Sunday Train – rapid passenger rail moving ahead (finally!)

  • Published on September 11th, 2016

By Bruce McF

As you are probably well aware, the US Government is gridlocked, which means that for years and years, high speed siemans trains for idotnothing has been getting done. However, because of appropriations for “High Speed Rail” way back in 2009 and 2010, things are being done right now.

“Bullet train” High Speed Passenger Rail services often grab the headlines (and you can watch a fairly hokey California HSR Authority youtube video on what they did in the first six months since construction started), but much of the actual services that we will see starting up in the final years of this decade will be work on or preparation for the “Rapid Passenger Rail” services that upgrade top speed from the sluggish conventional US corridor speed of 79mph to 110mph or more.

The primary Rapid Passenger Rail project is the Chicago to Saint Louis “HSR”, which will cut about an hour from the present five and a half hour trip. The majority of this project will be completed next year, though some work will continue into 2018. Other projects are underway in Michigan, on the Northeast Corridor, and in the Pacific Northwest.

Chicago to St. Louis Rapid Passenger Rail

The Illinois “HSR” project was launched in 2010. A substantial amount of the required track upgrade work was completed between 2010 and 2012, but passing track, bridge replacement and rehabilitation, and drainage improvements were still required.

Much of the corridor has level crossings, and 110mph operation requires upgrades to rail crossings, with speed detecting four-arm crossing gates replacing the original two-arm gates. It appears that work on rail crossings is much of what  the Illinois Department of Transportation will be engaged in before the projected Summer 2017 expansion of Rapid Passenger Rail service from the 15 mile trial 110mph section between Dwight and Pontiac to most of the corridor.

Positive Train Control is also required for 110mph operation. Under Positive Train Control (PTC), a train will not proceed through a crossing unless the crossing signals that it is clear of traffic. If no signal is received, it will automatically slow to a safe stopping speed, and if the crossing is still blocked, will stop. Similarly, if a section of track is occupied, by either a slower train moving in the same direction or an oncoming train, the train is automatically slowed and then stopped until the track is clear.

Train service on this corridor is presently provided by the dailyTexas Eagle, from Chicago through Saint Louis and on to San Antonio, complemented by four Lincoln Services.

Of course, a majority of the passengers on this line do not rideall the way between Chicago and St. Louis. While ridership is very Chicago-centric, Chicago / St. Louis was only the second most travelled station pair:

  • Chicago / Normal is about 79,550/yr
  • Chicago / St. Louis is about 75,410/yr
  • Chicago / Springfield is about 59,400/yr
  • Chicago / Alton is about 16,960/yr
  • St. Louis / Springfield is about 12,250/yr

In the “No-Build” alternative in the EIS, the existing Amtrak corridor would have been used, with three of the existing Lincoln Services upgraded to 110mph, and this provides the baseline for the operation at completion of the present project.

  • CHI/STL Express 7am to 12:20pm becomes 7am to 11:30am
  • CHI/STL 9:25am to 3pm and CHI/STL/… 13:25pm to 7:21pm remain the same
  • CHI/STL 5:15pm to 10:45pm becomes 5:15pm to 10pm
  • CHI/STL 7pm to 12:30am becomes 7pm to 11:45pm
  • STL/CHI 4:35am to 10am becomes 4:35am to 9:20am
  • STL/CHI 6:40am to 12:20pm becomes 6:40am to 11:25
  • …/STL/CHI 7:55am to 1:52pm and STL/CHI 3pm to 8:40pm remain the same
  • STL/CHI 5:30pm to 11:10pm becomes 5:30pm to 10:15pm

The second envisioned stage in the roll-out follows capacity that allows the 79mph Lincoln Services to be upgraded to 110mph services:

  • CHI/STL 7am to 12:20pm becomes 7am to 11:30am
  • CHI/STL 9:25am to 3pm becomes 9:25am to 2:10pm
  • CHI/STL/… 13:25pm to 7:21pm remains the same
  • CHI/STL 5:15pm to 10:45pm becomes 5:15pm to 10pm
  • CHI/STL 7pm to 12:30am becomes 7pm to 11:45pm
  • STL/CHI 4:35am to 10am becomes 4:35am to 9:20am
  • STL/CHI 6:40am to 12:20pm becomes 6:40am to 11:25
  • …/STL/CHI 7:55am to 1:52pm remains the same
  • STL/CHI 3pm to 8:40pm becomes 3pm to 7:45pm
  • STL/CHI 5:30pm to 11:10pm becomes 5:30pm to 10:15pm

Full build out of the Chicago / St. Louis Rapid Rail corridor accelerates trips further. The main benefits of the full build out focus on the ends of the corridor, speeding up train movements through Chicago and St. Louis, giving bigger benefits to the section of corridor between Springfield and Chicago that serves 80% of trips. “No-build” is the savings of the speed upgrade without investment in corridor improvements in Chicago, Springfield and St. Louis, while “full build” combines both the speed upgrade and the corridor investments:

  • For Chicago / St. Louis, 5:35 travel time drops to 4:45 No-Build, 4:10 full build; 3:51 full build express
  • For Chicago / Springfield, 3:25 travel time drops to 2:49 No-Build, 2:44 full build, and 2:27 full build express
  • For Chicago / Normal, 2:14 travel time drops to 1:57 No-Build, 1:53 full build, and 1:43 full build express.

The Ongoing Illinois Budget Crises (OIBC) have not disrupted this project, because the majority of the funding comes from the 2009 / 2010 Federal HSR appropriationsm, and the state funding match has already been allocated. However, one likely impact of the OIBC is the it seems likely that the improvements we see before the end of the Twenty Teens are likely to be limited to the existing services. Expanding to the ultimate target of eight services per day each way would require additional capital subsidy to buy new trains, and given the OIBC, that doesn’t seem likely to be showing up anytime soon.

As long time readers of the Sunday Train know, Rapid Passenger Rail is not just about effective trip times. The three target benefits are travel time, service frequencies, and service reliability. And the investments presently being made are expected to also improve service reliability, improving on-time performance from 75% to 85%.

The planning of the Chicago to St. Louis Rapid Rail corridor has built into it a presumption that the Amtrak Texas Eagle service continues to operate as a 79mph rail service. However, the new Amtrak long haul locomotives and rolling stock are capable of 110mph operation. At the very least, if the Texas Eagle isscheduled as a 79mph service, when it is operating on the Rapid Rail corridor, it will be in a position to pick up the pace if it should happen to be running behind schedule.

Rapid Rail and Pre-Rapid-Rail Investments Around the Country

So the Chicago / St. Louis Rapid Passenger Rail service project continues to progress toward launch, despite gridlock in Washington DC and the OIBC. It is not the only project underway, however.

The other Rapid Passenger Rail project that is underway is also connecting to Chicago. This is the Detroit to Chicago corridor, which is the beneficiary of my Governor Kasich’s decision to give the money for the Ohio 3C railway back. Amtrak owns the Michigan Line, from Porter, Indiana to Kalamazoo, Michigan, and had started track improvements to allow increased operating speed in the early 2000’s, while the MDOT had started to work toward buying the corridor between Kalamazoo and Dearborn later in that decade, completing the purchase in 2012. Upgrades already made have trimmed half and hour off of the Detroit to Chicago time of the three Wolverine services.

Across the continent, the Cascades Corridor in Washington and Oregon received funding to reduce passenger and freight train interference, speed up passenger train operations, and allow the introduction of additional rail frequencies. Twelve of the 20 projects that were funded have been completed, and the remaining eight are in progress and expected to finish by 2017. The projects are expected to improve service reliability and will also allow the current four Cascade services each way to be increased to six.

These projects do not include raising the speed limit to 110mph. However, they do lay the groundwork for a speed upgrade in two different ways.

First, the speed limit of a rail corridor does not much matter to a train that is stuck waiting for another train to clear through a single track section or some other bottleneck. The strongest benefits to a speed upgrade occur when the trains in a corridor are going to be spending much of their time close to the speed limit.

Second, the economic benefit of the speed upgrade is leveraged by having more services on the corridor. It is so hard to justify a Rapid Passenger Rail upgrade in a corridor that only sees one service a day. Making the investments to permit six conventional rail services to operate on the Cascades Corridor will substantially boost the economic benefits of a Rapid Passenger Rail upgrade when the current HSR policy gridlock is finally broken.

Conclusions and Conversations

In addition to the Conventional and Rapid Passenger Rail projects I touched on, and the ongoing California High Speed Rail project, there is ongoing work on the Northeast Corridor, which I will take a closer look at another time, and also a wave of HSR and Rapid Rail corridor studies progressing, including in Virginia, for a Michigan passenger rail corridor north of the Detroit to Chicago corridor, and several others. There is also the Rapid Passenger Rail corridor from Miami to Orlando which I have looked at before and shall again.

So, set aside the election fever for a short time, and tell me, which rail project has got you the most excited?

About the Author

... is an obscure development economist living and teaching in Northeast Ohio. He writes about the rails and public transit.