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Illinois high-speed rail an improvement, Szabo says

(The following story by Marni Pyke appeared on the Daily Herald website on April 14, 2010.)

CHICAGO — Federal Railroad Administrator Joseph Szabo beat the drum for high-speed rail in Illinois Tuesday, acknowledging that while the state won't have the fastest trains in the nation, it will see a big improvement.

Szabo, a fifth-generation railroader and former South suburban mayor, spoke in Chicago about the government's $1.2 billion grant to build fast trains between Chicago and St. Louis.

Illinois competed with 24 states for $8 billion in federal high-speed rail funding, which was part of the economic stimulus program.

"Over time, the goal is to create routes connecting regions together for a seamless network," Szabo said at an event sponsored by the Transportation Center at Northwestern University.

"The bottom line will be to develop services competitive with or superior to air and auto."

Illinois' plan would cost more than $4 billion to establish high-speed rail between Chicago and St. Louis - eventually reaching Kansas City - allowing trains to travel at 110 mph.

"When it's fully implemented, trip times will be dramatically reduced," Szabo said, adding that the project will create thousands of temporary and permanent jobs.

There's been some concern the Illinois high-speed rail project isn't pegged for higher rates of 220 mph. Szabo acknowledged that other states, such as California, are planning faster routes, with trains expected to go in excess of 200 mph between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

"It depends on the state and on the market," he said. "It's not 'one size fits all.' This is about developing a comprehensive passenger system."

The program could allow Chicago passengers to reach St. Louis in four hours, which is about 30 percent faster than currently.

The federal government is also accepting applications from states through May 19 for $115 million to pay for planning and construction of high-speed rail.

Freight rail congestion in Chicago is another priority, Szabo said, noting that about one-third of the nation's rail cargo moves through the region.

The government earlier this year designated $133 million for the CREATE program, a coalition of state and local governments and railways aimed at reducing freight train gridlock. The grant will be used primarily to build the Englewood flyover, an overpass separating Metra Rock Island commuter rail from freight and Amtrak trains.

"The funding is falling into place now," Szabo said, "This investment in CREATE will stimulate hundreds of jobs."

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

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