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Higher-speed rail a better option for Illinois?

(The following story by Bruce Rushton appeared on The State Journal-Register website on October 4,2 009.)

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — Richard Harnish wants both.

But if someone put a gun to his head, the executive director of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association says he’d choose a proposed 220-mph project linking St. Louis with Chicago over the state of Illinois’ current proposal to join the cities with trains traveling a maximum of 110 mph.

“My belief is, when you build the high-speed line, you’ll be able to do the other stuff,” Harnish said. “If you build the other stuff first, you probably won’t get to the high speed line.”

The “other stuff” is a project that would put 110-mph passenger trains in Union Pacific right-of-way through Springfield, a prospect that has civic leaders threatening litigation.

Although the trains would slow to 40 mph in the city, the project would more than double the corridor’s capacity, allowing as many as 75 trains a day on a line that now carries fewer than 20.

Harnish and other high-speed rail advocates don’t consider 110 mph to be true high-speed rail. For one thing, 110 mph is the maximum. Average speeds are considerably slower because trains must brake when going through towns and stop to pick up passengers.

On the East Coast, Amtrak trains go as fast as 150 mph, but the average speed is much lower. On the run between New York and Washington D.C., for example, the average speed is slightly more than 75 mph.

In Illinois, the proposed project would reduce travel time between St. Louis and Chicago, with the fastest trains making the trip between the two cities in as few as four hours.

By contrast, a 220-mph train would make the same trip in a little less than two hours, according to a study commissioned by the Midwest High Speed Rail Association. Doubling the speed makes all the difference, Harnish says.

Commuting by Amtrak

“At four hours, you get the people who are sick of driving,” Harnish said. “At two hours, you get massive change.”

Wrigley Field, the Chicago Art Institute, the Magnificent Mile and other lures of the Windy City would be just an hour and fifteen minutes away from Springfield on a 220-mph train that would also stop in Decatur and Champaign.

People could live in Central Illinois and work in Chicago, or St. Louis, for that matter, Harnish said. And once people get accustomed to living 100 miles or more away from where they work, demand for 110-mph trains also would grow, he predicts. Such trains would allow folks who live as far away as Alton to work in Springfield without spending hours on the highway, he said.

Higher speeds bring higher costs, however. A 220-mph system would cost $11.5 billion, according to the rail association’s study. The slower system would cost more than $2.4 billion, according to federal grant applications submitted by the state in August.

The combined cost of the systems “becomes a very big number to chew,” Harnish said.

“It’s a big decision — it’s a big decision whether we’re going to change our lifestyles or not,” Harnish said. “We’re at the point where we have to make that decision. If you’re going to decide to do it, you need to see something really big, a really big change.”

The changeis already starting to take shape.

The Illinois Department of Transportation in August applied for $5 million in federal funds to study 220-mph rail between St. Louis and Chicago, with the state matching that amount.

According to the rail association’s study, trains capable of traveling 220 mph would use the 10th Street corridor instead of the Third Street line that has generated considerable opposition in Springfield and Sangamon County.

Harnish figures that $10 million would be enough to prepare an environmental impact statement and start engineering work.

“It absolutely can go forward and will,” he said.

Illinois route high-priority

A high-speed rail corridor linking St. Louis with Chicago is in phase one of the U.S. High Speed Rail Association’s plan to establish 220-mph service throughout the nation by 2030. Phase one should be completed by 2015, the association says.

Andy Kunz, president of the U.S. High Speed Rail Association, said the association gave priority to the St. Louis-Chicago corridor because initial planning has been done and the largest cities in the nation should be the first to get high-speed service.

The 110 mph vs. 220 mph debate is going on throughout the nation, Kunz said. Trains traveling at 110 mph have their place, he said, but there are drawbacks.

For one, 110-mph trains are powered by diesel-fueled locomotives. By contrast, high-speed trains run on electricity, so they’re more environmentally friendly, Kunz said. It’s usually impossible to simply convert track designed for 110-mph trains to trains that travel twice as fast, he added. Tracks carrying the slower trains often have curves too sharp for 220-mph trains to negotiate, he said.

Tracks with 110-mph trains are also usually shared with freight trains, and it’s not a good idea to have 220-mph passenger trains sharing track with trains that carry chlorine, explosives and other hazardous materials, Kunz said. Tracks for 220-mph trains should be 20 or 50 feet away from tracks used by freight trains.

“You need a little more cushion around the high speed trains,” he said. “If you have one of those freight trains derail (on shared or nearby track), you’ve got a major disaster on your hands.”

Trains that travel 200 mph or close to it are already running in Japan, France and England, where service is available between London and Paris, Kunz said, and systems are under construction in Spain and China.

“Everyone else is doing it the right way: They’re going straight into the 220-mph system and getting the best system right from the beginning,” Kunz said.

It isn’t cheap: China is spending $300 billion, and the price tag in Spain is $348 billion, Kunz said. By contrast, the United States has committed $8 billion to high-speed rail, with 110-mph projects eligible for grants.

“If you look at the whole nation, we need to be adding a few more zeroes,” Kunz said.

California bond issue

Californians are thinking big.

In November, voters in the Golden State approved a measure authorizing the state to issue nearly $10 billion in general obligation bonds for passenger rail, with $9 billion of that amount going toward design and construction of an 800-mile high-speed rail system that would carry passengers at speeds in excess of 200 mph.

The total cost for a 200-plus mph system is estimated at more than $40 billion. Kris Deutschman, spokeswoman for the California High Speed Rail Authority, said local governments are chipping in. Anaheim, for example, has pledged $7 million, she said.

On Friday, California submitted a $4.7 billion grant application to the federal government to get started. State officials say matching funds from private entities and state and local governments would bring that total to $10 billion. Officials in California believe that the amount of matching money available gives them an advantage in the race for federal money, Deutschman said.

By contrast, Illinois has asked for more than $3 billion to build the 110-mph project between St. Louis and Chicago. The state says it has already spent $400 million from state and local governments.

IDOT Secretary Gary Hannig said he believes Illinois also has an advantage in the competition for federal dollars, because construction on parts of the Chicago-St. Louis line can start immediately.

“In two years, they’re going to have some drawings, and we’re going to have a train,” Hannig said.

That may well be true. In California, Deutschman said construction would begin in 2011. Trains might be running at 200 mph or faster between Anaheim and San Francisco by 2017 or 2018, she said.

“It might be 2020,” Deutschman said.

Bruce Rushton can be reached at 788-1542.

High speed vs. really high speed

The Illinois Department of Transportation wants to build a rail line between St. Louis and Chicago that would allow passenger trains to travel as fast as 110 mph. At the same time, IDOT has applied for a federal grant to study a proposal to build a system between the two cities that would allow speeds as high as 220 mph. Here’s a comparison of the two ideas.

110 mph 220 mph

Cost: $3.2 billion $11.5 billion

Travel time (St. Louis to Chicago): 4 hours 2 hours

Fuel type: Diesel Electricity

Stop in Springfield? Yes Yes

Monday, October 5, 2009

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