CHICAGO (AP) — In a modest milestone for President Barack Obama’s high-speed
rail vision, test runs will start zooming along a small section of the
Amtrak line between Chicago and St. Louis at 110 mph today.
The 30-mph increase from the route’s current top speed is a morale booster
for advocates of high-speed rail in America who have watched conservatives
in Congress put the brakes on spending for fast train projects they view as
expensive boondoggles. But some rail experts question whether the route will
become profitable, pose serious competition to air and automobile travel, or
ever reach speeds comparable to the bullet trains blasting across Europe and
Asia at 150 mph and faster.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn are
scheduled to be on board when an Amtrak train hits 110 mph for the first
time in Illinois. But it will only maintain that speed for a short time,
somewhere along the 15 miles between Dwight and Pontiac, before braking back
to more normal speeds.
“The important thing is it’s a step in the right direction, but the question
becomes what do we gain by doing this?” said David Burns, a rail consultant
in suburban Chicago who drew up one of the first studies for high-speed
service on the route more than three decades ago.
Advocates say Midwest routes from Chicago hold the most immediate promise
for high-speed rail expansion outside Amtrak’s existing, much faster Acela
trains between Boston and Washington, D.C. They say it will give a growing
Midwest population an alternative to traveling by plane or car, promote
economic development along the route and create manufacturing jobs.
In first announcing his plans in 2009, Obama said a mature high-speed rail
network would also reduce demand for foreign oil and eliminate more than 6
billion pounds of carbon dioxide emissions a year — equivalent to removing 1
million cars from the roads. He set aside $8 billion in stimulus funds,
directing the first round of money to speeding up existing lines, like the
one across Illinois and calling it a down payment on an ambitious plan to
change the way Americans travel.
Even the short-term goals have run into trouble. Governors in Wisconsin,
Ohio and Florida turned down hundreds of millions of dollars in stimulus
funds, arguing not enough people would ride the trains and that states would
be hit with too much of a financial burden for future operations.
Things could get worse for high-speed plans and for Amtrak if Mitt Romney
wins the presidency next month.
Romney and Republicans are calling for an end to $1.5 billion in yearly
federal subsidies to money-losing Amtrak.
Nonetheless, proponents were cheered by Friday’s test ride and believe
projects already in progress have opened the door to future development.
“Given the fact that the program was a big zero at day one of the Obama
administration and how hard one of the two parties has fought to keep that
number at zero, I think we should be ecstatic about the progress,” said
Richard Harnish, director of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association.
Amtrak ridership hit a record 30 million passengers nationwide last year. On
the Chicago-to-St. Louis route, passenger numbers increased 11 percent over
the last fiscal year to more than 619,000 riders — some of them pulled in by
high gas prices, others by the convenience of being able to get work done
while en route.
“Driving is just wasting my time,” said Isaac Gaff, a 37-year-old music and
arts director at a church who uses train time to plow through email on his
laptop. He was waiting to get on the Amtrak line Thursday in Chicago to head
home to Normal, in central Illinois.
Other riders say it’s cheaper than flying, there’s more space, and there are
virtually none of the security headaches like those at airports.
“It’s not as much of a hassle, that’s for sure,” said Julia Markun, an
18-year-old college freshman getting on the same train.
But as the infrastructure is currently laid out, there is virtually no
chance trains will go much faster than 110 mph, primarily because trains on
Midwestern routes have to share the lines with the freight companies that
own the tracks.
Work to upgrade the track began in 2010 and has included the installation of
new premium rail and concrete ties as well as the realignment of curves to
support higher speeds. Safer gates and new signals were installed at some
Transportation officials expect that after another three years of upgrades,
the $1.5 billion in improvements can shave about an hour off the 284-mile
journey between Chicago and St. Louis, which now takes about 5 1/2 hours.
Future plans aim to shrink the time to under four hours.
But to begin to seriously compete with the one-hour plane journey, travel
time would have to go down to three hours, some experts say, leveling the
playing field when factoring in the extra time to clear airport security.
By car, the trip can be done in about five hours. But to pry more people
away from the door-to-door convenience of car travel you must have frequent
trains, at least one an hour, said Burns, the rail consultant. Amtrak
currently has six runs a day on the route.
A new generation of bi-level passenger cars for Amtrak’s Midwest and
California corridors is slated to be built at an Illinois plant operated by
the U.S. subsidiary of Nippon-Sharyo, the company that makes Japan’s bullet
trains. And an entirely new fleet of locomotives could also be on the way,
replacing designs that have been based on freight locomotives for decades.