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High-speed rail now on faster track

High-speed rail now on faster track

(The following story by Maggie Borman appeared on The Telegraph website on August 8, 2009.)

ALTON, Ill. — With one swoop of his pen this past month, Gov. Pat Quinn may have helped put steam into long-sidetracked high-speed rail plans.

"With the governor's signature on the capital bill, Illinois becomes a national leader in high-speed rail," Midwest High Speed Rail Association Executive Director Rick Harnish said. "The $850 million for rail infrastructure in the legislation is the largest state capital investment in railroads in the nation outside of California."

To be sure, the process of getting trains that can move 110 mph between Chicago and St. Louis is still years away, but given the years that have already been spent on the proposal the new infusion of cash is the biggest advance in some time.

"By making its own investment in high-speed rail, Illinois is solidifying its chances of receiving a larger portion of the $8 billion high-speed rail federal funds under the stimulus," Harnish said.

The legislation signed by the governor provides $400 million for high-speed rail and $150 million for Amtrak-related improvements. It also provides $300 million for a project dubbed CREATE, which will address many of the bottlenecks in and around Chicago that have plagued freight and passenger trains nationwide, Harnish said. CREATE stands for Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency program.

The capital bill funds will be used for immediate construction work on already planned projects such as the 110-mph St. Louis-to-Chicago rail line, and Amtrak extensions to Rockford-Galena, the Quad Cities and other initiatives, he said.

Harnish praised the governor and the General Assembly, especially Sen. Martin Sandoval, D-Cicero, and Rep. Elaine Nekritz, D-Des Plaines.

"Without Gov. Quinn's vision and leadership, this crucial funding would not be a part of the capital program," Harnish said.

The Midwest High Speed Rail Association is a membership-based, nonprofit organization advocating the development of fast, frequent and dependable passenger trains linking the entire Midwest. The association claims a strong network of fast trains will make the Midwest a more attractive place to live and do business while slowing the growth of auto congestion and its related energy and pollution impacts.

But will these trains get faster?

In June, the Midwest High Speed Rail Association released a report that studied 220-mph service between Chicago and St. Louis. Among the conclusions in the report was that existing plans for 110 mph, four-hour service between the metro regions are out of date and under-scaled to meet travel needs in the Midwest.

The study, completed by consultant TranSystems, was commissioned by the association to determine costs and other elements of potentially very fast services across the state of Illinois. The main challenge of the report was to compare the existing Amtrak corridor that runs almost directly from Chicago to St. Louis, via Springfield, with another corridor, partially unused, that runs via Champaign and Decatur before continuing on. The latter route was found to be acceptable for a 220-mph-operating speed, largely because it is quite straight throughout. The Amtrak route that passes through places like Carlinville and Alton in The Telegraph area is constrained by numerous curves that would slow trains down considerably.

The study stated that trains could run express between the major cities with stops in Champaign and Springfield, 1 hour 52 minutes; with more stops in Kankakee, Decatur, and the Metro East, trains could complete the journey in 2 hours and 4 minutes. The study advocates hourly trips. These journey times compare favorably with the operations, the study said, with operations on the similar Paris-Lyon TGV corridor in France.

According to the report, the line could be rebuilt with electric catenary for $11.5 billion in 2012 dollars, an estimate that does not include rolling stock or maintenance facilities. The study said the state could prevent a sudden loss of treasury by building the line in seven phases.

The association's report, not endorsed by any government officials, was made to stimulate further discussion about the level of investment necessary for the line between Chicago and St. Louis. Though the report is not particularly detailed, the association said it is the first step toward transforming ideas for this Illinois route "from mediocrity to world-class status."

The association noted that the cost of implementation for the project would be relatively minimal considering how effectively it would likely contest air and road travel along the corridor. This route is served by at least 41 daily round trips on a number of airlines, making it one of the U.S.'s major air links and one that would be prime territory for rail market share takeover considering the less than two-hour trip made possible by high-speed trains.

The 220-mph route could also serve as the central corridor of a line eventually stretching west to Kansas City and south to Dallas; the connection at Chicago would similarly provide new routes to Minneapolis, Detroit, Cleveland, Cincinnati and Indianapolis.

Less than a year ago, even 110-mph trains seemed like a distant goal, Harnish said.

"Now due to the leadership of President Barack Obama, (U.S.) Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, and Gov. Pat Quinn and others, 110-mph Amtrak trains will link Bloomington-Normal, Illinois; Madison, Wisconsin; St. Louis, Missouri; Springfield, Illinois and other communities to Chicago in just a few short years," Harnish said in a statement.

While the association is excited the 110-mph projects are moving forward, the longer lead time involved with 220-mph lines makes it urgent that the state begins the planning now, he said.

Obama made funding for high-speed rail a priority in negotiations over the economic stimulus package. In addition to the $8 billion secured in the economic stimulus, the White House also asked for another $5 billion over the next five years. Bipartisan leaders of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee have agreed to push for $50 billion for high-speed trains over the next six years, Harnish said.

The association has asked the state to seek $10 million in federal stimulus funds to conduct a detailed alternative analysis and environmental study for the Chicago-St. Louis route for a 220-mph high-speed rail line.

"This is the transportation technology of the future," Harnish said at a press conference in Springfield June 30 announcing the study of the 220-mph line.

Harnish said the high-speed rail line could be built by 2016 and would create jobs, reduce greenhouse emissions and bring Illinois cities closer together and allow for more economic opportunity. He estimated the project would create 60,000 construction jobs and 170,000 permanent jobs.

The association said the Chicago to Champaign route includes Canadian National Railway lines that have 100-foot-wide right of way that at one time had a second set of tracks, part of which could be purchased for high-speed rail; the Norfork Southern right of way would have to be purchased between Champaign and Springfield, while existing rail lines without passenger service could be used between Springfield and St. Louis.

Upgrading existing Amtrak line between Chicago and St. Louis to handle 110-mph trains would cost an estimated $2 billion and could be funded through the stimulus bill. (That line runs through Bloomington-Normal, Springfield, Carlinville and Alton.)

Senator Durbin, who along with Gov. Quinn and Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, met with seven Midwestern governors in June to increase regional coordination on high-speed rail, said he continues to hear from people across Illinois who are looking for an affordable, reliable alternative "to sitting in traffic and waiting out airport delays."

Durbin noted in a press release that with $8 billion set aside for high-speed rail, Illinois has an extraordinary opportunity to make rail travel competitive.

"It is time for Illinois to take the lead in increasing the region's efforts to bring high-speed rail to the Midwest," Durbin said. "I am committed to taking full advantage of federal recovery funds to make high-speed rail a reality in Illinois."

The Chicago Hub Network, that includes the Chicago to St. Louis line, is one of 10 major rail corridors identified nationwide as part of the administration's vision for transforming the nation's transportation system, Durbin said. Each corridor is eligible to receive federal funding for projects related to existing rail infrastructure and launch new high-speed rail service under the stimulus plan, called the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.


Monday, August 10, 2009

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