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Legislators urge 150+ mph bullet trains, not 110 mph trains

(The following story by Jon Hilkevitch appeared on the Chicago Tribune website on August 30, 2010.)

CHICAGO — A revolt is building against what some public officials mistakenly consider high-speed rail.

You can't blame anybody who has experienced riding aboard bullet trains for being completely unimpressed by the current goal to have passenger trains traverse the Midwest at top speeds of 110 mph, up from 79 mph on Amtrak today.

But that's the game plan, at a cost of billions of dollars.

Bullet trains routinely operate at 150 to 220 mph. It's the performance level Illinois should be shooting for, said state Sen. Martin Sandoval, D- Chicago, who is chairman of the Illinois Senate Transportation Committee.

Sandoval sponsored legislation this year creating a commission working to establish world-class bullet trains, and he helped push the administration of Gov. Pat Quinn to seek more than $8 million in federal seed money toward that goal.

Other lawmakers have joined the campaign, urging U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood to approve the funding to explore truly fast trains that would bring major cities in the Midwest within three hours of each other via rail. A decision is expected soon.

"We need to get to work on true high-speed rail. The people want it,'' Sandoval said, adding he is frustrated that the process of appointing members to the Illinois and Midwest High Speed Rail Commission is "moving as fast as our current freight trains.''

There is a lot of push-back and inertia coming from various quarters.

Officials at Amtrak, which has minimal expertise in operating high-speed rail, don't see a problem topping out at only 110 mph. An infusion of billions of dollars in federal and state funding will mean better Amtrak service in the Midwest — just don't mistake it for true high-speed trains.

The genuine article, service at up to 220 mph, is being planned in California and Florida. It already exists to a lesser degree on Amtrak Acela Express trains that get up to 150 mph on small portions of the route between Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Washington.

Meanwhile, the Union Pacific Railroad, which owns the track between Chicago and St. Louis that is set to be the first higher-speed corridor in Illinois, officially supports the 110 mph plan because it provides millions of dollars in government subsidies to upgrade tracks, signals and other infrastructure that freight trains share with Amtrak and Metra trains.

The rail modernization will greatly benefit the freight railroad, even though Union Pacific executives would prefer to have nothing to do with high-speed trains.

Union Pacific agreed to allow 110 mph passenger trains on the tracks being rebuilt mostly with federal stimulus funds between Chicago and St. Louis only because it inherited the obligation when it bought the track along the Southern Pacific Railroad in 1996. An earlier Southern Pacific agreement allowing the Illinois Department of Transportation to run faster trains was part of a grandfather clause.

"If I had a choice, I wouldn't be doing this investment (in high-speed rail),'' Union Pacific Chief Executive Officer James Young told the Bloomberg news agency in July. "We need to focus on freight for our good and for the good of the country.''

Sandoval said Illinois "can't sell the real benefits of investing in freight and Amtrak service on the back of the bullet train.''

"Our current state strategy falls short because it relies on the Union Pacific to deliver to the people more round-trips, more reliability at faster times without any guarantees. This investment in the UP is not the bullet train the people want,'' Sandoval said. "We should be upfront with the people of Illinois.''

He is right about no guarantees. The Union Pacific has not agreed to allow for increases in passenger service once the 110 mph track upgrades are completed on the 284-mile line between Chicago and St. Louis. So a huge investment is being made to operate only a few trains a day?

Wouldn't the money be more wisely spent on building track dedicated to 220 mph, electric-powered passenger trains, like California and Florida are doing?

After prodding by true high-speed rail supporters, IDOT begrudgingly asked the Obama administration last year for $5 million to conduct a preliminary study on the feasibility of 220 mph trains along the route from Chicago to St. Louis. The request was submitted during the first round of the high-speed rail funding competition. Illinois' application was denied, although the state did receive $1.23 billion to construct tracks and make other improvements for future 110 mph service.

Now, IDOT is seeking more than $8 million to begin designing a 220 mph bullet train railroad linking Chicago and St. Louis, with stops in downstate Illinois as well as O'Hare International Airport and McCormick Place. The money would be spent on a market study, ridership forecasting, an implementation strategy and a comparison of route options.

The current 5½-hour Amtrak trip between Chicago and St. Louis would be slashed to two hours.

The request is contained in IDOT applications vying for a second round of federal grants to advance Illinois' 110 mph passenger rail program. A decision by the Federal Railroad Administration is expected as early as late September, officials said.

Officials who have recently written to LaHood, the U.S. transportation secretary and a former congressman from Peoria, in support of the $8 million in funding include Sandoval; state Senators John Millner, Toi Hutchinson, Dale Risinger, Michael Bond and David Koehler; state Reps. Ken Dunkin, Sara Feigenholtz, Elaine Nekritz and Dave Winters; U.S. Reps. Phil Hare and Jesse Jackson Jr.; Chicago Ald. Toni Preckwinkle; St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay; Glenn Poshard, president of Southern Illinois University; and Randall Blankenhorn, executive director of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

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