trains operating at over 150 miles an hour and linking cities as far as 500 miles apart within three hours.

There's been talk of a high-speed rail link between St. Louis and Chicago for years now. How close is that to reality? How would it benefit residents of both cities?

Harnish: The reason you need to do it is because innovation and productivity and good, strong relationships happen face-to-face. Whether it's for personal reasons, for tourist reasons or good business, everything works better if you're there in person. Three hours is a critical mark because that's the time you can reasonably go to a different place and come back within a day. So if you could get Chicago to St. Louis down to two hours, it becomes possible to make a last-minute trip to Chicago and be back in a day. Because things are so efficient, the fares could be significantly lower than what you're paying on Southwest today.

It becomes a really exciting thing for the people in St. Louis, which then makes it more likely that people will locate their businesses there and choose to live in St. Louis.

It's a matter of high-level people making the decision to do it. The stage we're at now is that people need to make it clear that this is something they want.

Americans seem to have a love affair of sorts with cars. And they typically use planes to travel significant distances. What do you think it's going to take for rail to catch on with the public?

Harnish: What it takes is having good train service; that's all it takes. Everywhere where we've put good train service here in this country, people have ridden it in large numbers. We proved the case again in 2006 when Illinois [increased] the amount of service between Chicago and St. Louis, and the ridership has more than doubled since then.

While both Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn and Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon have embraced the idea of high-speed rail, at least one GOP chief executive -- Rick Scott of Florida -- rejected money directed toward those services. What effect have those moves had on the push for high-speed rail?

Harnish: Keep in mind that one of the leaders in the Midwest in developing better Amtrak service is in fact the Republican governor of Michigan. So this isn't a 'D' versus 'R' thing, beyond the initial group of folks who used this as a way to distinguish themselves from the Obama administration and to attack something that's very important to the Obama administration.

Change is a little difficult. And if you believe -- which is a fantasy -- but if you believe that highways are paid for entirely with gas taxes and if you believe that our strength and unique identity is tied to the ability to risk your life everyday in a car, then it's difficult to imagine doing something different.

If a Republican displaces President Barack Obama, how that will affect the push for high-speed rail in the Midwest? And in America?

Harnish: I don't want to make any predictions like that. It's really aggravating that the first Japanese high-speed line opened in 1964. France opened in [1981]. Germany started doing stuff in the '80s. Madrid to Seville opened in [1992]. China in the period of the Bush administration constructed 4,000 miles. It's scary how far behind we are.

If you go to cities of St. Louis' size all around the world, you can get a taxi, you can walk to the things you need to walk to. There's a high level of street activity because people are coming into downtown on the train without a car. You don't have the burden of providing so much infrastructure for parking cars. You have the ability now because you've created economies of scale, to be able to quickly get a taxi, which I've noticed is not possible in a lot of [cities]. A high-speed rail changes the dynamics of the city itself and makes it a much more vibrant place even if you never leave St. Louis. Because it changes how people come into the city.

Jason Rosenbaum, a freelance journalist in St. Louis, covers state and local government and politics. 

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.

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