Obama's $8 billion plan would dramatically shorten trips from Chicago to other Midwest cities
(The following story by Jon Hilkevitch appeared on the Chicago Tribune website on April 17, 2009.)
CHICAGO — Year after year, high-speed rail in the U.S. has been a popular idea that never left the station because of a lack of political will. All that changed Thursday.
Passenger trains traveling at 110 m.p.h.—arriving in Chicago from St. Louis in under four hours—could be operating in three or four years after President Barack Obama allocated $8 billion in federal stimulus money to begin building a national high-speed rail system, Illinois officials said Thursday.
Ten high-speed rail corridors were selected as high-priority projects, including a nine-state Midwestern network that will have routes radiating 3,000 miles across the region from a rail hub in Chicago.
The stimulus funding is backed up by a pledge of an additional $1 billion annually for five years for states to improve passenger rail and offer the public a more attractive alternative to the hassles of driving and flying.
"This is not some fanciful, pie-in-the-sky vision of the future," Obama said. "It's happening now."
"The problem is, it's happening elsewhere," the president added, pointing to advanced high-speed rail programs in Asia and Europe.
Faster trains passing through Chicago could be operating as soon as 2012 to 2014 to Milwaukee and Madison, Wis., on one corridor and Detroit and Pontiac, Mich., on another. These routes would be followed later by high-speed extensions to the Minneapolis-St. Paul area; Indianapolis; Cleveland; Cincinnati; Kansas City, Mo.; Louisville; and other cities, officials said.
"You can almost see the light at the end of the tunnel," said George Weber, chief of the Bureau of Railroads at the Illinois Department of Transportation, which has spent $143 million since 1999 improving tracks and signals Downstate on less than half of the 284-mile route between Chicago and St. Louis, a trip that takes about 5 _ hours.
Illinois officials hope to receive up to $1 billion out of the initial $9 billion pot, Weber said. The money for the shovel-ready projects will be awarded this summer, and work would begin immediately.
The cost of a fully completed Midwest network is estimated at $8 billion.
Chicago officials said they hope fast trains will be operating by 2016 to deliver visitors to a possible Summer Olympics in the city. In addition, high-speed train service would facilitate travel to out-of-town venues, including an Olympic bicycling competition planned in Madison, said Luann Hamilton, a deputy commissioner of the Chicago Department of Transportation.
In laying out a strategic plan for high-speed rail, Obama stressed repairing existing rail infrastructure to improve travel times and increase the frequencies of service provided on routes.
Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin are working with Amtrak to increase train speeds from the 79 m.p.h. top speed in most locations to 110 m.p.h., which is the maximum that can be safely handled by Amtrak's existing locomotives and coaches. Speeds higher than that would require elaborate barriers to prevent accidents between trains and vehicles at railroad crossings.
In Michigan, Amtrak trains are cruising at 95 m.p.h. on portions of the corridor between Chicago and Detroit.
"We are decades behind Europe and Asia in developing high-speed infrastructure, but today marked an exciting, huge step," said Rick Harnish, executive director of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association. "Having a president who fully understands how critical this is to our future is a real game-changer."
Harnish recommended that Illinois focus resources on building additional tracks in a 50-mile radius of the congested Chicago region, where Amtrak trains often crawl because of the large number of freight trains traveling through the area.
Despite slow and late trains, Amtrak ridership on Illinois routes has experienced double-digit increases in recent years.
There's little question that there is a strong market for high-quality, high-speed rail service.
"The last time I flew, I had to take three planes, which is not fun," Rachel Bouquard of Chicago said Thursday as she waited for a Southwest Airlines flight at Midway Airport.
She said she welcomed trains as an alternative to flying, but "only if it is less money and less inconvenient."
Friday, April 17, 2009
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