6.10.08

SPEEDING UP THE TRAINS. The Federal Railroad Safety Improvement Act includes substantial moneys for safety improvements and provision for the equipment to permit faster running by Amtrak.

Modern, comfortable, double-deck trains with wide seats and large windows would churn along at top speeds of 110 m.p.h. The faster trains would shave hours off trips, delivering passengers from one downtown to another hundreds of miles away.

Amtrak trains in most of the Midwest now operate at up to 79 m.p.h., although average speeds are much slower, especially around Chicago due to freight traffic.

Driving, which results in more than 40,000 fatalities a year, would take a back seat as a transportation choice, proponents say.

So, too, would air travel as consumers factor in the time it takes to go through airport security, the hassle of flying and the time spent traveling from outlying airports.

Travel times of almost 51/2 hours on Amtrak's route between Chicago and St. Louis would be cut to 3 hours and 49 minutes on a high-speed train, according to preliminary estimates.

In the past year, more than 501,000 rides were taken on Amtrak's Lincoln Service route between Chicago and St. Louis, a 284-mile trip, a 15 percent increase over the previous year. Some 1.2 million rides a year would be taken when the route is served by high-speed trains, according projections by the Illinois Department of Transportation.

In addition to the congressional action, the Federal Railroad Administration last week approved grants to Illinois to install train-control and cab-signaling systems on part of the route to facilitate high-speed trains.

A high-speed rail line between Chicago and the Twin Cities could be running within five years, according to U.S. Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.), chairman of the House Transportation Committee. The roughly eight-hour trip on Amtrak from Chicago to St. Paul would be cut to about 51/2 hours under the working proposal.

Planners envision the line running from Chicago up through Milwaukee, Madison, the Twin Cities and eventually Duluth, while separate routes from Chicago would extend east to Detroit, Cleveland and Cincinnati.

It's apparent there would be a strong market. Even today, with slow service and a poor on-time performance record, Amtrak finished fiscal 2008 last week with its sixth straight year of ridership growth.

I've provided an image of a traditional bi-level streamlined train capable of 90 mph operation. The news article has a graphic giving the anticipated travel times after the upgrade. It has no historical context. I've augmented that graphic's presentation of current and proposed running times with best running times from my April 1951 Official Guide. From Chicago to

  1. St. Louis (110 mph line) 5:20 current, 3:49 proposed; 5:10 in 1951. Some of the track on this line is good for 110 and the alley tracks through Springfield have been improved. I'll be nice and not mention an electric air line proposal from the early 1900s for this route.
  2. Milwaukee (110 mph) 1:29 present, 1:04 proposed; 1:15. Regular readers know where I stand on this service. That accelerated timing is four minutes slower than a Milwaukee Road proposal in 1938, using streamlined 4-6-4s, that was shelved under an agreement with the Chicago and North Western, a competing carrier that could match a 75 minute timing but could not manage a 60 minute timing.
  3. Detroit (110 mph) 5:36 current, 3:46 proposed; 5:10. There's some 100 mph track in western Michigan already. There is more potential on this line at some of the intermediate stops, including Dearborn and Birmingham for business travelers and Ann Arbor and Kalamazoo for student traffic than there is in Detroit itself.
  4. Cleveland (110 mph) 6:24 current, 4:22 proposed; 5:47. The map suggests a routing along the old New York Central, which calls at South Bend and Toledo and some small cities.
  5. Cincinnati (110 mph) 8:10 current (triweekly), 4:08 proposed; 5:30 using the New York Central's route via Indianapolis.
  6. Carbondale (90 mph) 5:30 current, 4:22 proposed; 4:32. The Illinois Central used to run extra sections of trains at college breaks, on a 100 mph railroad. Corporate downsizing included removing the safety appliances and much of the second main track.
  7. Omaha (79 mph) 8:37 current, 7:02 proposed; 8:57 using the proposed Rocky Mountain Rocket via Des Moines, the Denver Zephyr made it in 7:30 on the current Amtrak route, and the Midwest Hiawatha took 8:30 on trackage that has since been torn out. The Des Moines route is more thickly settled. It requires work.
  8. St. Paul (110 mph) 8:05 current, 5:31 proposed; 6:15 on the Afternoon Hiawatha or the Morning Zephyr. The high-speed plan includes a Watertown-Madison-Portage diversion from the current route. Will there be a European-style reversal of direction in Madison, or will the station be somewhere on the east side of town, remote from the university and the capitol?
I'm enthusiastic about this proposal, although I'll believe it when I see it implemented.

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