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Missouri official looking forward to "higher" speed rail

(The following story by Brent Martin appeared at MissouriNet.com on July 28, 2009.)

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — A top state transportation official says the prospect of high-speed passenger rail service in Missouri is closer than ever, though he cautions it won't resemble the famous bullet trains, at least not yet.

State Multimodal Operations Director Brian Weiler with the Missouri Department of Transportation says he understands many have visions of the bullet trains that race across Europe and Japan in their minds when talk turns to high-speed passenger rail service. He says what the eight Midwestern states are discussing is a 3,000 mile Midwest rail network with Chicago as the main hub.

"So, I think the public can expect significant, incremental improvements in the service," Weiler tells the Missourinet.

Weiler says the state wants passenger rail service to reduce travel times and improve reliability. States throughout the Midwest have been discussing high-speed rail for ten years. The prospect of federal money has pushed the talks further than ever before. The eight governors have agreed to work together, along with Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, to obtain a piece of the $8 billion dedicated to high-speed rail.

Weiler points out applications from all the states have already topped $100 billion.

"But we think within Missouri we've got a very good application," says Weiler.

MoDOT has been working closely with Union Pacific, which owns the rails between St. Louis and Kansas City, and with Amtrak, which currently runs passenger service between the two cities. Missouri will submit $50 million in projects that are ready to go now by the August 24th deadline imposed by the federal government. The state has until October 2nd to submit another $100 million in corridor projects. It also will ask for $50 million to buy train equipment.

Weiler emphasizes that the state isn't asking that the federal government foot the entire $200 million dollar bill. Money is being promised both by MoDOT and by Union Pacific.

Under the plan for a Midwestern rail network, a Chicago to St. Louis route would be in the first tier of projects. St. Louis to Kansas City would be in the second tier.

Even as Missouri dreams of high-speed rail, Weiler says MODOT has worked hard to increase the speed and reliability of the current Amtrak system. He says customer complaints have led to improved service.

"We heard loud and clear that you have to have reliable service," Weiler says.

He says the state is already seeing the benefits of cooperation with Amtrak and Union Pacific. On-time performance has improved greatly. Amtrak trains ran on-time 95% of the time for the first six months of this year. For the last month, on-time performance has nudged close to 100%, unheard of in the past.

"So, what I would ask the public is that if you've ridden the train two or three years ago and you had a bad experience, give us another try," says Weiler. "I think you will see that the service is vastly improved."

Governor Nixon's office says the Memorandum of Understanding signed by the governors and Mayor Daley will coordinate applications to the Federal Railroad Administration for ARRA funding to develop the Midwest corridor. The other states are Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

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