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Brown: “High-speed” rail demo ride doesn’t wow, but still sparks hope

Illinois Gov. PQuinn left points out speed Amtrak trathhe US TransportatiSecretary Ray LaHood are riding as it reaches 111 mph

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, left, points out the speed of the Amtrak train that he and US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood are riding as it reaches 111 mph on a test run between Dwight and Pontiac, Ill., Friday, Oct. 19, 2012, in Pontiac, Ill. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

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For the second time in eight months, a demonstration ride on a “high-speed” AMTRAK passenger train originating out of Chicago has left me underwhelmed but hopeful.

Friday’s trip on a special VIP train run from Joliet to Normal was labeled “historic” by Gov. Pat Quinn and U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood for clipping along at speeds of 110 miles per hour for maybe five minutes.

Quinn and LaHood were perhaps unaware that 10 years ago, also on the eve of an election if you can imagine, the same Illinois Department of Transportation offered another high-speed rail demonstration along nearly the same stretch of track, also reaching 110 mph.

Such is the history of high-speed rail in the Midwest, which is really only catching back up to speeds that were commonly achieved by passenger trains in this country prior to World War II (when there were a lot fewer cars to get in the way.)

What promises to make it different this time is an infusion of money from President Barack Obama’s stimulus package, which has channeled $2 billion in federal funding into Illinois — most of it directed at improving passenger service from Chicago to St. Louis.

State transportation officials said that should be enough money for Illinois to make 110-mph trains a reality along 75 percent of the Chicago-St. Louis route — carving an hour off the five and a half-hour trip — by 2015.

The remaining 25 percent includes nettlesome stretches from Chicago to Joliet and from Alton to St. Louis, which could bring the trip down to less than four hours — and add a few more billion to the price tag.

Something tells me Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan might not like that idea as much as a former Illinois senator sitting in the White House who picked a pork-minded ex-Illinois congressman to run his transportation department.

As one of those who would very much like to see rail become a practical alternative to air or automobile travel, I’m forever hoping this won’t turn out to be just another boondoggle.

The Chicago to St. Louis route strikes me as particularly attractive for those who, let’s just say, might want to see a World Series baseball game on occasion.

This year one could more readily accomplish that goal by taking Amtrak to Detroit.

You may recall in February that Amtrak and Michigan officials showed off their own 110-mph service over a stretch of track between here and Kalamazoo — on a route that eventually gets you to the Motor City.

The big difference between the Kalamazoo demo ride and Friday’s Illinois trip is that Amtrak could run at its top speed along 80 miles of track in the February ride, including one blissful 42-mile stretch in Michigan, while all Illinois has ready to go is 15 miles of track from Dwight to Pontiac.

As Friday’s demo train entered the high-speed zone at Dwight, it slowed noticeably from its normal top speed of 79-mph until cars on I-55 were speeding past. No explanation was offered.

When the train finally did reach top speed — actually hitting 111-mph, one mph faster than allowed — the train shimmied slightly but offered a smooth enough ride until it became necessary to slow down again through Pontiac.

New rail and concrete ties have been installed from Joliet south to provide a more stable ride. What remains to be done is to add rail siding capacity for trains operating on the one-track route to get out of each other’s way and to complete a new train control signal system to allow them to travel safely.

Nobody could tell me how much of the $2 billion already has been spent.

One of the big questions going forward is whether the high-speed rail route will continue to travel from Chicago to Joliet across Metra’s Heritage corridor, which is owned by Canadian National railroad, or move to Metra’s Rock Island line.

The more lightly travelled Rock Island line is attracting interest because it poses fewer conflicts with freight train operations — the biggest cause of delays — and because it would require construction of fewer grade separations.

As Quinn and LaHood touted the jobs creation aspect of the project, unionized state employees and retirees picketed their appearances in both Joliet and Normal. They were protesting the governor’s plans to eliminate 3,000 state jobs, including Dwight prison and the juvenile detention center in Joliet.

Strangely enough, none of them said thank you for riding Amtrak.

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