Major Study Advocates 220 Mph Operation on Chicago-St. Louis Run

Chicago-St. Louis High Speed Rail MapMidwest High Speed Rail Association envisions a less than two-hour express trip between the cities.

Today, the Midwest High Speed Rail Association released a major report studying 220 mph train service between Chicago and St. Louis. Though the project has yet to be endorsed by any government officials, the Association’s study will stimulate further discussion about the level of investment necessary for the link between the two cities. More importantly, the study’s conclusions indicate that Illinois’ existing plans for 110 mph, four-hour service between the metro regions are out of date and under-scaled to meet travel needs in the Midwest.

The study, completed by consultant Tran Systems, was commissioned by the Association to determine costs and other elements of a potential very-fast service across the state of Illinois. The main challenge of the report was to compare the existing Amtrak corridor, which runs almost directly from Chicago to St. Louis, via Springfield, with another corridor, partially unused, which runs via Champaign and Decatur before continuing on. The latter route was found to be acceptable for a 220 mph operating speed, largely because it is quite straight throughout. The Amtrak route is constrained by numerous curves which would slow down trains considerably.

Excitingly, the study argues that trains could run express between the major cities, with stops in Champaign and Springfield, in 1h52; with more stops in Kankakee, Decatur, and Metro East, trains could complete the journey in 2h04. The study advocates hourly trips. These journey times compare favorably with operations on the very similar Paris-Lyon TGV corridor in France. According to the report, the line could be rebuilt with electric catenary for $11.5 billion in 2012 dollars, an estimate that does not include rolling stock or maintenance facilities. The study argues that the state could prevent a sudden loss of treasury by building the line in seven phases.

The short report is worth a glance-through; though it isn’t particularly detailed, it is the first step towards transforming ideas for this Illinois route from mediocrity to world-class status.

The cost of implementation for this project would be relatively minimal considering how effectively it would likely contest air and road travel along the corridor. This route is currently served by at least 41 daily round trips on a number of airlines, making it one of the U.S.’s major air links and one that would be prime territory for rail market share takeover considering the less than two hour trip made possible by high-speed trains. The route could also serve as the central corridor of a line eventually stretching west to Kansas City and south to Dallas; the connection at Chicago would similarly provide new routes to Minneapolis, Detroit, Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Indianapolis.

It’s two bad that this report was commissioned, then, by the Midwest High Speed Rail Association, not the Illinois Department of Transportation. We need to push this route as one of America’s major transportation corridors, but few at the state or national levels are willing to take the major political step necessary to begin pushing for a financial commitment similar to California’s $10 billion high-speed rail bond approved last November. Illinois needs a push now to make this study more than simply a series of hypotheticals.

Image above: Potential routes for Express HSR service, from Midwest HSR Association

27 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Avi

    Give them 8-10 billion of the 13b federal dollars available. Let the cities and states kick in the rest. This should be the quickest/cheapest plan for true HSR in the US. Once it’s completely it should be able to excite other regions to set up with real plans also.

  • The current Amtrak route is fairly straight as well, with curves that are easy to straighten, except in the vicinity of St. Louis.

    On another note, the cost estimates are padded by a factor of 1.5 due to allocated engineering work and allocated contingency (i.e. the self-reinforcing belief that the project will go over budget).

  • Chris G

    Nice to see this report.

    But I want to bring up a point or two.

    To compete against the said 40+ round trips and actually lead to removal of those flights, you would have to serve the airports on the line. This isnt practical in this study and this line. The argument put forth implies that those flights are full of people flying from Chicago to St Louis only. Which I’d be willing to be is 10% or less of the people flying that route. No I do not have the stats to back that up. Just an understanding of how the hub theory works in air scheduling.

    Second, I would still say straight to 220 is not the way to move on this line. Sure those two cities are similar to Paris and Lyon, but they do not have the connections at the end of make it a fair comparison.

    That all said, we do have to start somewhere. And the more reports stating we need more/faster/more frequent trains is a very good thing.

  • KansasNate

    St. Louis’ public transportation is shitty at best, and non-existent in many parts of the city. How do you suggest people coming from Chicago get around in St. Louis once they arrive?

    This is the largest problem with midwest high speed rail. Republicans have underfunded public transportation in cities and now there is nothing for a regional rail system to connect with.

    All of federal funds should go to connect cities that have good public transit.

  • Mark Jaroski

    This routing would be very very interesting for me. I live in Switzerland, but visit the Midwest once or twice a year, and having adjusted to Swiss life I prefer if possible to take the train.

    As it happens I have family to visit in Champaign, Springfield, and in Springfield MO (between St. Louis and Tulsa). I would also make a lot of use of what I assume would be a truncated Illini service from Champaign to Carbondale, since we also have family in S. Illinois.

    As it stands one of the major annoyances of our semi-annual trip is the inevitable car-rental in Springfield to go to Champaign or the other way around. It just seems wrong that the two cities are not connected by rail.

  • Adirondacker

    How do you suggest people coming from Chicago get around in St. Louis once they arrive?

    The same way they get around when they fly? or take the current train, which is very popular or Greyhound…

  • KansasNate

    I can see it now, a train station surrounded by a field of rental car parking lots connected to an interstate 20 miles outside of the center of the city…

    I guess my only mental picture of high speed rail success comes from europe and japan. One of the main reasons rail can beat flight is because of the decreased time to/from the airport. That only works if the stations are in the center of the city. And I suppose you can take cabs, etc.. but it seems a bit non-nonsensical to depend on auto transit for the last part of a high speed rail journey.

  • NikolasM

    It would lead to densification and calls for better mass transit than the relatively laughable light rail metro that St. Louis currently has.

    This is a good line for high speed. It could in the future be continued on to Kansas City – Denver, south to Memphis – New Orleans, and to Little Rock- DFW.

  • tom veil

    KansasNate: you don’t need that many rental cars to serve a station. DC fits their rental car operators quite comfortably on one floor of a parking garage built above the rail yard.

  • St. Louis’s rail transit network is more than twice the size of Lyon’s.

  • Dono

    Lyon’s public transportation system has 4 metro lines, 4 tramways, 2 funiculars, BRT (Cristalis) and regional rail (TER). The 4 metro lines alone have over 700,000 trips a day.

    Surely you are must realize this is an apples-to-oranges comparison Alon?

  • St. Louis Metrolink: 46 miles (LRT).
    Lyon Metro: 19 miles + Lyon Tram: 31 miles (LRT) = total 50 miles. Lyon also has two funiculars and two bus rapid transit lines, with another under construction.

    More importantly, though, Lyon’s rail transit network is compact and incorporates eight lines, making it far more relevant to the daily lives of a far larger percentage of the city’s citizenry. St. Louis’ light rail is basically one trunk line with three termini, serving only people on one corridor and providing suburb-to-core commutes.

    While I think high-speed rail will do fine in the Midwest, in this case, I don’t think network length is the most important point here, and there certainly is a lot to do in improving St. Louis’ public transportation.

  • Sean

    Once Saint Louis is served by a genuine high speed line and there is the influx of people into the DT area that haven’t gotten their via car, you will see a clamoring for expanded transit access. As it is, STL has a light-rail system that connects the DT to the airport and eastern and western supports.

    And Chicago has PLENTY of transit options around Union Station, and if the Clinton Street Subway is built, there will be DIRECT rail transit access.

  • Sean

    Also, most of STL’s main DT attractions are within walking distance of the Amtrak train station, so there is plenty for rail travelers to see and do upon arrival.

  • Sean

    It appears that the eastern routing if the line has far more curves than the existing western alignment. The eastern alignment zig zags. I don’t like that. There may be more smaller curves in the western alignment but it parallels I-55 and hits the major downstate Illinois metro areas.

    I think upgrading the line from Chicago to Urbana/Champaign to 110 mph would be a good idea but a line between Chicago and Saint Louis should be as straight as possible.

  • Wad

    Nikolas M wrote:

    It would lead to densification and calls for better mass transit than the relatively laughable light rail metro that St. Louis currently has.

    One does not necessarily follow the other.

    St. Louis voted down a transit tax this past November at a time when transit measures had a success rate of about 80% nationwide. Missouri, as well as Oregon, voted down taxes.

    In St. Louis’ case, it has a light rail line that has been peforming reasonably well. It wasn’t a Buffalo or San Jose, though it’s more like Buffalo in the sense that the light rail was put in but the city has not been changed. St. Louis has had since 1993 to leverage its strengths to incorporate into its urban form, but it hasn’t because the region has been stagnant.

    KansasNate wrote:

    I can see it now, a train station surrounded by a field of rental car parking lots connected to an interstate 20 miles outside of the center of the city…

    The same thing never hurt the airports.

    The success of high-speed rail does not hinge on the success of a local transit system. Otherwise, there would be a stronger correlation between the two.

    In fact, there is a cautionary tale in the Bay Area. BART was extended to San Francisco International Airport at great expense. BART expected world-beating numbers to take the train into San Francisco. The actual ridership turned out to be disastrously low. The popping of the 1990s and 2000s bubbles did not affect figures much anyway, so it can’t be said that BART to SFO would be a success if it weren’t for the economy. It failed to induce people to take BART to the airport, and mode choice at the airport had been mostly the same since the time before the extension.

    The people who got the worst end of it were the bus riders in San Mateo County. The BART extension was paid for by a massive reduction in bus service. The service reductions resulted in more lost ridership than BART had brought in.

    If people need to find a way around a city and they can’t or won’t use public transit, something will step up to fill a need. Rental car agencies are already motivated to book as many vehicles as they can; if they see a business opportunity, why shouldn’t they seize it? Besides, the added traffic is St. Louis’ problem, not Chicago’s.

  • STLTransport

    Hold on there to all the comments bashing STL transit networks. Please keep in mind that Chicago built the lion share of its rail network back in the early 1900s. The Metrolink in STL is somewhat new (1993, 2000, 2006 alignments) and is aiming to add 4 miles to Westport/edge city and major suburb an commuter stop and 16 miles for North-South alignment in the City of St. Louis. The rail network in Chicago is now in such horrible disrepair at places.

    Highspeed rail service between the two cities will allow each to wake up to the heightened demand to build systems that provide more coverage (STL) and updated with few repair delay (Chicago) networks, In all honesty, the repairs and rebuilding Chicago’s network will be far more costly but needed.

    Second note, Nikolas, the Metrolink has helped to anchor downtown and the City of St. Louis and help signal the stabilization of the City’s population. Sorry we aren’t Chicago, but this rail network has been working to the benefit of the City by creating pedestrian traffic in downtown and the Central West End. Further alignments can only help to connect major population and job centers in the city to suburban and inner city neighborhoods. Also the original alignment follows an abandoned railroad corridor and through very depressed and blighted neighborhoods, why would you built anything there? New alignments should be built to foster land use development and help densify places to support a rail system. We built highways and then let the development happen and after 53 years we can see the result; now let’s see what it will be like after +50 years after building rail systems in our cities and suburbs.

  • The same thing never hurt the airports.

    That’s because air travel’s main selling point is that airport-to-airport flight time is far less than what’s achievable with any other mode of transportation. Trains, whose main selling point is faster downtown-to-downtown travel, have to discharge people close to downtown.

  • NikolasM

    Wow, I struck a nerve with that St. Louis Metrolink comment. I am glad that St. Louis has what it has, but you have to admit there is room for MANY more lines, hence the ‘laughable’ comment in regards to its current state.

  • Brian Stanke

    The HSR or Transit, chicken-or-egg, question was already answered over the last twenty years. In France they destroyed most of their trams/streetcars, just like the U.S. only a decade or so later. Since 1985 over twenty new trams systems have been installed, 18 of them in TGV served cities. Only the first, Nantes, was put in before the TGV. The other 17 were installed AFTER the TGV service.

    If TGV service led to trams over there why not the same here? Especially since St. Louis ALREADY has a light rail system in place. HSR will lead to local support to expand the light rail system and to greater ridership of it.

    In CA I can see HSR leading to Fresno and Bakersfield finally pulling the trigger and reinstating either a light rail or streetcar system.

  • Woody

    Sean says “It appears that the eastern routing … has far more curves than the existing western alignment. The eastern alignment zig zags.”

    It appears that the western alignment is straighter because at the scale of the map, small curves don’t show up. But the eastern alignment may allow real straightaways.

    To get the best speeds, HSR needs long stretches as straight as possible. Any curvature presents a problem as speeds increase. So if a close-up of the routes would show the eastern line with more long, straight stretches, that is the way to go. Going fast on straight tracks for long enough means a small detour to Champaign won’t matter.

    As for the apparent zig zag, no problem. The train stops at Champaign, then it can easily zig to the west leaving there. Stop at Springfield, then zag due south to avoid built-up areas along the Mississippi River. Then zig again into St Louis. (My guess is it will take that last zig to avoid the Mississippi whether the eastern/Champaign or the western/Bloomington alignment gets chosen.)

  • Wad

    Alon Levy wrote:
    That’s because air travel’s main selling point is that airport-to-airport flight time is far less than what’s achievable with any other mode of transportation. Trains, whose main selling point is faster downtown-to-downtown travel, have to discharge people close to downtown.

    Train ridership does not hinge upon the business traveler use-case profile, a small makeup of the broad market.

    There’s another advantage rail has for medium-length travel and one disadvantage to air travel.

    Passenger aviation is trapped to a hub-and-spoke, point-to-point service format.

    Airlines cannot fly their planes like Greyhound buses. The Los Angeles-to-New York market supports many nonstop flights, but you’ll rarely see a plane stop at Las Vegas, Denver, Kansas City, Chicago and Pittsburgh along the way.

    Ground-based transport can do this, but not over such vast distances. Rail’s effectiveness is probably in the range of 300-500 miles.

    If you take the California high-speed system, everyone seems to be stuck on the question of “Why would anybody want to take a train between L.A. and San Francisco when you have flights every half hour between the cities?”

    People seem to forget that Southwest et al, don’t do LAX-Bakersfield-Fresno-Modesto-Stockton-SFO flights.

    There are so many city pairings that the HSR system has that planes will never be able to serve effectively. And the Central Valley is not the flyover country people commonly think.

    There’s about 5 million people, in addition to the 15 million in SoCal and the 12 million in the Bay Area and Sacramento megalopoles.

    There are four-year universities in Bakersfield, Fresno, Merced, Modesto (Turlock) and Stockton — these are all major economic components in the area. And existing San Joaquin service is used reasonably well.

    Much of the Bay Area traffic will be from Fresno and points north, while much of the Southern California traffic will be from Fresno and points south.

    The airlines wouldn’t worry much about losing the L.A. to San Francisco market, but what may have them worried is a crisis of confidence. The airlines may be punished for not capturing the upside of a market that rail served, and this shakes confidence in the business model. Think of what the newspapers are going through right now.

  • AlexB

    Great discussion! I definitely think that HSR as a travel mode can stand up on its own regardless of the transit opportunities at each stop. The time savings of being able to travel up to 220 mph with no security line are amazingly advantageous. I think all HSR lines should terminate at city centers, but even if they terminate in random suburban areas, they will still be used, just like airports.

    The interesting part of the eastern route shown in the map is that the portion from Chicago to Champaign could be a trunk line for a much larger network linking to Carbondale, Indianapolis, Louisville, Cincinnati, Columbus, etc. The current plans have so many mediocre lines extending from Chicago, it always begged the question to me: why not construct 3 or so true HSR lines and branch out from there? This could be the southern route, the route to Milwaukee could be the northern route and the route to Toledo would be the eastern route..

  • Wad, in fact most California HSR traffic is expected to be between the LA Basin and the SF Bay Area, rather than to and from the intermediate points. It’s just that this traffic is going to be several times the capacity of air travel. While legacy rail lives on the intermediate stations, HSR lives primarily on major city to major city traffic, possibly with stops in the major suburbs; thus, the TGV can get away with locating all of its intermediate stations in rural areas, and the Shinkansen’s greatest traffic comes from express trains that only stop in the three largest metro areas.

  • Wad

    Alon, California won’t build a non-stop L.A. to Bay Area line paralleling I-5, bypassing the Central Valley. The basic line will serve all of those cities.

    One of the implicit hopes of the Central Valley cities is that HSR would be a commuter line convenient enough to make the Valley north of Fresno be a Bay Area exurb, and the Valley south of Fresno be Southern California’s.

  • CAHSR will serve Central Valley cities, but most train traffic will not serve them. While some people hope to turn Bakersfield into an LA suburb, in practice fares are likely to be too high for significant numbers of commuters to use the service. It’s no different from how the Shinkansen has a little bit of local commuter traffic, but the tracks are still dominated by major city to major city express trains.

  • Nathanael

    “The interesting part of the eastern route shown in the map is that the portion from Chicago to Champaign could be a trunk line for a much larger network linking to Carbondale, Indianapolis, Louisville, Cincinnati, Columbus, etc.”

    It gets better: the “first mile” of this route out of Chicago is Union Station to Grand Crossing, which is needed by *every* train headed to Michigan, northern Indiana, or northern Ohio. And which is very straight, very flat, and has spare right-of-way — a rarity in downtown Chicago!

    In contrast, the “first mile” of the existing Amtrak route is a snaking riverside route which is of no use for travel to any destinations other than Joliet, Springfield, and St. Louis.

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