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Advocates call for 220 mph Midwest train service

(The Associated Press circulated the following story by Michael Tarm on July 1, 2009.)

CHICAGO — When it comes to trains, there's fast and then there's really, really fast.

Advocates on Tuesday unveiled an $11.5 billion plan for a Chicago-St. Louis high-speed line that could cut travel times to two hours from the current five. If built, it would be among the fastest U.S. lines and would rival high-tech systems already in place in Europe and Asia.

Under the proposal, electric-powered trains would zoom the nearly 300 miles between Chicago and St. Louis at up to 220 mph — more than 100 mph faster than diesel-powered trains under a comparatively modest plan already advocated by eight Midwestern governors.

Trains reaching close to 220 mph are thus far unheard of, though a California proposal seeking to build 800 miles of service along its coast also foresees trains approaching that speed. It, along with the original Midwest governors' plan, is a front runner for $8 billion in federal stimulus cash set aside for high-speed rail.

The plan announced Tuesday as part of a study released by the non-profit Midwest High Speed Rail Association is generating excitement among rail enthusiasts who pooh-pooh the gubernatorial proposal, which envisions trains reaching top speeds of 110 mph, as too conservative.

Tuesday's proposal would require upgrading tracks and bridges as well as electrifying the line. The estimated price tag doesn't include costs of new trains or maintenance.

With backing from Illinois officials, the ambitious project could be done in time for the 2016 Summer Olympics, which Chicago is bidding to host, said Rick Harnish, the association's executive director. A deadline seven years away, he said, is ambitious but doable.

"We also need to catch up to the rest of the world," he said.

The proposal for a 220-mph service is intended to complement, not replace, the governors' plan, Harnish said. The 110 mph trains would serve more communities and make more stops en route.

Backers want Illinois to apply for $10 million in federal stimulus funds for further analysis they hope could lead to a detailed plan. Harnish conceded some funding may have to come from new taxes or fees.

Skeptics question whether any benefits would justify the cost.

"This is a classic case of a nice idea — but one where the government will end up misallocating dollars," said John Tillman, head of the conservative Illinois Policy Institute. "This would be subsidized travel when there are already ways to get to and from St. Louis and Chicago."

The $11.5 billion would be better spent, he said, on buying 1 million fuel-efficient cars. He also questioned whether electric trains would be more environmentally friendly given that they likely would rely on energy generated by coal-burning plants.

The estimated $10 billion proposal already backed by the Midwest governors would join 12 metropolitan areas, including Chicago and St. Louis, in a network with Chicago as its hub. Upgrading existing tracks would enable trains to travel up to 110 mph, according to the plan.

Currently, the top speed of trains running between Chicago and St. Louis is just under 80 mph.

The only U.S. rail service that qualifies as high-speed under is Amtrak's Acela Express, which links Boston and Washington, D.C. It can hit top speeds of 150 mph, but averages only around 90 mph during its more than 450-mile run.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

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