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Springfield, Ill., could have two high-speed rail lines

(The following story by Tim Landis appeared on the State Journal-Register website on July 28, 2009.)

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — High-speed trains could be whizzing into Springfield on two different routes under a proposal recently submitted to state and federal transportation officials by a high-speed-rail lobbying group.

The Midwest High Speed Rail Association has asked that $10 million be set aside from federal economic-stimulus money to study the possibility of scheduling 220-mph trains between St. Louis and Chicago via Springfield, Decatur and Champaign.

Those trains would be twice as fast as the 110-mph trains already planned on the existing Amtrak corridor, which runs between Chicago and St. Louis through Bloomington, Springfield and Carlinville.

“We’re assuming the 110-mph trains are a done deal on the UP (Union Pacific) line,” association executive director Rich Harnish said Monday prior to a high-speed rail conference in Chicago.

The Union Pacific railroad has submitted plans to operate high-speed trains on the Third Street corridor through Springfield, though a group of Springfield-area officials is pushing for consideration of the 10th Street line.

Harnish said much of the Springfield-Decatur-Champaign route would travel on lines operated by the Norfolk Southern and CN (formerly Canadian National) railroads. Norfolk Southern operates the 10th Street line in Springfield.

The eastern route actually would cut travel time to two hours between St. Louis and Chicago, compared to a little less than four hours expected along the UP line. Harnish said faster speeds are possible along the eastern route because a wider right-of-way is available and there are fewer connecting bottlenecks.

“Some folks in St. Louis and Chicago wanted to see how you could do a two-hour trip, which I think should be the goal,” he said. “We wanted to show it’s plausible.

“It’s also critical that we link them together instead of competing,” Harnish said, referring to the two corridors.

It remains to be seen whether money will be available to study the eastern route. The U.S. Department of Transportation reported earlier this month that the agency has received 278 preliminary application,s totaling $102 billion, for only $8 billion contained in the president’s economic-stimulus package for high-speed rail.

Illinois has submitted proposals for $3.5 billion worth of projects, including $2.6 billion for high-speed service on the existing Amtrak line. The study funds for the second route through Champaign also are included.

Final applications from the states are due to the federal government in early October.

Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce spokeswoman Sarah Wolin said the chamber hopes to hold meetings in August with representatives of neighborhoods along the Third and 10th Street lines.

“We want to discuss what it would mean with the different proposals for those areas,” said Wolin.

City and county officials contend the 10th Street rail line would fit better into the city’s long-term economic development plans and would result in less disruption from increased train traffic.

Wolin said the group also continues to work on a meeting with Union Pacific representatives.

More cars sought

While planning continues for high-speed rail in Illinois, Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said Monday the carrier’s immediate concern is to get additional cars into service, especially on the Chicago-St. Louis line.

“The trains have been very full,” said Magliari, who said ridership is up 7 percent on the Chicago-St. Louis route for the federal fiscal year, in spite of the down economy. Overall ridership was up 3 percent on the three Illinois routes.

Magliari said it probably will be snext year before cars can be added in Illinois, “as we’re talking about cars that have been stored or damaged, or that have to be converted.”

Passenger numbers

Amtrak passenger numbers in Illinois from Oct. 1 to June 30 (federal fiscal year)

* Chicago-St. Louis: 419,131; up 7 percent.

* Chicago-Carbondale: 218,779; down 3 percent.

* Chicago-Quincy: 171,396; up 2 percent.

* Total: 809,306; up 3 percent.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

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