High-speed rail service offers glimpse of future train travel
(BLE Editor's Note: Steve Fleming is a member of BLE Division 45 in Carbondale, Ill.)
NORMAL, Ill. -- Perched high above the lonely, flat landscape of the Midwest in a grimy General Electric locomotive, Amtrak engineer Steve Fleming pulled the throttle all the way back to the eighth notch and thundered into the future, the Chicago Tribune reported.
Fleming was at the controls of a three-car passenger train that reached 110 mph Thursday during a demonstration of cutting-edge satellite technology that would, if all goes as planned, shorten the 5-1/2 hour trip from Chicago to St. Louis by two hours and revolutionize high-speed rail service.
The technology, which helps control and regulate high-speed rail travel to make it safe and efficient, was unveiled for the first time on a train carrying local, state and federal officials from Normal to Lexington and back _ a 30-mile round trip through rural Illinois.
Controlled by distant satellites and the unassuming Fleming, a balding, 27-year veteran of the railroad who grew up dreaming of being an engineer, the train thundered past fallow cornfields, grain elevators and grazing cows at speeds far in excess of the usual 79-mph limit imposed by federal authorities.
Its reflection flashed across the sunglasses of Pat Evans, who had waited at a crossing in his pickup truck for 10 minutes just to see the train for a second.
Its wake stirred the short-cropped hair of Fred Kilcullen, a grandfather and train enthusiast who stood across from the grain elevators in front of tiny Towanda's abandoned downtown, which the train blew past at 108 mph.
Its wail shattered the quiet of central Illinois, whose flat landscape and ramrod-straight Union Pacific tracks made it ideal for testing high-speed rail service, said Chris Schwarberg, Illinois Department of Transportation spokesman.
For the five climactic miles in the middle of each run when the silver-and-blue juggernaut barreled along at nearly 110 mph, a train ride through the countryside _ once a nearly moribund means of passenger travel regarded with romance and nostalgia _ no longer seemed like an excursion into the past but a trip into the future.
How real or distant that future is remains to be seen. As Americans rethink the way they travel, transportation officials say the time has come for high-speed rail service. But questions of funding remain unanswered.
Illinois and other Midwestern states have invested heavily in forming a high-speed rail network that would operate over nine states, with the system's hub in downtown Chicago. The Illinois portion of the project has been estimated to cost up to $425 million, according to state officials.
Illinois has spent $180 million over 10 years upgrading track for faster trains, improving safety at railroad crossings and installing sophisticated signaling systems, the Illinois Department of Transportation said.
The initial route on the high-speed rail network would lie between Chicago and St. Louis. But a 120-mile stretch between Springfield and Dwight will be up and running first. Track upgrades between Springfield and Dwight, which have cost about $70 million so far, will be completed by the end of the year, transportation officials say, and high-speed rail service between the two is expected to be available by the end of 2003.
Eventually, plush new European-style trains with amenities such as larger seats, small office spaces with desks, and electrical outlets for laptop computers would be purchased.
With the new technology, the location of trains can be pinpointed much more accurately than before, to within nine miles. Sensors along the tracks beam information to a satellite that's relayed to Amtrak employees monitoring their whereabouts on computers, Schwarberg said.
On board the train the technology takes the form of several nondescript black boxes no bigger than toasters that enable the train to communicate with the sensors.
The technology will lead to more efficient use of tracks by allowing more trains on them at a time; sensors will ensure the trains stay safely spaced along the track and automatically adjust their speeds if they get too close.
The system also can stop a train automatically without the engineer's help if he becomes ill.
As the train left the station, Fleming sat at the controls, a farsighted engineer wearing glasses, a denim shirt and jeans.
"Riding a train lets you see a part of America you never see," said Dick Smith, 61, who owns a store in Normal, as he stood beside the tracks in front of the town's Amtrak station waiting to watch the train begin its journey.
But is the effect the same at 110 mph?
"I guess going through central Illinois it's about the same," Smith said, laughing. "You seen one cornstalk, you've seen 'em all."
Monday, November 4, 2002
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