Three years from now you may be able to hop on a train in downtown Chicago, zip across the countryside at a top speed of 140 miles per hour, and arrive in Saint Louis three hours later–only slightly more time than a flight would take. The ride would be at least as comfortable as a flight and less of a hostage to bad weather. The trip would also be far more energy efficient and environmentally benign than traveling by either airplane or car.

Amtrak trains now make the trip in five hours, though they’re far less comfortable than the high-speed, or at least higher-speed, train would be. The Japanese had trains that could make the trip in three hours nearly 30 years ago, and current French high-speed trains could do it in about two. But the passenger train nearly went the way of the passenger pigeon in this country, so if the fast train to Saint Louis goes into operation–still very iffy–it will count as progress.

Just outside Chicago, in the national laboratories at Argonne, scientists have been working on another form of high-speed ground transportation that could make the same trip in about an hour. Levitated by magnetic force and propelled by alternating current through high-powered magnets, these “maglev” vehicles could reach speeds of 300 miles per hour or more. Such trains could match in time (and beat in efficiency and cost) flights of up to 600 miles; in theory they could replace more than 40 percent of the flights into O’Hare.

There’s a compelling case to be made for high-speed trains, including maglev, though there are serious obstacles to high-speed ground transport. And Chicago clearly has a big economic stake in the policy debate about their future. Nonetheless the city is doing next to nothing about it.

Why trains? The strongest argument could be made in the context of a new, comprehensive transportation, energy, and environmental policy from the federal government. Rather than plan and fund transportation in a piecemeal fashion, beholden to existing interests, as typically happens, federal policymakers could develop the most efficient and socially beneficial system of moving people and things, drawing on a unified transportation fund and giving each transportation mode its optimum role.

In many cases that might mean relying heavily on a fiber-optic “electronic highway” that would move information and reduce the need to ship goods, travel, or commute. But a comprehensive plan would certainly downgrade the importance of highways and airways and shift toward high-speed rail and maglev.

With 4.6 percent of the world’s population the United States uses one-fourth of the world’s oil, two-thirds of which goes for transportation. Airplanes are by far the least energy efficient passenger transportation; the most efficient are various forms of rail. One reason Germany and Japan use half the energy per unit of economic output that the United States does is their much more efficient transportation systems, including more railroads and mass transit as well as somewhat more efficient cars.

High-speed rail or maglev could cut energy use per passenger mile traveled to one-third of what autos require and one-fourth to one-sixth of what airplanes use. That would free money spent on oil for other uses. It would make American products more competitive on a world market without reducing people’s standard of living. It would also reduce our balance-of-payments deficit by cutting oil imports, and make our foreign and military policy less of a hostage to Middle Eastern political shifts. By reducing energy consumed we would also cut pollution and global warming. If oil prices rise or new energy taxes are imposed (as they should be, in part to finance new transportation infrastructure and energy-efficiency investments), the economic case for high-speed trains grows even stronger.

Since high-speed and maglev trains would be powered by electricity, they would require virtually no oil. True, a sharp increase in electricity demand could cause environmental problems–an increase in pollution from coal-burning power plants and an increase in the hazardous wastes and other dangers associated with nuclear generators. But even with these environmental problems and the large amount of energy lost in transporting electricity over power lines, electrified high-speed trains would still be far more efficient and cleaner than cars and planes.

Moreover, the noted environmentalist Barry Commoner, now director of the Center for the Biology of Natural Systems in New York, points out that long railroad rights-of-way are perfect for deploying banks of photovoltaic cells that could generate electricity directly from the sun. Photovoltaics are not now competitive for such applications, but their price could drop dramatically with a strong program of government purchases of systems for applications in which they are now cost-effective. That would give the industry experience and drastically cut production costs, much as happened in the 60s and 70s with transistors. High-speed solar-electric trains would be an energy-environmental dream come true.

Trains have other advantages. First, they take up less space: a standard rail right-of-way could carry the same traffic as ten lanes of interstate highway. Even if so-called “intelligent highway” systems to guide traffic are developed and electric or solar-hydrogen cars become commonplace, there will still be a need to clear more cars off the road. Second, trains produce a loud “whoosh” sound from air friction at high speeds, but they’re much quieter than airplanes. Third, and perhaps most important, they’re far safer than air or auto travel. The high-speed trains in France and Japan have racked up billions of passenger miles without a single passenger fatality. Even the trains now used in this country are far safer than planes and automobiles.

Increasingly, our existing transportation system fails to provide the speed and efficiency it once promised. Each year highway gridlock wastes more than 3 billion hours–and many more billions of dollars–for commuters, truck drivers, and other travelers, and the yearly toll is expected to rise to 12 billion hours by 2005. Building more highway lanes has done little to increase the overall speed of travel in urban areas. And because highways helped encourage urban sprawl, they have contributed to increased travel times and the draining of the central cities’ economic vitality.

Our air-transportation system is not doing much better. Larry Johnson, who directs the Center for Transportation Research at Argonne, has calculated that passengers lose more than 12 million hours each year in delays at O’Hare airport alone. In 1986, according to the Federal Aviation Administration, delays cost $5 billion, including $2 billion in extra fuel and labor charges for the airlines. Yet the number of overcrowded airports is growing, and resistance to new airports, as Chicagoans well know, is often intense.

Alleviating congestion by expanding the current air and highway systems would be costly. The FAA estimates that $117 billion would have to be spent over roughly the next decade to relieve airport gridlock. Simply repairing the highway system could cost more than $3 trillion in coming decades.

So if we’re going to have to spend billions of dollars one way or another, where would it most efficiently be spent? Johnson calculates that if maglev trains relieved just one-third of airport congestion, that would save $1.5 billion per year in lost time. That’s enough money to build 2,000 miles of maglev lines over the next 20 years. If we figure in the savings of energy and lives, an even larger system would clearly pay for itself. By most estimates, new high-speed rail lines could be constructed at costs comparable to interstate highways, perhaps less. If the frequency of service is high enough, access is convenient, and amenities are adequate for business travelers, there’s no reason why Americans won’t ride trains in significant numbers.

Yet despite all the talk about the need for a new train system, there has been precious little movement in that direction. Only 1 percent of trips between cities in this country is made by rail (roughly one-tenth the percentage in Europe). Amtrak’s imminent deployment of high-speed X2000 trains built by the Swedish-Swiss conglomerate Asea Brown Boveri or the German ICE (Intercity Express) in the northeast will be the first U.S. high-speed-train venture. If high-speed trains are so smart, why aren’t they built?

The railroads, benefiting from massive government subsidies, were the driving force of the 19th-century American economy, but they declined greatly in importance after World War II. The railroads themselves share some responsibility: they deliberately neglected and abandoned passenger service in favor of more profitable freight traffic, and often neglected freight in favor of real estate speculation. The oil-auto lobby did its part by buying up and dismantling urban light-rail systems and by successfully pushing buses, diesel trucks, cars, and highways over electrified trains.

Public policy also played a major role in the decline of rail. In the name of national defense the federal government organized and subsidized an extensive highway and airport system; it set up trust funds for highways and airports financed by fuel taxes and airline-ticket purchases. But for many years after World War II railroad-passenger-ticket taxes went into the general coffers, not into rail improvements.

Airports and highways still receive direct taxpayer subsidies out of general revenues, which pay for more than half the cost of the FAA and nearly 40 percent of highway programs. Defense spending indirectly subsidizes development costs of airplanes and the training of most pilots. Worldwatch Institute, an environmental group, calculates that each automobile receives a public subsidy of around $2,400 a year. If this cost were folded into gasoline prices, the institute contends, motorists would pay $4.50 a gallon.

Despite this uneven playing field, freight trains have been gaining market share through improved performance and efficiency and through increased “piggyback” transportation of trailer trucks. Contrary to predictions of antigovernment ideologues, the government corporation Conrail rescued and revived rail freight in the northeast (and was sold off once it became profitable). Amtrak, the National Passenger Rail Corporation, has stabilized its minuscule share of the total passenger market, improved its service, and reduced its reliance on federal subsidies (plane passengers now receive a greater subsidy per trip than rail travelers, according to Amtrak officials). The New York-Washington Metroliner is relatively fast, heavily used, and profitable; even the Los Angeles-San Diego line is heavily used.

European countries and Japan never neglected railroads. With well-developed rail systems and mass transit that feed urban residents into the train stations, they have found it relatively easy to make continued improvements. In the U.S. the job will be very difficult. There is only one American-owned manufacturer of either passenger locomotives or rail cars. Most existing tracks are inadequate for even moderately high speed locomotives, and obtaining adequate rights-of-way for very high speed trains or maglev lines could be extremely expensive–indeed, this is the major financial barrier.

So far the federal government as well as most state and local governments have insisted that new rail systems be privately financed, for-profit operations with little or no public support. The rail systems in other countries are predominantly publicly owned, though many–like France’s high-speed trains–are also solidly profitable. The U.S. absurdly expects private business investors, with their notoriously short-term perspective, to take on the difficult task of building a new system.

There’s no lack of private or public initiative at the state, local, and regional levels. Texas has plans to link its major cities with a new system using the French train a grand vitesse, or TGV. There are plans to build a maglev line between Las Vegas and Anaheim or Los Angeles and a much smaller maglev linking Disney World with the airport in Orlando, Florida. Florida has planned a statewide high-speed train project, and Pittsburgh has plans for a maglev between the airport and downtown, a prelude to a wider system. Ohio has long planned for a high-speed network between Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton, and Cincinnati.

So far these projects and many more have been shelved for lack of private financing. The recession has chilled prospects for some; peculiar political and personality conflicts have hampered others. But the greatest difficulty has been the unwillingness of governments to play a strong role; without some public guarantees, partial funding, or clear policy commitment, private investors are reluctant to put their money behind such a major undertaking.

The energy crisis in 1973 should have alerted federal authorities to the need to embrace rail as part of a new transportation policy. But federal policy irrationally moved in the opposite direction. The idea of magnetically levitated ground transportation was first developed in 1909 by American rocket pioneer Robert Goddard, and the first patent was issued in 1912. In the 1960s two Brookhaven National Laboratory scientists, James Powell and Gordon Danby, developed a contemporary practical model by relying on high-powered superconducting magnets cooled to four degrees above absolute zero with liquid helium. But the technology has languished here since 1975, when the Ford administration canceled all funding for research on maglev. Meanwhile Germany and Japan have each poured an estimated billion dollars into maglev research and have developed and tested prototypes. The Japanese have essentially followed the American-invented model. The German version seems near approval for commercial use.

The Reagan administration continually tried to kill all Amtrak subsidies despite the progress the agency was making. Congress tilted slightly toward rail in 1991 by passing the Intermodel Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA, pronounced “ice tea”), which permitted an unprecedented flexibility in diverting gasoline taxes to mass transit, bicycles, and other nonauto transportation. Yet most of those taxes–$120 billion over six years–was committed to road construction and repair, compared to $31.5 billion for mass transit and only $30 million for high-speed rail over the same period. The bill also authorized spending $725 million over six years for maglev research, about one-half of 1 percent of the total, but Bush refused to appropriate one penny in the first two budgets.

Given this country’s existing transportation system, a new American rail system might differ from its European cousins in several ways. Argonne’s Larry Johnson, for example, argues that maglev should replace short to intermediate flights of up to about 600 miles. Airplanes are much more inefficient for short flights than for long trips, where they will continue to be the preferred mode of transportation. Now that airlines operate on the hub-and-spoke system, nearly half of all flights are relatively short feeder flights. For example, there are roughly 50 flights daily connecting O’Hare and Milwaukee. Maglev or other high-speed trains could displace many of these flights if the high-speed ground transport were connected to airports. But central cities are still the point of departure or destination for many travelers. Unlike European systems that are built around central-city terminals, a new American system will need terminals at both airports and downtown.

Illinois Institute of Technology engineering professor Sudhir Kumar, whose Academy of Railroad Engineering and Transportation Management was launched with a one-year state grant, argues that high-speed ground transport cannot simply aim to displace inefficient flights. It must also substitute for a lot of intercity automobile traffic. Kumar estimates that the cost of high-speed rail lines is comparable to or perhaps lower than that of interstate highways. And since rail lines typically last longer and are easier to maintain than highways, new high-speed rail transportation should certainly be cheaper in the long run than highways, whose maintenance has been far more expensive than anticipated.

Yet because the U.S. transportation system is now so dependent on the automobile, Kumar argues that high-speed trains in this country must be “bimodal”–they must offer passengers the option of loading their cars onto the train like a ferry. “If the passenger would have the facility of door-to-door transportation, and part of that trip was on a high-speed rail system, they’d be quite willing to consider that. One of the most successful Amtrak trains is the auto train from near Washington to Florida. If people could go at a high speed of 150 to 200 miles per hour, many people would prefer to take the train.” Such trains could be cheaper and much more energy efficient than driving. Richard Uher, a Carnegie-Mellon University maglev expert, argues that a large maglev vehicle “ferry” carrying 40 small cars would consume no more energy at 240 miles per hour than the cars would moving independently at 60 miles per hour.

Other analysts, like high-tech researcher Stas Margaronis, argue that high-speed trains should also carry light freight, providing alternatives in the overnight-delivery business that would be especially attractive to manufacturers of high-value, light- to moderate-weight products.

Whatever technology is adopted, the financing hurdles for a new system are high. President Clinton has proposed appropriating $951 million over the next five years for high-speed rail and maglev. That essentially makes available the funds that Congress authorized in the 1991 ISTEA transit legislation–and the Bush administration refused to include in its budget. Dan Steen, a lobbyist for the High Speed Rail/Maglev Association, calls Clinton’s action a “real breakthrough” for high-speed ground transportation, even though the money is a small fraction of what a serious system will require. Nevertheless this federal support should encourage private investors.

Equally important, Clinton proposes that states be permitted to issue tax-exempt bonds to build high-speed rail systems, a move long sought by rail proponents. (The amount of tax-exempt bonds states can now issue is limited by Congress, though some state projects, including airports, have been exempt from the limits.) At a modest cost to the federal government in tax revenue, many state projects–in Ohio and Texas as well as Illinois–would be much more feasible if such legislation were passed.

Sudhir Kumar argues that any new rail system would work best if the federal government owned and maintained the tracks nationwide and leased them to whatever private, quasi-public, or government agencies ran the trains. But for the foreseeable future the railroads are likely to be a messy mixture of public and private. And progress will be slow until the government recognizes its proper role in leveling the playing field, providing vision and leadership for a new system, and funding a substantial part of the system’s infrastructure.

The issue of high-speed trains is especially critical for Chicago. This city grew and prospered as a transportation and communications hub, and its future depends on that role. But for all the debate over new airports and highway construction, we rarely hear about any comprehensive vision of our transportation future. Such a vision would consider transportation as a whole and would take advantage of the best that every mode has to offer.

Once one of the most important railroad centers of the country, Chicago remains home to one-third of the shrunken U.S. rail-supply industry as well as some of the top maglev researchers and potential suppliers. If Chicago became the center of a new rail network, then it might have a chance of gaining skilled, high-wage manufacturing, engineering, and design jobs.

Many other parts of the country are making aggressive bids to be part of high-speed-rail systems and to be centers of a new rail or maglev industry. Yet Chicago has done nothing. And if the city doesn’t act quickly, it may lose an opportunity for long-term economic growth that would be better than any casino-entertainment center or even a third airport.

“What would be the effect [of a new high-speed-rail system] on the need for a third airport?” asks Geoffrey Hewings, director of the Regional Economics Application Laboratory at the University of Illinois. “The answer is pretty obvious: we wouldn’t need one.” IIT’s Sudhir Kumar is “quite convinced” that Chicago could avoid the need for a third airport by developing high-speed trains, as is train advocate Joseph Vranich, author of Supertrains. Frank Koppelman, a Northwestern University professor of civil engineering and transportation, doubts that high-speed rail could supplant a new airport but says it could delay the need for one for another ten years.

“Whenever a major capital investment is needed to improve a city’s airport capacity,” Argonne’s Larry Johnson wrote in a report to the federal Department of Energy, “a maglev transportation network should be examined as a potential alternative.” Yet the airport planning debate over the past decade has proceeded without any assessment of high-speed rail as an alternative.

Since Mayor Daley, having petulantly abandoned his bad idea of a Lake Calumet airport, now wants to upgrade O’Hare and connect it to Midway with a high-speed train, integrating the airports and the Loop into a new high-speed-train system makes good sense. But Daley’s airport-improvement plan, to be financed with the new ticket tax that was planned for the Calumet airport, makes no provision for incorporating rail.

Without a federal initiative there are limits to what state and local authorities can do. Yet the city could do more to promote Chicago as a regional high-speed-rail center, encourage rail-related manufacturing, and support local maglev research.

The state government, with backing from downstate congressman Richard Durbin and Senator Paul Simon, has taken the first steps toward establishing a midwest high-speed-rail network with its proposed high-speed service between Chicago and Saint Louis, the third busiest Amtrak route in the country (after the New York-Washington and Los Angeles-San Diego routes). But the private owners of the track deferred maintenance in the 80s, and Amtrak was forced to slow down its trains; it lost nearly 30 percent of its passengers. But over the last few years the main private owner greatly upgraded the track, using low-interest loans from the state and its own money.

According to the state, for another $300 million the track could be further improved, road crossings either eliminated or made safe, and new high-speed diesel-powered trains purchased. For $200 million more, it would be possible to install an electric power system and buy faster, more efficient all-electric trains. With such trains running at least once every two hours (preferably hourly), the Illinois Department of Transportation projected, there would be about 725,000 riders by 1995 and about 835,000 by 2000, compared to 300,000 now.

In its 1991 proposal the state projected that it could break even with a $67 one-way fare between Chicago and Saint Louis, though Illinois Bureau of Railroads chief Merrill Travis recently estimated that the fare could be $60. With interest rates dropping and financing possible with tax-exempt bonds if Clinton’s proposals are adopted, the financial report on the project due this spring could lower the fare further. Yet even though the preliminary fare estimates will be significantly cheaper than flights to intermediate cities such as Springfield, the state will have to trim its ticket price to compete with the airlines on the route.

The one-way coach airfare between Chicago and Saint Louis is now $49. Fares on all the big carriers were driven down by competition from upstart Southwest Airlines, but given that the airline industry is losing billions of dollars those fares may not be sustainable. Still, the willingness of the airlines to engage in price wars may make launching the high-speed-rail route more problematic. Southwest Airlines has already played a leading role in scuttling state support for high-speed rail in Texas.

Last fall the Saint Louis-Chicago-Detroit-Milwaukee corridor was designated one of five lines eligible for federal financing to eliminate crossing hazards. That will immediately bring Illinois about $950,000. Travis acknowledges that this is a “pittance,” but he sees the designation as a “great psychological or credibility boost,” raising private-investor confidence in the Illinois project and making the corridor a prime candidate for any new federal funds.

High-speed trains such as the French TGV or the Japanese shinkansens require straight tracks. When trains turn they exert pressure against the rails that causes wear and tear and risks derailment at high speeds. Yet some European manufacturers, notably the Swiss-Swedish Asea Brown Boveri, have developed a “tilt train” technology that would permit high speeds on a lot of conventional track if it were upgraded. Rather than traditional firmly fixed axles, the tilt trains have flexible axles that allow the wheels to adjust to the curve of the tracks. The train also tilts the car to partly compensate for the centrifugal force on passengers as it goes through turns.

Travis argues that the Swedish X2000 tilt-train locomotive and cars were designed for and now operate on tracks much like midwest rail lines. Although the X2000 operates at top speeds of only 130 to 150 miles per hour, compared to 185 for the TGV, Travis argues that new track and TGV trains would cost $3 billion, far more than could be paid for out of fares. A 1984 Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago study concluded that a moderately high speed train could be profitable between Detroit and Chicago or Saint Louis and Chicago, but that a very high speed train, like TGV, would barely break even or lose money. A maglev line, the study estimated, would lose heavily.

The state, using $500,000 in federal money, has commissioned studies on the financing and operation of the new line that should be finished this spring. Ultimately the money for the new service will have to be raised from private investors unless there’s a dramatic change in public policy. Most likely Amtrak would operate the line; the state or some new quasi-public authority could own the trains. Now the track is owned by several entities, though Southern Pacific owns the longest stretch. As part of any agreement, freight trains would be restricted to running late at night, when passenger trains were not operating, to minimize conflicts and accidents.

This new line may be a start on a new midwest rail system, yet for the country as a whole–and Chicago in particular–the public-policy question is not simply when the country will deploy a more efficient means of transportation. It’s also whether the United States can compete in an industry of growing global importance in which U.S. companies were once leaders. Those leaders included such local firms as the now-defunct Pullman company, the famous maker of passenger cars, and the Electro-Motive Division of General Motors, which long dominated the world freight diesel-locomotive market and has just finished assembling its last locomotives in its shrunken facility in suburban McCook.

High-speed-rail advocate Joseph Vranich predicts that over the next 15 years there could be a $60 billion market in high-speed rail in the United States and a $300 billion market worldwide. Richard Uher of Carnegie-Mellon estimates that the United States could export $20 billion to $50 billion in maglev technology over the next 20 years–or import about the same. Much of the construction work as well as the manufacture of tracks and guideways would probably be done with local labor in countries building new systems. It’s also possible that much of the final assembly of locomotives and rail cars could be done in the U.S. even if the designs were Swedish, French, or Japanese. Yet if American companies are not involved, the more advanced design and engineering work and the prospect of spin-offs of high-speed-rail technology will remain primarily in other countries.

The skilled manufacturing work, if there is any in this country at all, is likely to be located near the sites of the first major innovations. Capturing manufacturing and engineering employment is one of the major motivations behind Pittsburgh’s maglev initiative. Southern California officials and business executives are busy lobbying for defense-conversion money to be used to retool idled aerospace plants for high-speed rail and maglev.

Chicago has a strong chance to be in the running for both manufacturing and basic engineering work that could provide a long-term boost to the area economy. With a stronger base of railroad-supply companies than any other U.S. metropolitan area–companies making freight cars, engine components, control equipment, and much more–Chicago could claim to be a natural center for revived rail manufacturing. For example, officials of ABC Rail Corp., which employs 1,200 in its Chicago Heights plant, recently told state rail chief Travis that they were anxious to move into the high-speed-rail market. Companies like Peoria Locomotive, Caterpillar, and John Deere, as well as northwest Indiana steel mills and Chicago steel fabricators, stand to gain as well. In addition Chicago still has a strong industrial base of electric-motor and electronics manufacturing, including high-tech computer, communication, and industrial-control equipment. About 10,000 people in the Chicago area still work in the rail-supply industry; U. of I.’s Geoffrey Hewings estimates that many thousands more would be employed with a high-speed-rail revival, though no one has financed a study of what the potential might be.

Even shriveled companies like GM’s Electro-Motive could be resurrected. Electro-Motive’s arch rival, Morrison Knudsen, an Idaho company that just won a Metra-car order that might have saved hundreds of jobs at Electro-Motive, is establishing a manufacturing facility here as part of the deal. Morrison Knudsen is also the lead firm to build the Texas high-speed-rail network using French TGV technology. Similar deals are likely to be part of initial high-speed-rail contracts and could shift rail manufacturing to California, Texas, or elsewhere if Illinois and Chicago officials aren’t more aggressive.

“Chicago remains America’s number-one center for the railway-supply industry,” Joseph Vranich argues. “High-speed rail can revitalize that industry, which means jobs for Chicago and the surrounding area. There’s a window of opportunity of about two years to land high-speed-rail manufacturing in Chicago. You lose that, and you lose it forever.”

There may also be only a brief opportunity for Chicago to capture a share of likely maglev research work. Larry Johnson hopes to make Argonne the center for testing prototype vehicles from around the country. Four teams involving different mixes of private firms and public research facilities are already developing such vehicles. This spring the National Maglev Initiative, established through the leadership of New York senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, is likely to get a green light; Moynihan’s team projected a need for $1 billion in federal funds over seven years.

Though the state of Illinois gave Argonne’s proposed testing facility start-up funds of $500,000 for 1990, funding was cut back to $125,000 in 1991 and cut out altogether in 1992. Consequently, Argonne researchers couldn’t develop the final test-track design. Johnson is now hoping for federal funds. If Argonne gets them, he proposes that the number of maglev-vehicle designs first be narrowed through computer modeling. Then tests of prototypes at one-third to one-half size would be run on a 2-mile proving track (instead of the 25-mile guideway needed for full-size vehicles). Johnson says the testing facility could be built in Chicago as easily as in the suburbs.

“It’s in Illinois’ best interest to position itself for research and development, because those lead to future employment in high-speed technology,” Johnson argues. “One of the industry consortia includes Electro-Motive in La Grange. There are a number of superconductivity firms in Illinois, and there’s a wealth of firms in the greater Chicago area working in the area of electronic components for which the maglev system would mean a lot of work. Much of the construction work could be prefabricated here.”

There are two basic maglev models. In the repulsion maglev model, supercooled magnets in the vehicle create a magnetic field of the same polarity as magnets in the guideway, thus lifting the vehicle through the force of repulsion. But the magnetic coils in the guideway are also like stationary electrodes in a conventional electric motor, and the fields of alternating polarity formed by the current coursing through them pulls and then pushes the magnets on the vehicle, propelling it forward. In the attraction model, the bottom of the train wraps around the guideway so that a powerful electromagnet is below the guideway. It’s attracted upward to the guideway, lifting the vehicle. Three of the four models proposed by the four teams around the country rely on repulsion and one relies on attraction; all use both superconducting magnets and tilt-train technology.

Johnson and other maglev proponents argue that maglev ultimately will be more energy efficient than steel-wheel high-speed trains (as well as cars and planes) at comparable speeds, but the final verdict has not been delivered. IIT’s Sudhir Kumar contends that maglev efficiencies in propulsion will be undermined by the immense amounts of energy required to lift the weight of the vehicle. He’d like to see a study of a hybrid steel-wheel-maglev system. If scientists succeed in making superconducting magnets that can operate at higher temperatures than is now the case (magnets must now be cooled to close to absolute zero to be superconductors), maglev vehicles could be both lighter in weight and require less electricity.

Such high-temperature superconductivity has been demonstrated in laboratories, and Argonne is a leading superconductivity research center. Research on maglev could have additional spin-off benefits in developing new industries based on high-temperature superconductivity.

Johnson says that if Argonne is approved as the single test site for the country and receives funding, it could have its test facility working within two years and prototypes ready to move to commercial development within six to seven years. “But it depends on how the money is allocated,” he says. “You can’t starve people at the beginning. It requires a consistent flow of funds. There certainly seems to be a willingness of industry to pick this up and run with it.”

At the very least, Mayor Daley could take the lead in bringing together representatives of all the major area businesses and organizations that could benefit from high-speed rail: from steel, computer, and traditional rail manufacturers; from Argonne, IIT, Northwestern, and other universities and research centers; from rail-operating companies; from unions and rail-advocate groups; and from public institutions. Working cooperatively as a high-speed-rail task force, they could strengthen the region’s hand in bidding for new rail business.

In addition, some farsighted official ought to pull together top city and state officials from surrounding states to give a stronger boost to regional planning. There’s strong interest in Des Moines, Rock Island-Moline, and other smaller cities in developing high-speed-rail links to Chicago, Minneapolis-Saint Paul, Indianapolis, Detroit, and other cities, including such intermediate stops as Madison and Ann Arbor. Together they could form a powerful political lobbying force.

The task of building a new high-speed-rail system isn’t simple. Even Congressman Durbin, one of the main Illinois proponents of high-speed trains, has extremely modest ambitions for federal rail support. “Our economic problems have been a long time in creation and will take a long time to solve,” he said. “You can’t build a pyramid at this point.” Yet if Durbin and fellow members of the Illinois delegation thought there was a ground swell of support from public officials for high-speed trains and a cooperative consortium of business and research interests, they would have more incentive to push for federal funds.

“If there were a high-speed-rail network [in the U.S.], where would the hub be?” says former Chicago city budget director David Schulz, now director of the Infrastructure Technology Institute at Northwestern University. “Chicago. The reason is geography.” But geography will not suffice without strong leadership from city, state, and congressional leaders in Illinois, working at their own governmental levels but also combining to pressure the federal government.

There are limits to what a mayor of Chicago can do to make the city the center of a new high-speed-rail network and manufacturing industry. Ultimately the federal government, or even the state, will have to take the lead in helping to arrange finances, even if private investment plays a significant role. But the limits to what the city can do have not been reached. Indeed, the first steps have not even been contemplated.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Chuck Nitti.