Illinois’ Race to High-Speed Trains Hampered by Old Safety Tech

The push for faster train service between St. Louis, Mo., and Chicago has hinged on upgrades to more than 300 rail crossings and a signaling system that was installed when 90-mph trains were theoretical.

by Steve Tarter, Journal Star / April 2, 2019
Shutterstock/Denis Belitsky

(TNS) — When high-speed rail finally takes off in Illinois, Peorians will watch from the sidelines.

The last time a passenger train served Peoria, Ronald Reagan was in the White House and "Dallas" was the most popular TV show of the day. A shaky one-year experiment with Amtrak, providing service to Chicago on a line called the Prairie Marksman, ended in 1981. Since then, area residents must travel to Normal or Galesburg for the nearest passenger train.

Meanwhile, rail travel between Chicago and St. Louis is soon expected to pick up speed "thanks to nearly $2 billion of improvements to the route," noted the Wall Street Journal recently. The Illinois effort to increase rail speeds was supposed to have been completed in 2017 but has run into numerous delays, including the preparation of upgrades at over 300 rail crossings.

Rick Harnish, executive director of the Chicago-based Midwest High Speed Rail Association, admitted being frustrated with the time it's taken to speed up train travel in the state. Delays have resulted from a number of factors, including the installation and testing of safety technology that has kept Amtrak trains from reaching the 90-mph speeds that had been predicted.

"The problem is that the signalling system needed for high-speed service was just theoretical 10 years ago. Freight service rarely travels at 80 mph," Harnish said.

That's an important point since freight railroads own the track that Amtrak is using for high-speed passenger service in Illinois.

While signals are being tested, the Illinois Department of Transportation looks for train speeds to eventually reach 110 mph — but only in open stretches of the state outside the Chicago and St. Louis metro regions.

The hope is that the investment will prove worthwhile, that faster and more comfortable service will draw people out of the cars — and onto the train.

Paul Stringham was a rail buff who wrote a number of books on the subject in the area including "Illinois Terminal: The Electric Years," published in 1992. In an interview with the Journal Star in 2002, three years before his death at the age of 92, Stringham had his own perspective on the prospect of high-speed rail in Illinois.

"They talk about a 100 mph (train), but the Rocket did that in the 1930s," said Stringham. "That's why I get a kick out of it when they talk about a 100 mph train." Stringham's reference is to the Peoria Rocket, the Rock Island Line train that ran between Peoria and Chicago for 42 years — ending in 1979.

When it comes to speed, the whole concept of high-speed rail has to be defined in Illinois, noted Harnish.

"The state has been calling travel between 79 and 110 mph high-speed rail. Of course, when you haven't had any service at all, 30 or 40 mph could be considered high-speed," he said.

"True high-speed trains travel at more than 150 mph and some already exceed 200 mph. They require new tracks that are electrified and have no crossing with highways or other railroads. To make the distinction clear, we refer to these as bullet trains," he said, noting that, around the world, trains routinely travel at bullet speeds.

But speed is a moot point in Peoria, where the only trains that come to town tote freight — not passengers. Peoria stands as the largest metropolitan area in the state without passenger rail service.

That's a far cry from the position Peoria once held: the fourth largest regional rail hub in the country, once served by 15 different railroads.

Over the years there have been various efforts to get the city back on track. Inevitably, the obstacle is the millions of dollars it takes to restore service that has been allowed to atrophy or been lost. A feasibility study commissioned by the state pegged the price of rail service between Peoria and Normal at over $110 million, suggesting a bus connection would be more economical.

Bus service exists that allows travelers from Peoria to hook up with Amtrak service at Normal's swanky Uptown station, built in 2012, that provides six trains a day to Chicago. Amtrak provides limited bus service on its Thruway bus system, while Peoria Charter Coach, a private company, provides four trips a day to and from the Uptown station, as part of the company's service to O'Hare Airport in Chicago.

David Jordan, 44, a Caterpillar employee and self-admitted train buff, is one of those who doesn't think the Peoria-to-Bloomington-Normal link would generate the ridership needed to sustain the service. "I was born too late," he said, referring to missing out on America's golden age of railroading during the first half of the 20th century.

Jordan pointed out that Peoria was part of that train heyday. "When America entered World War I in 1917, Peorians could ride passenger trains on 14 railroads, with a 15th, the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe, serving Pekin," he said.

In fact, you could catch a train at six different locations in Downtown Peoria at that time, said Jordan. "Year by year, the addition of thousands of paved miles enabled private automobiles and bus operators to siphon off passengers from the railroads in ever greater numbers," he stated in an article on Peoria's train history in Passenger Train Journal.

After an increase in train use during World War II when gas rationing and the scarcity of tires impeded travel by car, rail service went into a deep decline as Americans took to the open road in their personal automobiles.

The interurban service, where electric rail connected Peoria with St. Louis and downstate cities such as Bloomington, Springfield and Decatur, ended in 1953. Two years later, the last train left Peoria's Union Station Downtown. That station, located where WTVP-TV Channel 47 now stands on State Street, was destroyed by fire in 1961.

The Rock Island Line plodded on with service into Peoria from Chicago until 1980, when the line went bankrupt. Amtrak's move to continue service between Peoria and Chicago followed shortly thereafter.

Mike Schaefer, the editor of Passenger Train Journal, said that while a lack of ridership was the main problem, it didn't help that editorials in the Journal Star were critical of Amtrak's restoration effort in 1980. "The newspaper ripped the idea of subsidized service apart," he said.

Eric Miller, executive director of the Tri-County Regional Planning Commission, the agency involved with formulating transportation grants in the area, said things have been quiet on the train front in the Peoria area of late. "There hasn't been a lot of activity on the (Peoria train service) issue in the last five years," he said.

"We applied for a federal grant during the Obama administration to fund possible train service, but we didn't get it," said Miller.

"Our transportation system is now underfunded while we're facing other infrastructure issues," he said. Miller said starting something new such as train service out of Peoria was one obstacle, while crossing the Illinois River over the one railroad bridge in the area already heavily used by freight was another.

Peoria Mayor Jim Ardis would still like to see a rail route out of Peoria. "There are a lot of people in and around Peoria who would utilize passenger rail. Passenger rail through Peoria should be part of any state and federal capital/transportation bills going forward," he said.

"We'd like to see the General Assembly fund the Illinois Fast Track Initiative to help fund projects like Peoria's. So if it takes five years or more to fund it and build it, let's get started," said Ardis.

Schaefer pointed out that the Rock Island Line out of Peoria is still intact and now operated by Iowa Interstate. The Rock Island hiking/biking trail was a side route of the railroad, he noted. "The track for the Chicago run used to accommodate 90 mph service, but now it's set up for freight at 35 mph," he said.

Harnish said train service from Peoria to Chicago could be initiated by asking Iowa Interstate what it would take to upgrade the line to accommodate passenger service. "Ask them how much it would cost to rebuild the line for five trains a day running at 85 mph. Would it take $500 million? Microsoft is spending $220 million out west on design work for rail service out of Seattle. If Caterpillar, for example, got involved, it might go forward," he said.

While the future of passenger rail service in Peoria isn't clear, the past is still on display at the Wheels O'Time Museum in Dunlap. Among the museum's train exhibits is a steam locomotive, built in 1909 for the Rock Island Line that would have last served Peoria in 1952.

"When kids come out to the museum for field trips, they're so excited by the trains," said David Giffin, a volunteer with the museum who retired from Caterpillar in 2001. "They may be the only trains they've ever seen up close. When I was a kid, watching the trains go by was something to do on Sunday with my dad," he said.

©2019 the Journal Star (Peoria, Ill.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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