Thursday, January 10, 2013

Country's first high-speed rail line will connect rural eastern Nebraska to rural western Iowa

Norfolk, NE--It's finally here. The seemingly endless, in-depth studies are complete and the controversial funding is in place. All the hard work has finally paid off and the country's transportation system just got a little better with the go ahead to construct the nation's first high-speed rail project. No, not in California or Florida or the Northeast Corridor for that matter, but in America's heartland.

Soon, it will no longer take nearly three hours by car to travel from Norfolk, Nebraska, to Carroll, Iowa. The $112 billion, 150-mile long passenger rail project will reduce this trip to forty-seven minutes. Towns in between connected by the new route include: Wisner (population 1,104), Bancroft (pop. 502), and Decatur (pop. 500) in Nebraska. In Iowa, nine towns, not including Carroll, will be part of the system: Onawa (pop. 3,007), Turin (pop. 72), Soldier (pop. 178), Ute (pop 385), Charter Oak (pop. 512), Denison (pop. 8,392), Vail (pop. 451), Westside (pop. 298), and Arcadia (pop. 471).

Florida and California, each candidates for high-speed rail and each holding large populations, lost to the much more bucolic Nebraska-Iowa route. The official name of the project is NENEWCIA High-Speed Rail Project (NorthEastern NEbraska-West Central IowA). The passenger service is unofficially known as the HawkHusker Express, combining Hawkeye and Cornhusker from Iowa and Nebraska, respectively. The line, according to the U.S. High-Speed Rail Authority & Agency, "combines quickness and fastness mixed together in mind-boggling proportions."

"We thought this route would be a great test to see how high-speed rail would work in this country," said assistant U.S. Department of Transportation secretary Jonathon Scott. "Let's see if works in a region with thousands of people before we see how it works in regions with millions of people."

The Norfolk "metropolitan" area is home to about 29,000 residents, while the "greater" Carroll region holds less than half of this at 12,000. The more than eight studies leading up to the line's construction approval yesterday clearly show that travel patterns for these Iowans and Nebraskans does not flow in this east-west direction. Rather, the good folks of Norfolk tend to link with Omaha, a 110-mile drive to the southeast, while Carrollites travel often to Des Moines, a 100-mile drive also to the southeast.

"People don't realize that we are creating an entirely new corridor. For example, residents in Carroll don't realize they need to travel to Norfolk simply because it has never been easy," explained Scott. "Basically, we are saying that [the USDOT] knows this is not a popular route, but let us make it a popular route by constructing a $112 billion rail line."

Many residents along the new rail corridor were excited about the news of a alternative mode of transportation.

"When Westside High School plays Denison High School in football I am definitely going to take the new rail line," said Betty Oaks, 89, a longtime Westside resident and retired teacher. "I will, however, have to arrange transportation from the station to the stadium because of my bad hip. The hip actually feels pretty good today, but, oh, you should see the hip on rainy days. You know, it can predict storms."

"I got a cousin in Bancroft that I never see," said Teddy Burkshire, 55, a corn farmer just outside of Onawa, IA. "I'm always giving him a rough time about coming to see me. Now, he's got no excuse. Jimmy can just hop on that new train thing, but ain't noway I'm gettin' on anything that moves faster than 60 mph. It's all on Jimmy to come see me now. Plus, my hip has been acting up."

Some were not completely sold on the idea. "That's a whole hell of a lot of cash," said Becky Thomas, also a corn farmer, but near Carroll, IA. "Whose money is this? I just don't see the need to travel to Norfolk. Des Moine, yes, but Nor ... wait a minute. John Deere has a great expo in Norfolk every year that I would perhaps use the train for. But that's about it."

Trains will reach speeds of 210 mph several times over the route, including the 30-mile segment from Norfolk to Wisner. The top speed over shorter segments will reach 185 mph and 95 mph over the shortest portions.

One of the highest costs associated with the project is the nearly ten-mile-long tunnel under the Missouri River. Beginning its dive under the waterway outside of Denison, NE, and resurfacing in Iowa. The U.S.D.O.T.'s reasoning behind building a tunnel rather than a bridge: "Tunnels are cooler and they can drastically reduce travel interruptions for extremely tall barges and boats using the river."

When told the river only sees use by low barges carrying harvested farm products the U.S.D.O.T. responded with: "That may be the case, but you can't deny how cool tunnels are ... right? Someone back us up on this."

Clearly, it is easy to argue against the construction of a tunnel, but it is nearly impossible to argue with the point about getting high-speed rail right in a sparsely populated region before getting it right in a densely populated one. This is a great little test. If the project is a success it can spur new high-speed rail corridors all over the country. Perhaps, northeastern Wyoming and western South Dakota will get the high-speed link that is so desperately needed in that booming area.

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