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110-mph rail service planned for central Illinois

(The following Associated Press article by Jan Dennis was distributed on June 28.)

NORMAL, Ill. -- By next summer, passenger trains could zip through a 120-mile stretch of central Illinois at more than 100 mph, shaving nearly an hour off of the 5 1/2-hour trip from Chicago to St. Louis.

Depending on federal and state funding, IDOT hopes to have 110 mph trains through the rest of the 280-mile Chicago-to-St. Louis corridor by 2010, cutting the current 5 1/2-hour trip by about two hours.

But high-speed rail supporters contend the faster trains alone won't be enough to help trains carve out a bigger niche among travelers who prefer the convenience of cars and the speed of airplanes.

The supporters have begun lobbying the cash-strapped state to add two more daily Amtrak round trips between Chicago and St. Louis, arguing that ridership will improve only if the faster trains run when people want them.

"Higher speed and increased frequency are two sides of the same coin. It doesn't make sense to improve the speed of trains if you don't also give people more options and flexibility," said Rob Nash, director of government relations for the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce.

Transportation officials expect trains to begin running at 110 mph within a year along a stretch from Springfield to Dwight, marking the debut of high-speed rail in Illinois. Currently the trains run at 79 mph.

Also within a year, daily Amtrak runs along that corridor would increase from four to six under the proposal being pushed by a coalition of civic, business, transportation and environmental groups.

Costs have not been pinned down, but expanding to six daily runs could add $2 million to $3 million to the state's current $12.1 million Amtrak subsidy, said Ray Lang, director of government affairs for the rail service.

Gov. Rod Blagojevich and the Illinois Department of Transportation haven't taken a position on the plan proposed for the state budget year that begins July 1, 2004.

"Just because we don't have a position doesn't mean we aren't interested. It's just pretty early in the process," said IDOT spokesman Matt Vanover.

Rep. Joseph Lyons, D-Chicago, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Railroads, likes the idea, but wonders whether money will be available and if higher speeds downstate can offset the slowdown north of Joliet that's caused by heavy train traffic.

"I would love to see something like this happen, to see people get out of the must-drive mentality," Lyons said.

On the heels of this spring's $5 billion state budget gap and with the Bush administration asking states to take on a bigger financial stake in Amtrak, Nash acknowledged that finding the money could prove difficult.

But he argues that adding service is the best way to capitalize on the more than $100 million that already has been invested in track improvements and a first-of-its-kind satellite system to ensure safety of high-speed trains.

"It would be penny wise and pound foolish to strand that investment," Nash said.

Business travelers, in particular, could be lured by the mix of faster trains and expanded travel times, said Rick Harnish, executive director of the Midwest High Speed Rail Coalition.

Unlike airports, Harnish said, trains run through downtowns, the destination of most business travelers. And, unlike cars, trains also allow business people to work during the trip, he said.

Those advantages would be more attractive with train schedules that better fit the business day, coupled with speeds that will reduce the commute time by 45 minutes between Chicago and Springfield, Harnish said.

Adding faster, more convenient rail service also could enhance economic development along the Chicago-to-St. Louis corridor, Harnish said.

"Communities that provide different options will be more attractive places to locate and that's the real reason for doing this. This makes a place like Bloomington-Normal more attractive for living and doing business because if you want to get to Chicago, you can drive, you can fly up or you can take the train," Harnish said.

New tracks to allow faster trains have been installed from Springfield to Dwight and new four-armed gates are being installed at nearly 70 crossings along the 120-mile stretch, according to IDOT.

By fall, IDOT expects to complete testing of a satellite tracking system that can control a train's speed, activate crossing gates or even stop trains if needed.

Once those tests are completed, the Federal Railroad Administration will begin a detailed safety check required before passenger service can begin. IDOT said that review could take six months, and high-speed service could begin in mid-2004.

Monday, June 30, 2003

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