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The great train race is on and Illinois hopes to get up to speed

(The following story by Steve Tarter appeared on the Journal Star website on March 15, 2009.)

PEORIA, Ill. The great train race is on.

With President Barack Obama's stimulus package pouring $8 billion into high-speed rail development, states across the country are working up proposals to secure funds.

High-speed rail has long been promoted as a potential savior of the nation's train system, with most activity confined to the drawing board. But Obama's stated commitment - and funding - now has transportation advocates jumping on board.

One of the most hopeful contingents hails from Illinois. Calling the federal funding "a once-in-a-political-lifetime opportunity," Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., hosted a meeting of interested parties in Chicago last week to renew efforts to install high-speed rail between Chicago and St. Louis.

Knowing high-speed corridors around the country will compete for the development funds Obama has made available, Durbin looks to be more than just a contender.

The Illinois bid has plenty of background material to fall back on. The state completed a study in 1994 showing high-speed train service between Chicago and St. Louis, using existing rights of way, was feasible. Travel time between the two cities could be reduced from five-and-a-half hours to less than four hours by increasing the average train speed on the route from 50 miles an hour to 85 miles an hour, with trains reaching high speeds of 110 miles an hour, the study noted.

Midwest political connections

Along with serving a long-standing need between two large Midwestern cities, Illinois would seem to have the inside track for political reasons. Obama hails from Illinois, as do U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood and Amtrak chairman Thomas Carper, the former mayor of Macomb.

But proposals from California, Texas and the East Coast are also expected to get support. "The competition for the money will be fierce," said Carper.

LaHood, the 18th Congressional District representative for 14 years, said his new boss charged him with finding high-speed ideas that are "doable."

"This is the president's initiative. Maybe Obama's man-on-the-moon thing is a high-speed rail somewhere," he said.

Obama's interest in high-speed rail in the U.S. is genuine, said LaHood. "We've all seen trains around the world that can transport people safely and comfortably at 200 miles an hour. That's something we've never achieved in America. I look for the president to make a decision (on which corridors get funded) very quickly."

Acknowledging some rail corridors are more developed than others, LaHood said he believed Obama would want one of them to be in the Midwest.

Illinois leaders say they need $500 million in federal money to get their rail upgrade up to speed. That money, along with state and private funds, would go to making track improvements, buying new train cars and installing safety equipment at crossings.

Improving train service in the state comes at a time rail ridership is on the rise in Illinois. Amtrak topped 1 million passengers for the first time in the state in the fiscal year that ended last fall with ridership even higher so far this year.

Those increases were helped by state support that increased the number of trips on some routes, said Laura Kliewer, director of the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission, a 10-state consortium based in Lombard. "People are looking for dependable and frequent service," she said.

While high-speed rail has become the buzz word for upgrading rail service, Kliewer said the $8 billion federal package is broken into three categories: Providing high-speed service, improving intercity passenger rail and easing congestion.

"High speed" is defined as reaching a speed of 110 miles an hour over most of a route, she said. "Not everybody considers that high speed but, for the Midwest, we think that's a good number," said Kliewer, recognizing trains in countries such as France and Japan routinely exceed 200 miles an hour.

But things are moving rapidly for passenger rail in the United States, she said. "Four months ago, we didn't even have a federal passenger rail program and now to have this large pot of money is wonderful. We look forward to strengthening our multi-model system in this country," said Kliewer.

Rick Harnish, executive director of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association in Chicago, went a step further. "The last time a U.S. president made rail service a high priority? It was Lincoln," he said.

Having promoted high-speed rail service in Illinois the past seven years, Harnish is optimistic about development of a Chicago-St. Louis route. "We will see significant progress on that line next year with a giant jump (in service) by 2012," he said.

What does this mean to Peoria, where the last passenger train left the area in 1981 when Amtrak's Prairie Marksman service ended in East Peoria?

Peoria mayor Jim Ardis would like to see train service return to the area. "We're the largest metropolitan area outside of Chicago in the state and we don't have (passenger) train service," he said.

The Illinois Department of Transportation is expected to release a study later this month on train service between Peoria and Chicago, said Ardis. The study will likely spell out several different scenarios as well as estimated cost figures, he said. "We'd have to figure out how to pay for it but we may be in a prime position for that now," said Ardis, referring to the availability of stimulus funds.

Peoria rail enthusiast David Jordan said possible routes could be considered for Peoria on existing track for 11 freight lines that serve the area. "I suspect Amtrak would look closely at the old Prairie Marksman route, which used the Toledo, Peoria & Western route between East Peoria and Chenoa. The same Amtrak route through Bloomington would be used north of Chenoa to reach Chicago," he said.

But we're not talking about high-speed rail on such a route. "The TP&W track is good for 25 miles per hour for freight trains most of the way but too many cross ties are bad and would need to be replaced," said Jordan, adding that, when the Prairie Marksman ran on that track almost 30 years ago, freight could travel 40 mph while passenger trains were able to reach speeds of almost 60 mph.

"Another problem is that the (TP&W) line is unsignaled, so upgrades would be expensive," he said. "An alternative would be for Amtrak to run further south to Bloomington then up the Norfolk Southern that parallels I-74 to East Peoria."

Ardis said he wouldn't object if having local train service meant operating a station in East Peoria. "If it makes more financial sense there, I wouldn't stand in the way," he said.

Most train experts agree on one thing: If high speed rail does comes to Illinois, the closest it will get to Peoria is Bloomington-Normal. That is already one of the stops for Amtrak service now provided on five daily trips between Chicago and St. Louis.

A high-speed route would involve upgrades on existing track on a route from Chicago that would only make stops in Joliet, Normal and Springfield before reaching St. Louis, said Dale Jenkins, president of the Illinois Traction Society, a group that studies the history of the Illinois Terminal Railroad, the old Interurban train system that once connected downstate cities in Illinois.

"You might also see a stop in Alton (near St. Louis)," he said.

But a rail connection between Peoria and Bloomington-Normal might not make sense, said Jenkins, suggesting a bus might be best to handle the 40-mile distance.

Jordan agreed that simply running a train to Bloomington from Peoria might not succeed.

"There isn't much of a rail passenger market between Peoria and Bloomington. If passengers are required to change trains en route to Chicago, ridership will be suppressed and patronage will prove inadequate to make the service viable," he said. "For rail service to succeed (in Peoria), there needs to be same-train service between (here) and Chicago."

There is rail history between Peoria and Bloomington. The Indianapolis, Bloomington & Western Railway first connected the cities in 1870.

There were other options over the years, as well. "Between 1907 and 1951, one had three different choices for rail travel between Peoria and Bloomington, though Illinois Terminal likely dominated the market as the other two concentrated on longer hauls," he said.

Monday, March 16, 2009

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