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Illinois plans high-speed rail test Oct. 31

CHICAGO -- The state's high-speed rail project will slide forward a bit further Oct. 31 when officials test a short stretch of tracks north of Bloomington-Normal with a train traveling at 110 mph, the State Journal Register reported.

Meanwhile, financially struggling Amtrak, which recently faced the prospect of cutting two long-distance trains that pass through downstate, announced Tuesday that it soon will add one round-trip in its daily "Hiawatha" service from Chicago to Milwaukee.

During the high-speed test near Towanda, a diesel-powered Amtrak engine hauling three cars will reach 110 mph for about five miles on upgraded Union Pacific tracks. The state has rebuilt most of the track and crossings between Springfield and Dwight, part of a larger initiative to connect Chicago and St. Louis with trains that exceed the current speed limit of 79 mph.

A key component of the plan, the computerized safety system known as "positive train control," won't be a part of this month's trial run. That pricey feature, which incorporates satellite technology, is running at least a year behind schedule, officials with the Illinois Department of Transportation have said in recent months.

"I think it was hoped that it would be (ready), but it's not, so we have to go ahead without it," George Weber, IDOT's chief of passenger rail, said Tuesday.

Engineers will run the test train a few times from Normal to the acceleration zone and back. Even though automobile crossings along the journey are equipped with new "quad-gate" barriers, authorities will be posted as a precaution, Weber said.

Among the VIPs to be invited for a ride is Gov. George Ryan, whose capital-works program, Illinois FIRST, included $100 million for new rail infrastructure and equipment.

Also receiving invitations will be mayors of cities along the Chicago-to-St. Louis corridor, Weber said. Springfield Mayor Karen Hasara has a scheduling conflict, but Normal Mayor Kent Karraker says he would like to see high-speed rail firsthand because "it could have a very positive impact on our town."

The state's full vision of high-speed rail is years from completion and assumes the federal government will offer matching funds. Congress, however, lately has been more focused on debating the future of Amtrak, a quasi-corporation that has never weaned itself off taxpayer subsidies.

Some House Republicans recently tried to force Amtrak to cut its least-profitable cross-country routes, including the Texas Eagle that runs through Springfield. Appropriations bills are pending.

Even so, Amtrak officials say they will increase the frequency of trains on the state-subsidized rail corridor that links Chicago and Milwaukee. Beginning Sunday, Amtrak will increase the number of round-trips from six to seven Monday through Saturday.

"And it's not going to charge any extra cost to the states," Weber said. "It just gives us some good news."

About 1,100 riders use the Hiawatha service each day, according to an Amtrak news release. The route has the best on-time record -- 94 percent -- in the Amtrak system.

Thursday, October 24, 2002

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