High-speed rail service to St. Louis on track

2011-12-04T18:00:00Z High-speed rail service to St. Louis on trackBy Medill News Service nwitimes.com
December 04, 2011 6:00 pm  • 

The construction of the high-speed railway between Chicago and St. Louis will move forward, officials said, despite Congress' decision to eliminate funding for high-speed rail projects.

The House and Senate recently rejected President Barack Obama's request of $8 billion for the project next year and $53 billion over the next six years. The federal money was critical to many high-speed rail projects around the country.

In 2009, Obama called for an effort to build a high-speed rail system, which was expected to serve 80 percent of Americans by 2035. Congress approved $8 billion in 2009 and $2 billion more later for 10 designated high-speed rail corridors, including a Midwest network with Chicago as the hub.

The route between Chicago and St. Louis is the only line under construction in the Midwest network. The project will upgrade the current track between the two cities and allow trains to run at speeds as high as 110 mph.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said the project will not be affected by Congress' decision.

"The lack of future funding specifically for high-speed rail will not impact the current projects that are ongoing in Illinois, including the Chicago to St. Louis route," said Christina Mulka, Durbin's spokeswoman.

"Illinois received nearly $2 billion in funding over the last two years for high-speed rail projects," she said. "This funding is creating jobs and improving passenger rail service in Illinois right now and will benefit our state for years to come."

Illinois received $1.1 billion in federal funding for improvements between Chicago and St. Louis in 2009. In addition to the federal funding, the Illinois Legislature has appropriated $400 million.

The construction on some segments of the route has been completed, while the route for other segments is still being studied. The project is expected to be completed by 2014.

The national railway operator Amtrak said its ridership in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30 set the highest record since 1971 with 30.2 million riders. Amtrak's ridership has kept rising in the past decade, increasing by 44 percent since 2000.

Current Amtrak service between Chicago and St. Louis, which comprises five daily round trips, also saw a robust growth in recent years, increasing by 28.6 percent between fiscal 2008 and 2009, and by another 17.6 percent between 2009 and 2010.

The route carried 610,000 passengers in fiscal year 2011, a drop of 5 percent from the previous year. Amtrak said the decrease was due to heavy construction that temporarily reduced train frequencies on the route.

However, the railway passengers accounted for only a few percent of the 35 million annual trips along the Chicago to St. Louis corridor, most of which are accomplished by car or plane.

The travel time of 19 daily nonstop flights between the two cities is a few minutes over one hour. Driving time is roughly equal to current train travel at about 5.5 hours.

Officials say the high-speed rail project will shorten travel time between the cities by 90 minutes, and increase the number of daily round trips to eight or nine.

Richard Harnish, executive director of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association, a nonprofit advocating fast train service, said the Chicago to St. Louis route has been approved and will move forward as planned, but public pressure is necessary to get funding for other projects.

"It's really critical that people tell their elected representatives that they want to be able to travel without car, they want high-speed rail," Harnish said.

Durbin said he is disappointed that Congress will not approve money for Obama's high-speed rail project, but he is confident that some money will be found for Illinois through the Transportation Department's $500 million TIGER program, which makes grants to projects that achieve critical national objectives.

"Across the country, high-speed rail is consistent with the TIGER grant program's objective," he said. "I will work to see that high-speed rail projects in Illinois are made eligible for funding through this program."

The Illinois Department of Transportation submitted an application for $20 million through the TIGER program last month to improve rail safety on the Chicago to St. Louis route. 

 

 

 

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