Chicago to St. Louis on 220-mph trains

(The following story by Jon Hilkevitch appeared on the Chicago Tribune website on June 30, 2009.)

CHICAGO Travel between Chicago and St. Louis in less than two hours on passenger trains running at 220 m.p.h. is an achievable goal that should be aggressively pursued, according to an analysis paid for by advocates of high-speed rail.

The feasibility study is intended to spur talks with state rail officials across the Midwest to look beyond current plans to operate trains at a maximum speed of 110 m.p.h. within several years using federal stimulus grants and state construction funds, according to the Midwest High Speed Rail Association, a non-profit group that commissioned the $65,000 study.

The study, which pegged the price of starting up the 220-m.p.h. service at $11.5 billion, will be publicly released Tuesday.

Trains traveling at 110 m.p.h. on Illinois' first high-speed corridor would make the 284-mile trip between Chicago and St. Louis in about four hours -- shaving 1 _ hours off current travel times by Amtrak trains now running up to 79 m.p.h., according to the Illinois Department of Transportation.

By going 220 m.p.h., however, those improved trip times would be cut roughly in half, to 1 hour and 52 minutes, according to the association. The estimate includes making intermediary stops in Champaign and Springfield, while providing customers with downtown-to-downtown service and beating the door-to-door trip times of airline travel.

The trip between Champaign and Chicago would take 45 minutes; and 90 minutes between Springfield and Chicago, the study said. The study estimated the cost of building the 220-m.p.h. Chicago-to-St. Louis corridor at $11.5 billion in 2012 dollars. It does not include the cost of new trains, maintenance facilities and other expenses.

Construction of IDOT's 110-m.p.h. plan from Chicago to St. Louis is estimated to cost $2 billion, officials said.

But the association's study said the straight and level railroad alignments in Illinois provide "ideal conditions for implementing fast operation at reasonable cost."

IDOT officials said they are reviewing the association's feasibility study, but at first glance, they questioned whether the $11.5 billion estimate wasn't too low.

"Our goal is to get to 110 m.p.h. within three to four years. The 220-m.p.h. plan would likely take up to 20 years or more to complete," IDOT spokeswoman Marisa Kollias said.

A 110-m.p.h. network in the Midwest that Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan are spearheading would have its hub in Chicago and routes that extend through nine states. The projected cost is $9.6 billion in 2008 dollars, officials said. An application for federal funding is being formulated and will be submitted this year.

Moving into the future with even faster trains, after 110 m.p.h. is accomplished, would require continued investment well beyond the $13 billion for high-speed rail nationwide that the Obama administration is proposing over the next five years.

In addition to requiring more powerful locomotives, new passenger coaches and track upgrades, scores of railroad-highway crossings would need to be closed, officials said. At some locations, bridges or tunnels would have to be built to keep trains separated from vehicle traffic.

The study for the association was conducted by TranSystems Corp. and Parsons Corp.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

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