To Chicago and back in about an hour

Published 10:40 am Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Column: William Hume, Guest Column

Imagine a futuristic way to travel to Chicago in the morning and be back home same evening. As time unfolds there would be a bright, fall morning in downtown Albert Lea, with a sparkling new glass and stainless steel station. You might walk, ride your bike or drive a short distance to high-speed rail. This is a story about Katherine, a fictional young university graduate in Albert Lea. The time is November 2018. Her big day in Chicago is just an hour and a few minutes away!


Armed with her new master’s degree in architecture from the University of Minnesota, Katherine parks in a reserved park-and-ride spot at the station. Just a few steps now entering this solar- and wind-powered station with brilliant eco-green glass, she flashes her America Rail Pass Card on a security scanner, next scanning her handprint to match her identity. The card has all of her requests. High-speed rail attendants are alerted that Kate is here! Her reserved single business-class seat will be heated on low as she has preferred and ready for her. Just like a luxury car’s heated seats and position memory settings, it fits her perfectly.

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Kate takes her chair and attendants place her fall coat and gear bag in an overhead parcel space just for her. As she settles in for the ride, memory settings stored in a nationwide passenger preference computer immediately adjusts lumbar, back angle and side bolsters to fit Kate just right. Swiveling her chair towards the SPF-70 solar glass window this magnificent passenger train silently and smoothly leaves Albert Lea. The dedicated and separate tracks for high-speed rail are a safe distance apart from freight rail. Following the level and straight landform constructed years ago by Union Pacific this location for super-speed passenger rail was developed at the same time high-speed freight was. It was in civil engineering terms the most logical Minnesota route solution for moving fast freight and people to destinations around the country.

Above her eyes Kate watches the passing swirl of overhead electric cantenary. Like a silver spider web blurring above unheard of amounts of electricity feed the catching pantographs of the 30,000-horsepower General Electric ES-1 locomotive in front. Twisting through a turn at the edge of town Kate looks back out bronze-tinted window and sees the trailing engine positioned backward. It has 30,000 horsepower in back and in front, with each car powered by its own 1,000-horsepower wheel sets. Like a giant, long silver caterpillar the high-speed train grips the track.

New profile steel rails were designed just for this type of train. Fifty-inch flanged passenger car wheels were cast and manufactured with new alloys of titanium to minimize unsprung weight, and tested to over 400 mph speeds for strength and durability. Powerful disc brakes apply 10,000 pounds of hydraulic pressure per wheel to slow the train. Components of car frames are manufactured and assembled in new industrial facilities in Albert Lea, then shipped to the massive revived Pullman high-speed rail plant in Chicago.

Kate pulls up the personal info screen on her seat, settles back and works out all of the details for her interview with Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the world’s leading architectural firm for most over 200-story buildings in 2018.

Dressed to kill in her gray fall business suit with her NCAA Division I gold national champion ring on her finger to impress, she set an American junior record while in high school in Albert Lea, a NCAA national university record at the University of Minnesota, and qualified for the Olympics in Rio, where she won a gold medal for 1600-meter relay. High-speed rail fits this fast lady just fine!

Something is very different today. Kate notices her digital speed readout flashes 250 mph at the Iowa border. Acceleration was so fast today. Fall leaves are in a cloud kicked up 100 feet in the air by the lead engines aerodynamic separation of the winds. With the OK from North American high-speed passenger service in Chicago the locomotive engineer in front has selected a supercharged power draw from the overhead wires now giving 40,000 horsepower in front and back engines. The weather this day is perfect. Just the right combination of climate and wind permits a thrust of speed never achieved before on any high-speed track in America, Europe or Asia!

Civil engineers designed this dedicated and separate high-speed track with the curvature of the earth in mind and not more than one-hundredth of a foot elevation variance in 100 meters of distance. The rails are so level and flat that Kate feels she is riding on air. A slight G-force gently pushes Kate’s right shoulder into the seat cushion as the train blasts past urban Des Moines and heads straight as an arrow now to the Mississippi river bridge built only for high-speed rail. 300-mph now, really fast today! The river just flashed underneath. Now a little over 100 miles and a dead-straight and level raceway into Chicago like never before.

Every facet of engineering excellence from the time of the Romans and their magnificently engineered ancient structures to American ultimate innovation has produced this incredible machine. Kate’s attendant tells her to finish her morning brunch quick, today is special. Our engineer technician in front deploys wind directing trim wings on the front to create huge down force, then another control is activated to lower the suspension of the whole train close to the rails. 340 and climbing! Golden Illinois fall farmland turns into a blur. A computer controlled suspension on Kate’s car uses magnetic fluid in the shocks to make the ride feel like heaven. Kate notices her info screen at 401-mph, a new world record, eclipsing the French record set in 2007 by a specially built Alsom train at 357.2 mph. Announcements bring a cheer all across the train. The engineer speaks and says this hyper-fast General Electric locomotive had 50 mph left in reserve. Champagne to celebrate pours for all business-class passengers!

Pulling into Chicago’s huge downtown Union Station, Kate’s arrival is greeted by media, and she gets on the evening news! What a day, Kate gets the job at Skidmore and is assigned to the architectural team revamping Frank Lloyd Wright’s mile-high skyscraper design of 1956, now to finally be constructed in Chicago. Returning home in a state of euphoria this fast train has transported and help change Kate’s life forever.

Professional design expertise selected a fast and straight run south of the city of St. Paul, stop-stationing in Northfield, Faribault, Owatonna, Austin-Albert Lea on to Iowa, Des Moines and northern Illinois. New high-tech composites manufactured by industries in Albert Lea contributed to the building of this high-speed rail transportation system. This is a story of the future and thousands of new technical jobs for southern Minnesota, and not far away.


William Hume is a retired land surveyor and life-long Minnesotan. He can be contacted by email at,