Tribune lays out problems and potential for positive train control for 110 mph trains
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DOWAGIAC, Mich. -- The Midwest's first high-speed passenger trains are nipping along at speeds of almost 100 miles per hour on Amtrak's Wolverine service in Michigan, while technology hang-ups are sidetracking progress on similar efforts in Illinois.
Michigan got a five-year jump on Illinois. It partnered in 1995 with the federal government and the railroad industry to develop a train-control system that assures safety at up to 110 m.p.h., which is how fast Amtrak trains will operate in part of Michigan beginning in 2006. Since the fall, the top speed is 95 m.p.h.
A trip onboard the Amtrak Wolverine demonstrated the possibilities and advantages that train travel offers--but has never before delivered in the U.S. except on Amtrak's Northeast corridor where Acela trains crank it up to 150 m.p.h.
Shortly after entering Michigan on a recent run from Chicago to Detroit, Amtrak engineer Herman Gibson advances the throttle knob on the controls of the diesel locomotive, delivering more power to big electric motors that make the wheels rotate faster.
The four-car train accelerates to a top speed of 95 m.p.h., gliding over tracks that were overhauled to handle higher speeds on a 45-mile test bed between the Indiana-Michigan state line and Kalamazoo, Mich.
The feeling is like riding on air. Out the window to the side of the tracks, stands of trees become a blur.
"Ninety-five mile an hour ain't bad. It's sort of fun," laughs Gibson, who started working for Amtrak 17 years ago washing dishes in dining cars.
The speed will be stepped up to 110 m.p.h. next year on the 45-mile stretch between Niles, Mich., and Kalamazoo in southwest Michigan that has been under development since 1996, the year after federal funding started flowing. The segment of track is part of the approximately 300-mile rail corridor from Chicago to Detroit, and $39 million has been spent to date.
Running at 110 m.p.h. except for in congested urban areas would shave at least an hour, maybe two, off the approximately 5 1/2-hour trip between the two cities, Amtrak officials said.
"There are a bunch of medium-sized markets between Chicago and Detroit--in Kalamazoo, Battle Creek and Jackson, Mich.--where people would flock to improved Amtrak service," said Rick Harnish, executive director of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association. "It has been disappointing the process hasn't moved much more quickly and that there isn't a real commitment at the federal level to make high-speed systems work. You could fill up trains that hold more people than 747 airplanes."
The higher speeds on the Wolverine are part of Amtrak and Michigan's plan to expand service and cut travel times on the first fast trains operating outside of Amtrak's express corridor between Boston, New York and Washington, where the railroad's Acela service runs at a 150 m.p.h. top speed.
The Illinois high-speed project is the first venture by Lockheed into railroad signaling.
Lockheed Martin officials said they are committed to completing the project.
But Illinois Transportation Secretary Tim Martin is running short on patience.
"We are anxiously awaiting additional testing next year. If it's not going to work, the question becomes when do you pull the plug and go to something that is a little more proven," Martin said. "There are nice things about being cutting edge, but if it is not going to work we have to go with something different."