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Courtesy of Richard Harnish, Midwest High Speed Rail Association 

Spanish engineers designed the electric Talgo 350 train to cruise at 220 mph. Illinois officials hope to introduce this kind of technology to the Midwest in the near future. 

High-speed rail could bring Chicago transit to 110 mph

by Leslie Streicher and Tina Amirkiai
Jan 28, 2010


Benefits and goals of high-speed rail systems in Illinois

 •    Fuel-powered vehicle engines, all of which use some type of petroleum, primarily emit three types of harmful gases: Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC), carbon monoxide (CO), and nitrogen oxides (NOX).

•    The 110-mph proposed rail would produce fewer of each of the emissions than cars, buses and airplanes.

•    Completing the Chicago to St. Louis corridor would save more than 6.5 million gallons of fuel each year.

Replacing existing track to 110-mph standards:

•    In many cases the replacement of ties and ballast and realign the track, sometimes the rail is also replaced.

•    Many projects require replacing track that was removed during a period of downsizing by the freight carriers.

•    Illinois is developing the next generation of train control systems to allow for speeds above 100 mph.

High-speed railways will be coming to Chicago with a $1.2 billion grant announced Thursday by Barack Obama. The trains promise a smoother, faster and virtually pollution-free ride from Chicago to St. Louis. 

Obama said at a town-hall meeting in Tampa that the federal government is handing out a total of $8 billion in grants to develop high-speed railways in 13 major corridors.

Construction planning for the speedy, high-tech new trains along the existing Amtrak line will get underway within the next few months, according to Richard Harnish, Executive Director of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association.    

Obama said in his State of the Union Address Wednesday that the U.S. has been outshined by countries such as Japan, France and China in train technology for far too long.  

“We are so far behind the rest of the world with high-speed rails,” said Larry Johnson, the director for the Transportation Technology Research and Development Center at Argonne National Laboratory.    

Japan launched its first model of the Shinkansen, also known as the bullet train, in the mid-1960s using technology that cushions the average 200 mph ride and makes it virtually pollution-free.  

Illinois’ grant will go toward making diesel-fueled trains more efficient, which includes increasing speeds to about 110 mph by limiting freight train congestion and optimizing energy use. But Illinois officials are hoping the goal to build 220 mph electric trains will be realized in the near future.  

“This is the first step in the process,” Harnish said. “The next step is to use electric wires to power the trains.”

The Amtrak trains from Chicago to St. Louis will increase speeds from 79 mph to 110 mph and shave off approximately 90 minutes from the five-and-a-half hour trip. But the goal to cut the time down to two hours, requires the higher speeds of the electric trains.

“The trains will probably be similar to the ones in Japan, which use electrical wires above the trains to supply power,” said Johnson. “Japan might want to export the technology [used for the bullet train].”  

Johnson also said the Japanese have a more sophisticated infrastructure that could be copied by the U.S.     

“The rail bed is much more substantial than what we use,” he said. “They use concrete ties instead of wood to make the structure more durable and stable and have deeper ballast under the ties for added support.” Ballast refers to the rock foundation underneath the ties that serve as a base for the tracks.   

The Midwest High Speed Rail Association, a Chicago-based advocacy organization, stated in a high-speed rail report that the electric trains emit 90 percent less pollution than planes.

Instead of taking small connecting flights between cities like Chicago and St. Louis, Harnish said the trains can help reduce plane pollution and limit economic cost by serving as connecting transportation. 

“The high-speed trains can work with the airports to create a better connection to the region,” he said.  

And the benefits don’t stop there. According to an association report, the trains can reduce highway travel by 4.3 billion vehicle miles per year in the U.S.  

“The trains are about 10 times more efficient than cars and create an environment where people walk more for local trips,” Harnish said. “This is game changing.”