Amtrak Hits a Train Speed Milestone in the Midwest

About three and a half years after President Obama made an $8 billion push for high-speed rail in the stimulus bill, the states that put the funding to good use are starting to see results. Trains are now traveling at speeds greater than 100 miles per hour in the Midwest. That’s progress.

Last week, a train traveling between Joliet and Normal, Illinois hit 111 miles per hour — a record for Amtrak outside of the Northeast Corridor. Local and national leaders, including Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, shared a well-deserved celebratory moment on that St. Louis-bound train.

Illinois Governor Pat Quinn, Senator Dick Durbin and Federal Railroad Administrator, Joseph Szabo, celebrate reaching the fastest speed for an Amtrak train outside the Northeast Corridor. Photo: ##http://www.harveystock.com/## Harvey Tillis via Grid Chicago##

Steven Vance at Grid Chicago has the story:

LaHood said on the train, “Four years ago, we were nowhere. Illinois and the country was a wasteland when it comes to high-speed rail.” Grid Chicago readers know that Illinois secured over $2 billion in federal grants through President Obama’s ARRA stimulus program to build new tracks, buy new trains, and study a possible new double-track alignment for the Lincoln Service route…

Amtrak’s state-subsidized routes in Illinois have seen year-over-year ridership increases. Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney has said he would eliminate federal subsidies to Amtrak. Lincoln Service trains have seen speeds improving since last year when significant lengths of brand-new track was laid. Cutting subsidies would likely slow the ridership increases, which are based on Americans’ desire for additional and reliable transportation options; passenger rail provides an alternative to high gas prices.

Elsewhere on the Network today: The League of American Bicyclists offers new details, from FHWA, about how the new transportation bill will affect biking and walking programs. Bike Redlands shares a video explaining how cycling could help save small towns. And Bike Walk Lee is honored by the Alliance for Biking and Walking for its actions to help a south Florida Gulf Coast community become safer and more livable.

  • The speed is nice, but the big problem on that line is cruddy frequency

  • 110 mph is promising. In Europe I actually prefer the trains that go 120mph over the ones that go 180 mph because the 180 mph trains are more cramped and sealed (almost like airplane pressurization) and difficult to walk around in, which makes for a less pleasant ride. If US trains could manage 120 mph and, with stops, average 110 mph, then for trips 1000 miles and under the train becomes a very good option, especially for people traveling alone. (I dream of a fast west coast line that stretches all the way from San Diego to Vancouver B.C.!)

    After taking trains in Europe, I can really how see how important the quality of the tracks is. On a train from Berlin to Prague, just about the second we crossed over the German border the train slowed down and the ride became much jerkier with more rocking and lurching. (Neither the train nor the personnel had changed.)  Certainly Caltrain here in the Bay Area could do with much better tracks.

  • david vartanoff

    Nice to see. However, one should remember that passenger trains regularly operated at 100 mph in southern Illinois and on other routes in the 1950s so this is more “restoration” than innovation.   As a generality, US RRs have downgraded track maintenance and signalling systems to move slow freights on lax schedules.  

  • Larry

    110 mph is nice.  A great increase from the 79 mph that present trains outside of the NEC travel but…  If I am not mistaken, 135 mph is considered high speed.  Let’s not forget that steam powered trains could hit at least 100 mph nearly a hundred years ago!

  • Joe R.

    @caec3883ed0c500551bfb3a4e00e6558:disqus >125 mph is considered HSR in the rest of the world other than the United States. It’s nice that people in the Midwest will get a taste of what we’ve had here in the Northeast since the late 1960s. Hopefully they’ll want more. If we want to go above 110 mph electrification is pretty much a given. Maybe we can get the freight railroads to go along with this. Electrified freight would have considerably lower operating costs than using diesels. The electrified passenger service would just be a bonus. Besides all that,  the faster trains get up to line speed, the faster the average speeds. In the end, it’s average speeds which draw people away from cars. Electrification enables much faster acceleration. Once it’s faster, or at least not much slower, to take the train instead of driving that’s exactly what many people will choose.

  • Alan Fishel

    As said by others, the rest of the world has been operating true HSR for many years and even medium speed rail 100 to 150 mph is normal. Yet here in the USA even approaching 100 mph is a big deal, But even this is a start. Now that we have made the investment to be able to run trans consistently at 110 lets get service started with several trains a day. 

  • Anonymous

    For freight operations, diesel is still cheaper than electric. And now that “fast freight container express” trains that come from West Coast to key points in Texas, Kansas, Ohio and Chicago are becoming a fixture, with multiple locos and very long consists, unless you have electrification all the way from Long Beach or Oakland to through the Rockies, the RRs are not going to lose 3/4 hours to re-arrange a train with electric traction for the last 15% of the travel length. 

  • carma

    while 115 is certainly not a snail, it is not even considered fast when you compare to average speeds of HSR across the world.  while i never been on the TGV or China’s HSR, having been on the shinkansen in japan, which only goes up to around 180mph, it was such a huge difference.

    having spent all this money for upgrades, and all we get is a lousy 115, which as pointed, we have reached close to those speeds many years before.

    heck, ive driven faster than 115mph in a car.

  • Anonymous

    There is no such thing, from an engineering point of view, such as a hard-defined speed above which services are defined “high-speed”. 

    Actually, high-speed label is used to define a set of characteristics that allow not only a high maximum speed, but overall high average speed on a given sector:

    – full grade separation
    – full ATC (regardless of the name it goes by), which implies in-cab signaling only
    – absence of speed restrictions due to bad geometry
    – high-performance switches (allowing trains to change track at very high speeds without slowing down, safely)

    So maximum speed is just one of those factors. Actually, it is not so difficult to allow for high-speed trains circulate in a straight stretch with very low grades. But it is rather pointless if the station approaches have low-speed zones, if there are grade crossings with roads, if there are no noise walls such that trains must slow down within cities etc. 

  • PRE

    Wow! 111 mph in Illinois.  I’d be happy if the trains here in CA averaged (with stops) even 65 rather than they 40 mph that they do.  Has anyone looked at a Coast Starlight schedule?

  • The speed attained corresponds with the type of investment: money was spent to new track that supported the highest speed travel for the existing route’s characteristics that were not being modified (like crossings and switches). In other words, a completely new route is needed to attain speeds higher than 110 MPH. 

    As @andrelot:disqus points out in another comment, there are many things required for high-speed rail: grade separated tracks, better switches, and low radius curves. The Illinois Department of Transportation has hired the University of Illinois to study a new route alignment that would allow trains to attain 220 MPH. 

  • Joe R.

    From what I’ve read, diesel stopped being cheaper than electric to operate at roughly $1.50 per gallon. The only reason all the freight railroad mainlines haven’t been electrified yet is capital costs. Any electrification expenses will result in a net loss on the balance sheet until you have maybe a decade of lower operating costs. Because CEOs these days only think short-term, no RR CEO will authorize electrification as it will mean losses for the remainder of their tenure. The only way to get the freight RRs to electrify would be if the government kicks in part or all of the cost, perhaps in exchange for the right to a number of passenger train slots at a guaranteed schedule.

    Longer term of course the freight RRs might not need any incentives from the federal government. When diesel starts hitting $10 per gallon, the payback period for electrification will be only a few years. Any smart CEO will electrify just to remain competitive in the long term. BNSF has actually studied electrification. I feel once one freight RR electrifies, the rest will quickly follow suit, making changing locos a non-issue. Electrification will make it economical to run the long container trains at speeds of 100 mph, shaving hours off the current schedules.

    Most of the rest of the world have already electrified everything except lightly used branch lines. The US really needs to follow suit, especially given the huge amount of freight which goes by rail here. Also, if we ever want to run passenger trains at 125 mph or above, we’ll need to electrify.

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