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Work on part of Chicago-St. Louis high-speed rail line could be done late this year

(The following story by Jon Hilkevitch appeared on the Chicago Tribune website on July 20, 2010.)

CHICAGO The first 90 miles of a high-speed rail corridor stretching 284 miles between Chicago and St. Louis could be completed late this year, under a construction plan the state and the freight railroad that owns the track announced Tuesday.

Installation of new rail and concrete ties to support 110-mph passenger trains will begin in early September in the southern part of the state, from north of Alton to south of Lincoln, excluding the Springfield area for now, officials said.

The routing through the state capital is the subject of an ongoing study, spurred in part by a local firestorm over increasing the number of trains passing through downtown Springfield.

Union Pacific Railroad, which owns the Chicago-St. Louis corridor, and the Illinois Department of Transportation are leading the $98 million project. It is funded through the federal economic stimulus program and expected to support more than 900 jobs, Gov. Pat. Quinn said. Any new jobs will be temporary, however, because the project is slated for completion as early as December, the governor's office said.

The work marks only the first phase. Amtrak passenger service at up to 110 mph on the entire route is still at least several years away, despite strong calls from the Obama administration to state governments to produce quick results using $8 billion in stimulus grants that the White House awarded early this year.

Illinois got a $1.1 billion grant to provide three round trips daily between Chicago and St. Louis in about four hours each way, as opposed to almost six hours currently. But the price tag for the entire 284-mile project is estimated at $4 billion.

In addition to questions about projected ridership levels on the line, many safety issues must be resolved, including what to do about 300 highway-rail crossings between Chicago and St. Louis. Some crossings will be closed, and others will require advanced protection and warning systems to prevent accidents.

IDOT has not yet issued specifications for companies to bid on contracts to build new locomotives and passenger coaches that will operate at 110 mph. Amtrak's aging locomotives, which currently operate at a top speed of 79 mph in Illinois and 95 mph in parts of Michigan, are made to travel at up to 110 mph, Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said.

But Amtrak's passenger coaches, some originally built to serve as commuter trains, are far from the world-class trains operating abroad.

Still, state officials say that with continued federal funding, faster trains passing through the Chicago passenger rail hub could operate by 2014 to Milwaukee and Madison, Wis., on one corridor and to Detroit and Pontiac, Mich., on another. High-speed extensions are also planned to Minneapolis; Indianapolis; Cleveland; Cincinnati; Kansas City, Mo.; Louisville, Ky.; and other cities.

Eventually, probably decades away, state officials envision 220-mph passenger trains covering nine states through the Midwest.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

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