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New federal money boosts passenger rail travel in Missouri

(The following story by Brad Cooper appeared on the Kansas City Star website on January 29, 2010.)

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — It’s what Missouri train riders might expect from $2.6 billion in high-speed rail money that the federal government announced Thursday is coming to the Midwest.

Missouri will get $31 million for track work between Kansas City and St. Louis that’s intended to prevent delays caused by heavy freight traffic and potentially cut time off the trip.

The state is sharing in an additional $1.1 billion that will allow trains to run at speeds up to 110 mph from St. Louis to Chicago, slashing travel time between the two cities by 90 minutes.

“People in Kansas City should be pretty happy,” said Howard Learner, who leads the Chicago-based Environmental Law & Policy Center, which supported a high-speed rail plan for the Midwest.

“What we’re seeing is the beginning of an investment in modern, fast, comfortable and convenient trains linking Kansas City to St. Louis and the rest of the Midwest.”

Missouri was one of 31 states that received part of $8 billion in federal stimulus money for high-speed rail. Kansas won $250,000 to develop a plan to offer new service from Kansas City to Fort Worth, Texas, via Oklahoma City.

The biggest slice, $2.3 billion, went to California to help build a 520-mile rail line connecting Anaheim and Los Angeles and eventually San Francisco. Florida picked up $1.3 billion for a high-speed corridor linking Tampa and Orlando.

The money marks a new era for a transportation system that for years has revolved around the car and the airplane.

“I think it’s a watershed moment for the investment in passenger rail in America,” said Peter Gertler, a rail expert with the consulting company HNTB.

“For many generations there has been little to no investment in the development of passenger rail. We’re 40 years behind Asia and Europe.”

The money going to Missouri won’t mean trains will be racing across the state at 100 mph any time soon, but it will help cut the 5_-hour travel time across the state and help ensure that Amtrak trains run on time amid heavy freight traffic.

“We’ve got to get past the bullet-train concept,” said Brian Weiler, who oversees state-funded Amtrak service for the Missouri Department of Transportation. “We have to realize what’s reasonable on our corridor.”

Amtrak, which runs on tracks owned by Union Pacific, has been plagued by delays in recent years because of heavy freight traffic. But lately Amtrak has staged a dramatic turnaround, with 90 percent of the trains running on time.

The new stimulus money will protect those improvements by eliminating bottlenecks on the route as freight traffic volumes return when the economy rebounds.

Unlike straighter-line routes in California and Florida, where train speeds will exceed 150 mph, Missouri’s route is complicated by hills and curves.

Missouri, however, did get money to plan a second track between Lee’s Summit and Pleasant Hill, which would enable trains to reach speeds up to 90 mph in that area.

The fact that Missouri received planning money for the second track is a good sign the federal government may want to fund that $56 million project in the future, Weiler said.

Missouri was part of an eight-state coalition that had been pushing hard to get funding for a rail network that would reach into Iowa, Minnesota, Illinois, Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin and Ohio. The eight states laid out a plan to run rail routes throughout the Midwest, using Chicago as the hub.

Friday, January 29, 2010

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