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Opinion: All aboard high-speed rail!

(The following column by Guy Tridgell appeared on the Southtown Star website on February 2, 2010.)

CHICAGO — A light smog blankets Chicago on an otherwise calm morning of 112 degrees - a tad cool for a summer day in 2020. I splash on sunscreen with SPF 182 and head out the door.

There's a high-speed train to catch.

After a deafening campaign by the region's political and business leaders, the 21st century passage to St. Louis is finally here.

"We need to get to St. Louis - and fast!" a cantankerous Mayor Richard Daley says at the ceremonial ribbon cutting on a new era of transportation. "Chicago's a world-class city. Our survival in a global economy is at stake if we can't get to Missouri immediately."

I could have driven to St. Louis if I wanted. But the gas pedal on the ol' Prius has been a little sticky. And since the last employer in the country that was providing health insurance to its employees dropped the coverage three years ago, even the slightest hint of a hangnail isn't worth the risk.

From Chicago's Union Station, Amtrak will be flying at 110 mph - a whopping 31 mph faster than what the trains were cruising at way back in 2010.

We'll have to wait for those bullet trains that have been zipping across other continents for the past 50 years. Here, in the heart of the Midwest, we'll be riding "The BB" instead.

In a scant four hours, I will be looking at the St. Louis Arch. Correction: I will be looking at a life-sized hologram of the Arch since the federal government slashed maintenance costs and knocked down the real thing.

The transition to high-speed rail has been hard on Illinois. Three governors, 10 state lawmakers and 23 Chicago aldermen landed in prison for shaking down contractors and trying to score jobs for relatives. The Department of Justice is talking once again of building a Club Fed just for Illinois.

But the project hasn't been a total loss. Orders for the new locomotives have provided a tremendous boost to the Japanese economy.

To commemorate this maiden voyage, I decide to keep a travel journal on an iPost-it Note.

6:57 a.m. Leave the south suburbs to hop on Metra to Chicago's Union Station. Because Pace folded over a lack of interest, I'll be driving to my stop. It still isn't possible to get around the suburbs without a car, but I take comfort knowing I can ride practically uninterrupted all the way to St. Louis.

7:31 a.m. Argh. Since all the commuter lots were turned over to a private company to run, parking costs are on the rise. I dig deep and drop 80 quarters in my slot.

7:55 a.m. On the ride into the city, we pass White Sox Park, renamed after U.S. Cellular went bankrupt. Spot a group of fans still celebrating lone World Series victory from 2005.

8:08 a.m. All aboard, high-speed rail! A perk: The seats are built nice and wide to accommodate the 272 pounds the average Chicago resident weighs these days.

8:15 a.m. Now that I'm out of the driver's seat and off the expressway, I can get down to some serious productivity.

8:16 a.m. I become distracted when the other passengers start clipping their nails, eating loudly and putting their feet on the seats. Amtrak needs its own "On the Bi-Level" - the newsletter Metra riders use to harp on each other with the same complaints month after month.

8:32 a.m. First stop: Summit. Look around at the old downtown and think how this would have been a good spot for the casino currently floating in a pond up in Rosemont.

9:03 a.m. Pass through Joliet. I look at the time and notice this train doesn't seem to be moving that fast. A boy with a Kindle surgically implanted in his palm tells me the high-speed portion of the trip can't start until we reach some place called Dwight. Oh, well. The price of progress.

10:10 a.m. The important Bloomington-Normal stop. Two people get on.

10:17 a.m. Getting sleepy. Decide to take a snooze.

10:53 a.m. A foul stench arouses me from my slumber. The state capitol building in Springfield comes into view.

11:20 a.m. The train brakes in Carlinville. No one gets on. The town was deserted two years ago.

11:43 a.m. Stomach starts growling. I'm mighty hungry after not eating anything since leaving the house almost five hours ago. But I'm in luck. The train has a dining car!

11:46 a.m. Bummer. One of the biggest campaign contributors in the state has locked up the dining car contract. With a captive audience, they can set prices however high they wish. I pay $18.99 for a hot dog and swallow hard.

12:28 p.m. Yeah! I am on St. Louis soil. Delays set us back only 20 minutes. Five hours and 31 minutes after starting my four-hour trip, I'm finished. And I didn't need to rely on my car at all. Hah!

Now if I can only find someone to give me a ride home.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

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