By Julie Sneider, assistant editor
The highpoint to date of the $1.5 billion Chicago-to-St. Louis corridor high-speed rail project occurred on Thanksgiving Day 2012, when Amtrak Lincoln Service trains began operating up to 110 mph over a 15-mile stretch between Dwight and Pontiac, Ill.
Although passenger train speeds elsewhere on the corridor continue to run at 79 mph, reaching 110 mph along those 15 miles was a major milestone for the Illinois rail network and high-speed rail service in the Midwest, project officials say.
Today, six daily Amtrak Lincoln Service trains operate at 110 mph on the segment.
Although passenger trains aren't reaching speeds that some HSR supporters define as "true" high speed — 220 mph or faster — Chicago-St. Louis riders have welcomed the availability of 110 mph service along the corridor, says John Oimoen, deputy director of the Illinois Department of Transportation's (IDOT) Division of Public and Intermodal Transportation.
"The couple of times that I've ridden it, I've noticed passengers love to see the train going considerably faster than the cars along I-55," Oimoen says.
The Chicago-St. Louis project is significant because of its scope and size, the number of stakeholders involved, and the fact that it was among the first to begin construction under the federal High Speed Intercity Passenger Rail program.
Of the 35 million trips taken annually on the 284-mile corridor, about 99 percent are traveled via air or highway, and the rest are taken on Amtrak. When finished, the project — which includes track upgrades, grade-crossing and other safety improvements, new or rebuilt stations and the procurement of new rail cars and locomotives — will result in a more balanced, multi-modal transportation network through faster, safer and more reliable service, project officials say.
By 2015's end, up to 75 percent of the corridor is expected to be ready for 110 mph trains (between Dwight and Alton, Ill.), which would shorten the Chicago-St. Louis trip by an hour. Currently, the trip takes about five-and-a-half hours. The entire project is slated for completion in 2017, when the infrastructure will be in place to accommodate 110 mph trains traveling between Dwight and Joliet, Ill.
Illinois state and business leaders say an improved Chicago-St. Louis corridor will produce economic and environmental benefits for state and local communities long after the project itself is completed.
"Most of the freight rail that moves through the country comes through Chicago, and we need to be able to have efficient movement of that freight and provide [passenger] service to our customers," says Oimoen.
IDOT and the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) are the project's lead agencies and Parsons Brinckerhoff is the program manager. Project partners include Union Pacific Railroad, which owns the right of way south of Joliet and operates freight service through the corridor; Amtrak, which operates passenger-rail service on the route; the Illinois Commerce Commission; and other host railroads, including CN, Kansas City Southern and the Terminal Railroad Association of St. Louis.
"This is a ground-breaking project," says Phil Pasterak, who leads the Parsons Brinckerhoff team. "I don't think there has been this many improvements to a joint freight and passenger railroad of this length and scope before."
The venture has required a massive amount of coordination and communication between state and federal agencies, freight railroads, Amtrak and the local communities along the route.
"It's imperative that we balance all the various needs: keep the freight moving, keep the passengers moving, and meet the construction deadlines that the FRA has given us," says Pasterak.
An outreach program was established to keep project-related information flowing between IDOT, UP, Amtrak and the cities, towns, counties and other stakeholders. Outreach efforts have included briefings with local media and elected officials; public meetings and hearings; the availability of a speakers bureau; and information booths at community events. In addition, IDOT set up a special website — www.idothsr.org — to track project progress and provide regular updates on temporary crossing closures and bidding information for potential contractors.
"We put extra effort into having this process as transparent as possible," says Oimoen. "One of the challenges that we've had that we didn't anticipate was the level of public involvement on grade crossings, and working with the local communities and providing what they desire and what's needed per our standards. It's been a lesson learned for us on being as proactive as we can be."
Construction began in September 2010 with track improvements on a 90-mile stretch of the UP line north of Alton to south of Springfield, and north of Springfield to just south of Lincoln. UP performed the work, using a track renewal train for much of it. By April 2011, the second construction round began: upgrades to 96 miles of existing track between Elkhart and Dwight. Also that year, another 18 miles of track were built between St. Louis and Lenox, Ill. In 2012, construction focused on the areas between Wann and Godfrey, and from Pontiac to Joliet. The work included new sidings and second track, bridge and culvert upgrades, drainage improvements, installation and upgrades of signal and wayside equipment, and grade crossing and approach improvements.
Over the past two years, 243 miles of track have been upgraded. This summer, work on two siding upgrades, bridge and structural upgrades and significant crossing improvements will be completed between Carlinville and Thayer, says Pasterak.
UP's corridor work this year will include reconstruction of six bridges south of Springfield and eight bridges north of Springfield; crossing and drainage structure upgrades in Macoupin County; siding work in Carlinville; the start of construction of a second mainline in Girard; and fencing in Pontiac, Dwight, Carlinville and Thayer, says UP spokesman Mark Davis.
Project officials also are making progress on drafting environmental documents required under the National Environmental Policy Act, Oimoen says. In June, IDOT and Springfield and Sangamon county officials signed an intergovernmental agreement to advance track reconfiguration and alignments in Springfield — "a significant step forward for us and the project," he adds.
Meanwhile, conceptual planning and design is under way for new or refurbished stations. Joliet received a discretionary grant from IDOT to build a multi-modal facility and make safety improvements at the station. The first of three construction phases and design work are under way, according to IDOT. In Dwight, design is proceeding on a new station located south of the current one; in Pontiac, a new station will be designed for a location southwest of the existing station; and in Normal, a new multi-modal facility funded by a Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant opened in July 2012.
Other projects in the works include upgrades to existing stations in Lincoln and Springfield, and new stations for Carlinville and Alton. Conceptual planning is under way in Carlinville; and in Alton, the city received a TIGER grant to construct a multi-modal facility to be integrated with a new IDOT high-speed rail station.
On the mechanical side, IDOT is leading a procurement process for 35 next-generation, diesel-electric locomotives to run on high-speed rail lines in Illinois, Michigan, Missouri, Iowa, Washington and California. As of press time, IDOT was preparing to issue an RFP this summer, select a vendor in November and sign a contract by early next year. [Editor's note: The U.S. Department of Transportation announced the RFP's release on Aug. 8.]
Last year, Illinois participated in a multi-state procurement that hired Sumitomo/Nippon-Sharyo to build 130 next-generation rail cars for high-speed service. The company is manufacturing those cars at its new plant in Rochelle, Ill.
HSR advocates say demand for the service is there. Consider: Amtrak logged its highest ridership ever in fiscal-year 2012, up 3.5 percent to 31,240,565 passengers. Combined ridership on Amtrak's Lincoln Service and Texas Eagle trains in the Chicago-St. Louis corridor jumped 11 percent to a new record of 675,000 passengers.
But some HSR proponents, like U.S. High Speed Rail Association President and Chief Executive Officer Andy Kunz, say the Chicago-St. Louis corridor project is just a small step toward building a nationwide rail network on which trains can travel at speeds of 200 mph or faster. Kunz advocates for a nationwide high-speed rail system comprising 220 mph and 110 mph routes.
"What's good about 110 mph is that it shows immediate results of high-speed investment," he says. "We can invest a smaller amount of money so that more people start using the trains, which will help pave the way for the next big investment in high-speed rail."
For now, the federal and state investments in the Chicago-St. Louis corridor improvements are about more than speed — they're also about providing safer and more reliable rail service for passengers and freight customers, says IDOT's Oimoen.
"When the project is done, we've significantly reduced travel times to be car competitive," he adds. "In a lot of cases, depending on the traffic in the Chicago area, we can exceed what it would take you to get from St. Louis to Chicago."
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