Chicago banks on rail

By Chris Loeber

For many travelers in the U.S., intercity transportation means road trips and plane tickets. In the foreseeable future, it may also mean 220 mph trains.

A number of initiatives put forth by many levels of government in cooperation with the private sector could establish Chicago as a launching point for comprehensive high-speed rail networks in the Midwest.

The federal government announced on Jan. 4 that Illinois will receive $186 million for high-speed rail between Joliet and Dwight, Ill., as part of a $1.1 billion project to upgrade the Amtrak line between Chicago and St. Louis after its expected date of completion in 2014.

These improvements may not bring the U.S. up to speed with other countries that have invested heavily in high-performance railway systems, said Rick Harnish, executive director of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association. All current Amtrak service will be upgraded to run 110 mph, but Harnish believes new tracks should be built that will allow trains to run at 220 mph.

“In the 1930s, we had high-performance trains running in excess of 100 mph on a lot of routes that they’re talking about running 110 mph trains today,” Harnish said. “In 1964, trains started running between Tokyo and Osaka, [Japan] at 125 mph.”

The Midwest Regional Rail Initiative is a combined effort by nine states’ departments of transportation. Since 1996, it has pushed for an efficient and fast rail system that would span 3,000 miles throughout the region with Chicago at the center, according to a statement issued by the MRRI.

The Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency Program is a partnership between the City of Chicago, the State of Illinois and all of the freight and passenger railroads serving the city, said Jeffrey Sriver, program manager of the Chicago Department of Transportation. It is currently pursuing a coordinated set of 70 projects to improve the current rail network in the city and the region.

Chicago’s Union Station, 210 S. Canal St., the third busiest railroad terminal in the country, is operating at capacity during the busiest traffic hours of the day, Sriver said.

In order to expand the station to accommodate not only the current traffic but potential high-speed train traffic, the U.S. DOT has funded the Union Station Master Plan Study with a federal grant of $700,000.

“I think Chicago takes being the center [of the rail system] very seriously, as it does being the center of the Midwest economy,” Sriver said. “Improving the rail connections is very important to the competitiveness of the entire Midwest economy.”

However, not everyone agrees that the high-speed rail is crucial for economic development. According to Kristina Rasmussen, executive vice president at the Illinois Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, it is an undesirable and unsustainable technology.

“As California has demonstrated, high-speed rail plans tend to get more expensive,” Rasmussen said. “It tends to have very little to offer by way of relieving congestion or providing a service that people are willing to pay for at its true market price.”