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Illinois Doubling Down On High-Speed Rail

An Amtrak traincar.
(St. Louis Public Radio)
An Amtrak traincar.

Illinois Governor Pat Quinn was on board Friday when an Amtrak train reached speeds of 111 mph for the first time along a Chicago to St. Louis route. The train hit the mark on a stretch between Dwight and Pontiac before braking back to normal speeds of 79 mph. By the end of November, paying passengers will get to experience the higher speeds on that initial section between Dwight and Pontiac. 

The trip is meant to showcase part of the state's new high-speed rail line which will eventually run all the way to St. Louis.  When the high-speed line is complete, sometime in 2015, Amtrak hopes the new faster service will lure travelers away from other means of transport, like airlines.
Amtrak trains traveling in the Midwest currently travel around 80 m.p.h, Amtrak hopes to boost speeds up to 110 m.p.h.  Marc Magliari, a spokesperson for Amtrak, says the company wants to cut travel time between St. Louis and Chicago to around four hours.

"Right now we are about two hours longer than flying. We're going to get that within an hour of flying or less over time and we'll get more business that right now is flying," says Magliari.
Magliari says faster trains mean more round trips per day, which for many travelers is an even bigger selling point than just speed.

"Those are key elements when you sell travel. And certainly we've shown that everywhere we've added frequency and reduced travel times, the ridership goes through the roof because people are looking for better options than driving or flying."

Airlines have a toe-hold in the Midwest

Governor Quinn says Illinois is interested in the possibility of building a separate track so trains wouldn't have to share the line with freights. That would allow for passenger trains to go faster. Quinn says achieving that along a Chicago to Detroit line is possible in "short period of time."

Yet, not everyone is on-board with Amtrak's chances of luring riders away from regional air service. Professor Ray Mundy, the Director of Transportation Studies at the University of Missouri St. Louis, says people flying from St. Louis to Chicago are likely transferring onto other flights, meaning they aren't apt to take the train instead.
"So, literally the amount of people that are going from downtown St. Louis to downtown Chicago that would be affected by improved rail service…probably wouldn't be enough fill up on 737 that Southwest flies," says Mundy.

A question of subsidies

Victoria Day, with the industry group Airlines for America, points to places like the Northeast, where high-speed service has been available for years. Even there, she says, Amtrak still couldn't exist without government support.

"Unlike commercial aviation which does pay for its own infrastructure and operating costs,  through taxes and user fees, high-speed rail doesn't and that doesn't maintain a level playing field when both modes are competing for the same passenger," remarks Day.

The federal government actually does subsidize airports, particularly rural airports under the Essential Air Service program enacted in 1978.

But the battle for funding isn't all about the hearts and minds of passengers. Improvements to railways also benefit freight carriers and lower shipping costs means cheaper goods for consumers.

Many Illinois officials, almost all Democrats, were also onboard the inaugural ride Friday. They say high-speed rail is the future of transportation. Meantime, Republican leaders in neighboring states have rejected the federal money for high-speed rail.

Follow Adam Allington on Twitter: @aallington