Illinois Moves Towards Rail Authority with Goal of Developing True High-Speed Service

» Passage by State Senate needs to be followed by House approval; Illinois would be third in the nation to specifically plan for very fast trains.

Considering the infusion of federal funds earlier this year for the state’s rail system to be only a first step towards a truly upgraded network, the Illinois State Senate last week almost unanimously approved a measure that would create a commission to evaluate the implementation of true high-speed rail service there. If passed as expected by the State House and signed by the Governor, bill SB 2571 would make Illinois the third in the country after California and Florida to actively promote the implementation of trains operating at over 150 mph.

In January, the U.S. Department of Transportation allocated $1.13 billion for upgrades to the St. Louis-Chicago mainline, enough to speed trains to 110 mph and connect the cities in just four hours. Then, in February, the state received $100 million in TIGER funds for its CREATE project, which will clear up freight and passenger rail congestion south of Chicago.

In addition, with significant support from Democratic Governor Pat Quinn, Illinois has already committed $400 million of its own funds to advancing rail internally, the second-highest state contribution after California. The Golden State’s citizens made a $10 billion pledge in 2008.

The Illinois Senate’s bill will create the Illinois and Midwest High-Speed Rail Commission whose mission will be to develop by March 2011 a roadmap for true high-speed service in the state. Though the legislation does not designate a specific corridor for future investment, the Chicago-St. Louis corridor, which passes through Champaign (location of the primary branch of the state university) and Springfield (the state capital), has already been studied for 220 mph operations and closely matches in demographics of some of the world’s most well-used fast train systems.

The bill would encourage the commission to explore how to create a public-private partnership (PPP) to design, build, and operate a fast rail network and provide recommendations about how to fund the system. The mess that followed Chicago Mayor Richard Daley’s privatization of its parking meters seems to have had no effect on the interest of Illinois legislators in putting what is clearly a public good into private hands. There is little actual evidence that PPPs have been successful in reducing taxpayer expenditure on new high-speed rail lines.

Nonetheless, the commission has yet to announce its conclusions about financing and route selection. Nor does it have the right to single-handedly institute new revenue sources, meaning that construction of a true high-speed line is in no ways assured. The Chicago-St. Louis corridor alone would likely cost at a minimum $12 billion to upgrade to 220 mph top speeds, fast enough to allow for a two-hour link between the cities. In the middle of a recession, Illinois will not be willing to pass over such funds without serious preliminary study, and nor will the federal government, which is likely to be handing out billions of dollars in further rail grants over the next decade.

Political agreement on the creation of the commission, coming from both Democrats and Republicans in the State Senate, underscores the sense among Illinois residents that Chicago should be the nation’s rail capital. It also suggests that there is common ground in the thinking that current plans for 110 mph service won’t provide the kind of speed improvements necessary to take full advantage of the rail system, a reasonable assessment. Yet while the creation of the commission is a definite advance, the state will have to commit more funds if it wants to compete with California and Florida for true high-speed rail.

Image above: Chicago Union Station, from Flickr user egvvnd (cc)

41 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Woody

    Is is too early to ask out loud, “Who will control the funds when the money starts rolling in?”

    Seriously, we have all been wondering where to get the billions to build HSR. But BruceMcF keeps making the point that in the Ohio Hub plan, when the first stage 3C’s service reaches the forecast 110-mph level, its operating revenues will exceed the operating expenses.

    That’s not going to be a ‘profit’ because nobody will be depreciating the investment or paying back the funds used to get the service up to 110 mph. But that operating surplus would allow bonds to be sold, which could finance the next stages in the build-out of the larger plan.

    So in Illinois, the Stimulus funds from the feds will pay for 110-mph service on that St Louis-Chicago line. When trip times get down to 4 hours, that route should throw off good-sized operating surpluses. Now let’s fight over that money, shall we?

    Should surpluses from the 4-hour St Louis-Chicago service be dedicated toward paying off bonds that could finance future 2-hour service between those two cities? Or should some or all of that money go toward 110-mph or even 220-mph service on Chicago-Toledo-Cleveland/Detroit? Or Indianapolis-Chicago? Or what? And who will decide, the state or the feds? Who will ‘own’ the operating surpluses from the coming 110-mph services to use as they see fit?

    • Is is too early to ask out loud, “Who will control the funds when the money starts rolling in?”

      Yes. It’s too early to be counting all those unhatched eggs.

    • As far as who will “own” the surpluses … in that case, it will be the State of Illinois. The funding is quite similar in that respect to the Interstate Highway system, in that the Federal government provides funding for state owned infrastructure.

      However, there’s no rush … international experience is that it takes about five years after the new service is introduced for patronage to build up to its full level, and of course a couple of years to build the corridor, so its four years at least before its an issue.

  • Joseph E

    Is is too early to ask out loud, “Who will control the funds when the money starts rolling in?”

    110 mph rail may or may not make an operating surplus. A 4 hour trip time is a big improvement, but may not be fast enough to get a big cut of the car and air markets, unless oil prices continue to rise substantially.

    >150 mph rail services between major cities have always made an operating profit, everywhere around the world, including Acela and the Northeast Corridor trains, but I don’t know if the same can be said for “sort-of-high-speed” 110 mph trains sharing freight tracks, on such a long-distance route like Chicago-St Louis

    • In terms of line of sight, Chicago / St. Louis is 260miles, so the upgrade of the majority of the corridor to 110mph reaches 65mph line of sight, while upgrading the balance to bring the trip time down to three and a half hours would be 75mph line of sight.

      That’s about the same speed as the Acela – a 456 mile route in around 7 hours is about 65mph end to end. Of course, the Acela gets there by running much faster for short stretches to make up for long stretches at well under 110mph.

  • Adam

    This is a really good comment from Sandoval and a good strategic selling point.

    “We must give Illinois the means of competing on a global scale in coming years,” said Sandoval. “Bullet trains will erase the distances between our business, research and government capitals by putting Urbana and Champaign less than 45 minutes from Chicago and Springfield.”

  • The Chicago-St. Louis line shouldn’t cost this much. It’s a pretty simple line to construct, which is probably why most Midwest HSR projects propose it as the first line:

    1. It already has a dead straight ROW from Chicago almost all the way into St. Louis.

    2. The legacy rail service on the route already makes (very small) operating profits.

    3. If funds run low, it’s not hard to construct the line only part of the way, and have trains continue to their destinations on legacy track. (It would require dropping FRA compliance rules, but so would nearly any other passenger rail project that isn’t CAHSR.)

    • It actually wouldn’t require dropping existing FRA compliance rules, if there was at least one dedicated passenger track in the 110mph/125mph section … say, Chicago / Springfield via Bloomington. It would rather require that the heavy freight compliant passenger trains not be on the dedicated passenger track when the Express HSR train was using it.

      However, it would substantially simplify operations if the heavy rail compliant passenger trains in use could qualify for exemption to inter-operate with Express HSR.

      • There’s no point running mixed HSR and low-speed traffic on an HSR line. The slower trains would slow everyone down.

        The simplest solution, by far, is to repeal the FRA regs. Anything else is just a special solution looking for a problem.

      • “There’s no point running mixed HSR and low-speed traffic on an HSR line. The slower trains would slow everyone down.”

        The primary regulatory requirement in emulating a French approach of running from the HSR corridor into express interurban line is rather a general rather than one-off, ad hoc regulatory framework that allows running Mixed Express HSR and Rapid Rail on a Rapid Rail line.

        If there are “slow trains” plodding along at 150mph on a completed section of an incomplete Express HSR corridor, that would be a transitional use while Express HSR traffic is well below corridor capacity, and a transitional use could well get by with the current flawed case by case special treatment approach.

      • Sorry, garbled text:
        “is rather a general”= … is rather adopting a general regulatory framework …

        The primary regulatory requirement in emulating a French approach of running from the HSR corridor into express interurban line is, rather, adopting a general regulatory framework, rather than one-off, ad hoc regulatory framework that allows running Mixed Express HSR and Rapid Rail on a Rapid Rail line.

      • Trains running in the same corridor should run at the same speeds. If you run 110 mph trains along a 220 mph line, you slow down all the 220 mph trains. So high-speed corridors should be reserved to high-speed trains. On the other hand, there’s nothing wrong with running a 220 mph train at 110 mph on a 110 mph line.

      • They aren’t necessarily 110mph trains just because they are used 110mph corridors. Indeed, if they are Acela-compatible stock, they’ll be 160mph trains.

        If a segment is complete before there is a complete route for a 220mph train, running the Rapid Rail services on the segment makes perfect sense.

        Running trains at different speeds in the same corridor does cut down capacity substantially. On the other hand, in starting up a HSR corridor, there will be massive spare capacity, so a responsible infrastructure owner would look at whether there are opportunities to gain an additional benefit from it in the short term.

      • simple

        Another issue that the freight railroads will find important is indemnification from liability for sharing corridors with non-FRA compliant trains. This has yet to be fully addressed in CA and would certainly be an issue with a 220mph corridor built alongside the Chicago-Springfield (former Illinois Central) freight tracks. Even if separated by 50 feet (this is fortuitously a wide ROW), the freight railway has no incentive to want to risk a freight train derailing and fouling the HSR tracks just as a 220mph train approaches. They’ll just say no thanks to a ROW sharing agreement unless somehow compelled to do otherwise…

  • Roland S

    I’m sure the FRA regulations could allow for some sort of mixed corridor if, indeed, the “funds run low”.

    If the goal is to build the line incrementally, then there’s no reason you can’t build, say, a Chicago-Springfield dedicated line and just run heavy equipment on it until the line is complete. You can even take advantage of electrification with dual-mode locomotives… NJTransit’s new locomotives can do 125mph. When the line is complete, you buy the lighter trainsets and sever the connections to the national rail network. Then, bingo, you can up the speed to 220mph.

    • You’re not going to get people excited about a partially completed line if it’s not full HSR. Look to the TGV. When SNCF didn’t have the money for the full line, it built it two thirds of the way. Then people got to see the difference between HSR and low-speed rail, and suddenly all opposition to the TGV evaporated.

      Dual-mode locomotives do 200 km/h, and are inordinately expensive. Standard practice on e.g. the TGV is that when you have to send trains to non-electrified territory, you add a diesel locomotive in front of the train.

      Severing connection is really stupid. This line is right next to a good passenger rail line. The connections would be useful for sending the train to more places. Electrification is fairly cheap, at about $2 million per km on the NEC, and would be beneficial for both freight and passenger rail independently of HSR through-routing.

      • With trains capable of 130mph or higher, the reduction in both trip speeds would be noticeable if they completed the Chicago/Champaign section and/or St. Louis/Springfield section first, and allowed the Rapid Rail trains to use them while completing the new connector alignment.

        The point on severing connections is quite right … “separate paths” can be time-sliced as well as physically distinct, even under the current FRA regulatory system it would be silly to spend money to limit future opportunities.

  • D.R.

    Yes, there is a straight ROW. But they are not proposing to use it; they would go through Champaign, over to Springfield, down to Edwardsville, and THEN into St. Louis.

    • It’s fine – the Champaign route is dead straight as well. It doesn’t look straight on a map, but each of the component lines is straight, in fact straighter than the Bloomington route, and it’s not difficult to carve high-radius transition curves through flat farmland. The only serious problem is the section between Decatur and Springfield, which can’t be done on existing ROW without missing Springfield’s existing station. However, again, it’s easy to carve a straight ROW about 2-3 km north of the existing line.

      • D. R.

        The straightness I agree with: those sections are straight and have been used for high-speed (relatively) operation since before the turn of the prior century.

        However, this would have HSR operating over the same lines as active freight and Amtrak (up to Champaign). I think that could be troublesome; and, there is no way you could feasibly disconnect that routing from the mainline US network.

        However, I don’t disagree with going through Champaign. Rather, I disagree with then going through Springfield. Why not make a straight shot from Champaign through ESL (National City, Edwardsville, or who knows)? Especially if the routing in Decatur and Springfield would be so troublesome.

      • Woody

        D.R. — Remember the great truth that “Nothing important happens until it happens to a politician.”

        If we want appropriations supporting HSR to continue to be important in Illinois, it will need to serve the state capital of Springfield.

        In the same way, ongoing improvements to the Keystone Corridor are funded in part because it serves Harrisburg. The hope for the Empire Corridor is that Albany is about midway. The foundation of the 3-Cs plan in Ohio is the middle C — Columbus. Wisconsin’s new line is going to Madison. The River Runner is still running because it stops at Jefferson City between Kansas City and St Louis. Expanding passenger rail in Virginia is concentrated on lines to and through Richmond. The NC trains ain’t going nowhere without a stop in Raleigh. New Mexico was successful in funding ‘commuter rail’ that also just happens to run between a huge metropolitan area and the small city that is the state’s capital.

        I’d even say that part of Florida’s rail problem is that its capital city is in the wrong place, and it’s really not helpful that Amtrak dropped what little service it used to have to Tallahassee.

        So don’t waste your time thinking of bypassing Springfield. Not gonna happen.

      • D.R., how wide is the ROW and how much of it is in use? I haven’t looked at the feasibility study for either the St. Louis or Carbondale Emerging HSR lines, which commonly have a mix of dedicated track and shared track … but it seems highly unlikely that the Express HSR proposals involve using the existing freight lines … they’d be new lines even if they are mostly in existing right of way.

      • simple

        And it’s not just the politicans that make State Capital services important — political centers draw traffic way out of proportion to the town size — especially in populous states with a capital in a small city. There are hearings, committee meetings, lobbying, advocacy, etc. galore — all of which brings many outsiders into state capital towns every day, often for day trips (especially in places where the legislature is in session frequently — as is the case in Illinois).

        Large university towns exhibit similar intercity trip generation characteristics (Champaign and Bloomington are home to the two largest university campuses in Illinois). Large military base and hospital towns (Killeen TX and Rochester MN) can also share similar characteristics.

    • As Alon says, the Bloomington route is said to be unsuitable for Express HSR … that is, while it looks like a straight shot from Chicago to St. Louis, if the routes were plotted to the map-alignment, the Bloomington route would look a lot more squiggly. No particular trouble for an electric 125mph tilt-train running on track at tilt-train centerline spacings from adjacent track, but the curves were not laid out with the radius that is needed for a 220mph corridor.

      • The Bloomington route isn’t that unsuitable. It’s pretty straight, with easy to bypass curves. In fact, SNCF’s proposal uses it (it also pushes it to phase 2, putting Milwaukee, Detroit, and Cleveland on phase 1 instead). But all other proposals use the Champaign route.

      • simple

        Ideally, both the Champaign and Bloomington routings would be electrified and improved to their top practical speeds. The Champaign route would overall be the faster of the two and ultimately preferred for longer distance express service (i.e. Chicago-Springfield-St Louis). South of Springfield both routes would merge together again. Local trains would serve the local markets on either route.

  • OceanRailroader

    I driven in that area and the land is so flat you can see for at least 10 or 20 miles on all sides of you the whole way of the route. Most of the rail lines in that area go as stright as a arrow. I can see why they can’t get the trains that already run their to run over a 110 miles on hour. If add catenary then 150 wouldn’t be out of the question. This High speed rail line should be the low hanging fruit that should be able to get done in a short time. This rail line should be treated as a testing ground for how fast a high speed rail line can be built.

    • 110mph, the upper edge of Class 6 track, is the limit for upgraded quad gate level crossings with speed sensitive trips. 125mph is the upper limit for Class 7 track, with any crossings being the (AFAIU largely hypothetical at this point) “hardened” crossings and is AFAIU is the upper limit for any use of signals or indicators outside the cab (exclusive reliance on outside cab signals is restricted to under 60mph).

      For corridors with a lower frequency of use, they won’t justify the capital cost of an all-grade-separated corridor without going substantially faster than 125mph, but with higher frequency of service, its possible for the grade separations to justify themselves on reduced interference between road and rail traffic alone.

  • Adam

    I grew up in this area and I’m guessing the ROW acquisition costs may partially be why the feasibility study had such a high cost. This is the best farmland in the world, and the ROW acquisition ain’t gonna be cheap (absolute cheapest prices will be $5,000/acre). Beyond that there are just a whole lot of at-grade crossings that will have to be closed (not politically popular) or fixed with fly-overs. Add in electrification, engineering, and new locomotives and I can where a 300 mile brand new line can cost $10bn.

    • $5,000/acre is a bargain.

      Rail ROWs are not wide. If I’m not mistaken, 14 meters end to end is enough. 14 meters times 1 km is 1.4 hectares, or 3.5 acres. This is $17,500 per km, which is about one thousandth the cost of HSR construction.

      The only way ROW acquisition can be more expensive is if owners sue for reverse condemnation, arguing that the line makes it impossible for them to use the property – for example, if the line bisects their farm. But this is highly unlikely in rural Illinois, where the line can run alongside straight rural access roads to minimize excess takings.

      • Adirondacker12800

        Most places the owner will be CSX or NS. The plans I’ve seen have them running it along the existing railroad(s). You can’t argue that the trains will slice up your acreage when it’s been sliced up by a railroad for 5 generations. By the 1850s it was standard railroad practice to get a ROW at least 4 rods wide, 66 feet or 20 meters. Most places they went for 100 feet or more. They will have to negotiate with one owner, the freight railroad.

        Grade crossings are expensive to maintain. The railroad will jump at the chance to get rid of the grade crossings and upgrade their track to 90 mile an hour freight.

      • The problem is, big chunks of the line are owned by UP.

        But even carving a new ROW is really cheap. In areas where the legacy line doesn’t hook up to the Amtrak station or has curves, there’s no reason to use it. This isn’t the SF Peninsula or New Jersey we’re talking about.

      • DBX

        100 feet is typical for right of way width for a railroad. So there’s plenty of room in most of the mainline rights of way in Illinois to add extra tracks. The only barriers are where rights of way have been narrowed in urban areas, such as Bloomington and Springfield. In any case, it’s not Downstate I’m worried about. It’s Chicago. There is one, and only one, good current rail access to downtown, and that’s the former Illinois Central, which was done properly in the 1910s with considerable city and state funding. It’s six tracks wide well out into the suburbs, fully grade separated out all the way through the suburbs, and grossly underutilized and about to become even more so when CREATE and Grand Crossing are done. Using that, of course, would imply an approach from Champaign rather than Bloomington.

        Any other route into Chicago is going to require massive new construction and land acquisition and cost eye-poppipng amounts of money. The CNW/N or rather UP/N as it is now is fairly well grade separated but you’d minimally need to restore the third track and there’s no room for the four tracks you’d need to completely separate local and express services; Amtrak’s ambitions for dedicated passenger tracks as far as Porter, Indiana, at least have available right of way and are fairly easy to grade separate. And the current routes to St. Louis and Milwaukee are littered with grade crossings, congested with other traffic, are insufficiently wide and would need to be completely done over.

  • OceanRailroader

    They could run the high speed rail line along Interstate 39.

  • DBX

    Everyone here is arguing technical points, but I’m going to throw in a political one.

    $400 million of Illinois funds? What Illinois funds? Our $13 billion deficit? The $700 million the state is in arrears to the universities alone? The more than $5 billion backlog of unpaid state bills? Or our $77 billion pension shortfall?

    The fact is, while Illinois is increasingly amenable to the idea of rail, actually paying for it cannot be counted on in this current budget crisis. There are serious questions as to whether the state can even meet the governor’s highly road-skewed commitment to transportation bonding, as there isn’t enough tax revenue coming in to back the bonds and the state House leadership continues with its fantasy of getting bipartisan support for a tax increase at a time that the Republicans have gone full-on teabag. (Note that in Illinois, the sales tax increases and the creation of the income tax were all Republican decisions; at least in the last 50 years Democrats have never raised individual statewide taxes; and they’re exceedingly reluctant to do it without Republican votes).

    Additionally, there hasn’t been any overall move in state transportation spending away from roads. The new bonding package, Illinois Jobs Now! has, if anything, a slightly smaller percentage share for rail/bus/transit than the last one a decade ago. The bonding package, a $31 billion, five-year plan of capital improvements for roads, rail, transit, schools, airports, economic development, community development, environmental reclamation and so on, is the first capital bill we’ve had in Illinois since George Ryan’s Illinois FIRST scheme from 1999-2004. (Blagojevich refused to agree to any major capital spending, in the pursuit of his no-new-taxes pledge.) We have $14.3 billion on roads; only $7 billion for all other transportation including transit, HSR, airports, CREATE, Amtrak and studies into car-sharing. So the important takeaway from this for HSR is that there is basically nil chance within the next five years of expanding that $400 million number even if by some miracle we’re able to balance the overall state budget.

  • Adirondacker12800

    The problem is, big chunks of the line are owned by UP.

    UP plays nicer in Illinois. I suspect it’s because Illinois doesn’t have Prop 13 and when UP asserts that it’s ROW is so very very valuable the tax assessor starts asking uncomfortable questions and giving uncomfortable answers. If they sell half their ROW, does that mean their tax liability is halved?

    There will be property takes for the grade separations. There’s a grade crossing every mile or so, it is crossing the Northwest Territories grid after all, if someone doesn’t want highway grade separations intruding into his or her farmland they can just close the grade crossing…. and they can drive to the next crossing a mile or two away to get across the tracks. That’s going to be an incentive to not obstruct grade separations.

    The former IC lines heading south from Chicago are owned by Metra. Fully grade separated all the way into Millenium Station. Metra also owns the Rock Island line. The Heritage Corridor, if Wikipedia is to be believed, is owned by CN north of Joliet.

    http://fragis.frasafety.net/GISFRASafety/default.aspx

    I may not be reading it correctly but it looks like BNSF is the railroad that goes to Union Station, UP goes to Ogilvie. Ogilvie isn’t a good choice for service to points south of Chicago.

    In areas where the legacy line doesn’t hook up to the Amtrak station

    I suspect that all of the Amtrak stations, ones that have actual trains, not Thruway buses, are on railroad lines. If they select a line that doesn’t have Amtrak service I suspect that the nearby Amtrak station will be moved to the higher speed line.

    • The problem in Springfield is that there are two parallel lines, of which one only goes to the Champaign route, and the other only to the Bloomington route. You could hook up either line to the other, but only by taking a small amount of farmland further north. This isn’t a bad thing. Downstate Illinois is not Darien, where property values are so high eminent domain costs encroach on tunnel costs. It’s a middle of nowhere farmland where the cost of carving your own ROW is smaller than a measurement error.

  • OceanRailroader

    They could build the new high speed rail lines next to the existing fright lines most of the rail lines in that area are built like arrows.

  • Clarence

    Illinois has the chance to determine the country’s high speed rail service for the next 50+ years. The chance to build a system that will operate in deep snow. A system that will operate free of railroad crossings. A system that will make the trip from Chicago to St Louis in less than two hours. Illinois has the chance to build an elevated Maglev Train System.
    Just follow Interstate 55 and cut a big chunk out of land cost. Following the interstate will also save on the cost of constructing service roads. Once Missourians actually see the advantages of a Maglev system, they will waste no time in continuing the Maglev to Kansas City.

    • Adirondacker12800

      What you save on land costs will more than be made up by the extraordinarily expensive track maglevs need.

  • I agree with Alon Levy arguements, I think $5000/acre is a bargain too.

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