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What Happened to High-Speed Rail in Illinois?

Congress approved an $8 billion plan to develop speedy railways nearly a decade ago. So where’s our bullet train to St. Louis?

Photo: Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune

Last week, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Ed Markey rolled out their Green New Deal, a policy package meant to cut carbon emissions and boost the economy.

One provision in particular was dismissed as a pie-in-the-sky joke: building out high-speed rail to “a scale where air travel stops becoming necessary.”

But what folks forget is that Congress already approved an $8 billion plan to establish high-speed rail in America, first announced by Obama nearly 10 years ago. “Imagine whisking through towns at speeds of over 100 miles an hour, walking only a few steps to public transportation, and ending up just blocks from your destination,” he said in an April 2009 address.

That, of course, hasn’t happened. Even in Obama’s adoptive home state, Amtrak is still slow.

Take the $1.95-billion Illinois high-speed train, which was meant to zip passengers between Chicago and St. Louis at 110 MPH, saving nearly an hour. Construction was set to finish between 2015 and 2017, and for the most part, it’s done. Amtrak and IDOT officials say that new or upgraded infrastructure (tracks, crossings, stations, bridges) are already making the journey safer, smoother, and more consistently on-time.

But it’s no faster. As of early 2019, trains on the Lincoln Service line top out at 79 MPH. The 284-mile trip still takes five and a half hours.

IDOT spokesperson Guy Tridgell says faster speeds are coming soon. A section of the route between Springfield and St. Louis will allow for 90 MPH travel by this summer, and the rest will follow suit by 2020, Tridgell says.

But there’s no longer an official timetable for 110 MPH trains.

“We don’t know for sure,” said Tridgell. “We hope that the schedule comes into focus soon.”

The delays are largely bureaucratic. Amtrak trains aren’t allowed to hit 110 MPH without first testing what’s called positive train control (PTC) under the guidance of the Federal Railroad Administration. The safety technology is meant to prevent collisions and derailments by automatically slowing trains that are going too fast — say, around the bend of a track, or if an engineer becomes incapacitated.

The problem is, nobody seems to be in a hurry to implement the system. In 2008, Congress gave rail operators until 2015 to roll out PTC, but eventually extended the deadline to 2018.

By December 31 of last year, only four of the nation’s 41 rail systems had installed PTC. Amtrak was among the companies that filed for another extension. The new deadline has been pushed back to 2020.

“They’re complicated systems and it’s meant substantial testing, but they’re still coming,” says Amtrak spokesperson Marc Magliari.

Safety testing isn’t the only holdup. Last year, Amtrak replaced some outdated engines with 33 Charger models, high-tech iron horses made by German company Siemens capable of reaching 125 MPH.

But the accompanying high-speed passenger cars are still MIA because the original manufacturer, Nippon Sharyo, botched the job.

Back in 2012, Gov. Pat Quinn signed a contract with the Japanese company that opened a $35 million passenger rail plant in Rochelle, Illinois. The facility, which received a $10 million in state and local incentives, was to produce 130 bilevel passenger rail cars by early 2017. Eighty-eight were earmarked for Amtrak service in the Midwest, to St. Louis and Detroit; the rest were for the California Department of Transportation.

But Nippon Sharyo’s prototype failed a crucial safety test in 2015. Meanwhile, OSHA fined the company $19,550 for its second employee safety violation. The company ultimately lost the $350 million CDOT contract to Siemens in 2017, and closed up shop in Rochelle last fall, after six years in the state. The Siemens plant in Sacramento is picking up the slack, but those coach cars aren’t scheduled for rollout until sometime between 2020 and early 2023.

While we wait, it’s worth asking: Is Illinois even getting true high-speed rail? Not exactly, says Rick Harnish, executive director of the Midwest High-Speed Rail Association (MHSRA).

“We’ve endured a lot of sweat, blood, and tears for money for this project, and it’s money well spent because the trains are safer and more reliable,” said Harnish. “But no, it’s not high-speed rail.”

Consider the zippy bullet trains in Europe and Asia that break anywhere from 150 to 220 MPH. In December, an urban planner posted a tweet that went viral, noting that 35 bullet trains a day blaze from Shanghai to Beijing in four and a half hours — about 220 MPH. Meanwhile, in America, Amtrak’s Empire Builder service runs the same distance, from New York to Chicago, once a day. It takes 19 hours.

Harnish adds that an 80 MPH ride would’ve felt sluggish even during the Warren Harding administration when it wasn’t uncommon for trains to exceed 100 MPH.“[Passenger trains] have been going 80 miles per hour for the last 100 years,” he says.

That trains are slower than they were during the Great Depression isn’t Amtrak’s fault. In 2016, Federal Railroad Association administrator Sarah Feinberg, testifying in Congress, noted that China spent $126 billion on high-speed rail in 2015 alone. That’s more than 10 times what the US invested between 2010 and 2016.

The price tag for a 220 MPH train — actual high-speed rail — running from O’Hare through the Loop to Champaign to St. Louis or Indianapolis would be $22 to $39 billion, according to a 2013 feasibility study by University of Illinois. The same study suggests that the system could be operationally profitable — but unless Elon Musk ditches his electric roller skate tunnels for an electric train system, the money is unlikely to surface.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration tried to cut Amtrak’s budget in half last year, and just appointed Leon Westmoreland to the company’s Board of Directors. When Westmoreland, a former Republican congressman from Georgia, served on the House Rail Subcommittee, he twice voted to end Amtrak funding.

In other words: Who’s excited for moderate-speed rail in America?

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