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Speeding to Kalamazoo aboard Amtrak’s high-speed train

A high speed Amtrak Tracrosses railroad bridge Ping Tom Park Chinatown Chicago.  The tramade fast trip from Chicago Kalamazoo

A high speed Amtrak Train crosses the railroad bridge at Ping Tom Park in Chinatown in Chicago. The train made a fast trip from Chicago to Kalamazoo, Michigan and back to Union Station this morning. | Al Podgorski~Chicago Sun-Times

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Updated: March 17, 2012 10:27AM

When the Pioneer Zephyr — better known as the Silver Streak — made its historic run from Denver to Chicago in 1934, the diesel-powered passenger train now on display at the Museum of Science and Industry topped out at 112.5 miles per hour, which at the time was only slightly off the world land speed record.

What then are we to make of Wednesday’s official Amtrak kickoff for its first “high speed rail” corridor outside the Northeast — on which trains traveling between Chicago and Kalamazoo, Mich., will now reach top speeds of 110 miles per hour?

Bring back the Silver Streak?

There was definitely a Back to the Future feel aboard the special Amtrak train that departed Union Station at 7 a.m. Wednesday carrying news media and dignitaries on a mission to commemorate the return to speeds commonly achieved by America’s rail industry more than a half-century ago.

I was among those on board, curious to see if 110 mph is noticeably faster. It is, although not quite so much that you would consider it a revelation.

Still, if more of America’s railways were able to accommodate such speeds, I can promise you more of us would be riding the train, even if there is no comparison to the faster bullet trains of other nations.

With the smell of Amtrak’s version of the Egg McMuffin wafting from the dining car, we covered the 138 miles between Chicago and Kalamazoo in two hours eight minutes, which included a 10-minute stop in New Buffalo to take on more passengers.

As the train reached its top speed, Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari relayed speedometer readings from the engineer in a manner reminiscent of the scene from “The Right Stuff” when Chuck Yeager breaks the sound barrier.

“We are now at 90 miles per hour … We’ve now reached 100 miles per hour en route to 110 …We’ve now reached our maximum speed of 110 miles per hour,” Magliari said in the smooth voice of the radio reporter he once was.

Surprising to me, though, the 110-mph speeds take only 10 minutes off the one-way trip, officials said.

That’s because trains on the route were already going as fast as 95 mph before the most recent improvements that involved installing a high-tech train control system.

Also, the top speed is permitted across only 80 of the 138-mile distance. The slowest portions are between here and Porter, Ind., where the 97-mile “high speed” corridor begins — and then almost immediately slows as it passes through Michigan City.

The longest continuous stretch of 110-mph rail goes for 42 miles through Michigan, which you can cover in 23 minutes at that speed — a good way to put an expanse of snowy Michigan farmland behind you in a hurry, I can now attest.

The ride was noisy and bumpy. Walking the aisle at the highest speeds was challenging. Using the washroom was similar to what you might experience on a turbulent flight. On the other hand, the wi-fi worked great.

After some speechifying in Kalamazoo, we made the turn and were back in Chicago by 12:30 p.m. — exactly on schedule. Amtrak officials say dependability — and frequency of trains — are bigger issues in attracting riders than achieving high speeds.

If you’re wondering why you’d want to go to Kalamazoo, the short answer is it’s halfway on Amtrak’s route to Detroit, and Michigan officials will turn their attention next to upgrading that portion of the journey. Eventually, they’d like to cut the five and a half hour trip between here and Detroit to three hours 45 minutes.

If you’re wondering why we can’t do this in Illinois, the short answer is we’re working on it — trying to establish a 110-mph route between here and St. Louis.

But the key factor on the Michigan route is that Amtrak already owned this particular stretch of tracks, minimizing the freight versus passenger train conflicts that are at the root of this country’s slower-by-comparison passenger system.

Most of the track between Joliet and Alton already has been upgraded to accommodate higher speeds, and the key now is putting in place the train control system to allow the passenger and freight traffic to coexist safely — still years from completion.

Plenty of time to spruce up the Silver Streak.

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