Illinois High-Speed Rail Project Brings Faster, Safer Travel Between Chicago and St. Louis
In the coming months, as the eight-year, $1.9 billion Illinois High-Speed Rail project winds down, passengers will experience faster travel times, increased safety, and better reliability between Chicago and St. Louis. Upgrades throughout most of the 289-mile rail corridor aim to eventually boost maximum speed for passenger trains to 110 mph through open expanses that make up 75 percent of the route.
First, though, "The Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) is working with our partners at Amtrak, Union Pacific Railroad (UPRR), and the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) to allow an intermediate step with speeds up to 90 mph (and speeds up to 40 mph in Springfield) by late summer," said Scott Speegle, IDOT's Passenger Rail Communications Manager. "The high-speed rail program will be implementing higher-speed service in incremental steps."
Passenger trains, operated by Amtrak primarily on UPRR track, now run at a maximum speed of 79 mph through the corridor, except for the 15-mile stretch between Dwight and Pontiac, Illinois, where trains started running at 110 mph in November 2012. Much of the line is currently a single track that accommodates passenger and freight trains in both directions. The upgrades are expected to reduce passengers' journey between Chicago and St. Louis by one hour.
"Ultimately at the 110-mph speed, we'll be going from five-and-a-half hours to four-and-a-half hours - and that's a big difference," said Illinois Transportation Secretary Randy Blankenhorn. However, "For me, it's truly more about the reliability. Adding new capacity will eliminate many conflicts with the freight railroad and help ensure on-time performance."
Since 2010 IDOT - along with Program Manager WSP of Chicago, railroad companies, and communities throughout the corridor - has worked to upgrade train track, crossings, bridges, signaling systems, and stations to prepare for high-speed rail, increase safety and convenience, and minimize future maintenance costs.
Why High Speed?
Development for high-speed rail in the Chicago-St. Louis corridor stretches back to the mid-1980s. As part of the Chicago Hub Network, which includes lines radiating from Chicago in all directions, the corridor was designated a high-speed rail developmental route in 1992 by the U.S. Department of Transportation. Since then, IDOT took an incremental planning and investment approach.
Their efforts received a boost when the FRA launched the High-Speed Intercity Passenger Rail Program in 2009 as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Through collaboration among the federal government, states, railroads, and other key stakeholders, the program aims to transform America's transportation system through creation of a national network of high-speed rail corridors. In January 2010, Illinois was selected for a $1.2 billion federal award. The Illinois Capital Bill also appropriated $400 million for high-speed rail. Additional funding came from other federal grants and matching funds from IDOT, local municipalities, and UPRR.
In coming years, IDOT expects more travelers to transition from other modes of transportation to the high-speed rail system. "Approximately 98 percent of the travel between Chicago and St. Louis is currently either driving or air travel," Speegle said. "With the upgrades to this corridor, we hope to increase the percentage of travel using rail. As a result, there will be less traffic congestion on Interstate 55 (the primary highway between the two cities), as well as a lesser need for flying."
Eight Years, 244 Miles
Construction for the high-speed rail project began in September 2010 and spanned from Joliet to East St. Louis, Illinois. Except for a few contracts between IDOT and UPRR, all the work was performed under competitively bid, fixed-price contracts.
According to Speegle, "Major construction has been largely completed, including the installation of new rail, concrete ties, and related components; upgrades to bridges and culverts, drainage, and signaling systems; new sidings and sections of double track; major safety upgrades at crossings with four-quadrant gates and loop detectors; new stations open in Dwight, Pontiac, Carlinville, and Alton and an upgraded station in Lincoln; and the initial delivery of new Siemens Charger locomotives."
Throughout 2018, crews will continue signal work and complete a rail bridge over the Kankakee River near Wilmington, Illinois, that will accommodate future double-tracking. A new multimodal station will open in Joliet this year.
As part of the project, crews replaced much of the track between Joliet and East St. Louis, Illinois. According to IDOT officials, the new continuously welded, premium rail provides a smoother ride with less friction than jointed tracks and requires less maintenance. Concrete ties, which replaced wooden ties, resist weathering and erosion and allow for a better alignment and rolling surface so equipment lasts longer and needs fewer repairs. New crushed stone ballast facilitates drainage and limits vegetation growth. It also strengthens the track structure and provides flexibility when trains pass over it, IDOT said.
Safer and More Efficient
A major portion of the investment in the project went to improving safety systems, Speegle said. For instance, four-quadrant gates replaced the traditional two-gate arrangement at many crossings. The new gates create a closed system, reducing opportunities for motorists to weave around them into the path of an oncoming train. Timing for the gates also changed. Previously, they descended 20 seconds prior to a train's arrival at the crossing; to accommodate high-speed rail, they now descend approximately 80 seconds before a train's arrival.
All of the rail/highway grade crossings underwent a field review to determine necessary improvements such as fencing or sidewalk gates that bar pedestrians from crossing as trains approach. A Positive Train Control system will help keep trains separated from each other and identify vehicles on track crossings so action can be taken to avoid an incident.
"Our number one priority is making sure all those crossings are safe," Blankenhorn said.
To enhance travelers' experience, new and renovated stations throughout the corridor also increase safety while providing improved transportation connectivity and upgraded technology.
New locomotives began service last August. A total of 33 will be delivered by early this year. "The new locomotives are more efficient and cost-effective," Blankenhorn said. "Ultimately, a whole new fleet of rail cars and locomotives will make the experience much better for the riding public."
To increase efficiency and avoid conflicts with freight trains, the project added 27 miles of new double track, as well as new or extended sidings over 33 miles that already had double track, between Joliet and Godfrey, Illinois. The corridor between Chicago and Joliet, Illinois, was already equipped with double track; approximately two-thirds of the distance between Godfrey and East St. Louis, Illinois, features double track; and 3 miles of double track extend from East St. Louis, over the Mississippi River into the St. Louis terminal. IDOT eventually hopes to obtain funding for a full build-out of a second track through the Chicago-St. Louis corridor.