Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Tribune lays out problems and potential for positive train control for 110 mph trains

Jon Hilkevitch, the Tribune's Transportation Report, does a nice job laying out the delays of 110 mph trains in Illinois and points to Michigan as a more successful state story (so far) at getting faster trains running. Our contractor Lockheed Martin, has not done the job. Michigan's contractor, GE Transportation, has.

The article is here and some of the highlights follow.

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."

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Archived articles on passenger trains

Rick has been running a YahooGroup for years and on that site are hundreds and hundreds of news articles and opinion pieces about passenger rail and Amtrak.

The site is here and if you get a Yahoo ID you can get these emailed to you when Rick sends them out. It's a great way to stay up with the movement for modern passenger trains.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

State Journal Register article on Abe Lincoln Express

Rick Harnish spoke to Downtown Springfield yesterday and the Springfield Journal-Register. The paper ran a page one story today here along with a photo. It's good to see a civic paper like the Journal-Register that gets the need for passenger rail for mid-sized cities like Springfield.

Here's the article (along with the ad from the paper):

Amtrak expansion urged
State asked to add two trains a day for Springfield-Chicago

Published Thursday, December 01, 2005

An advocacy group wants the state to add two more trips a day to the Amtrak route between Springfield and Chicago.

The Chicago-based Midwest High Speed Rail Association is asking Gov. Rod Blagojevich to budget an extra $15 million next year to increase the frequency of trains on three routes.

The group wants to increase the number of daily trips from Chicago to St. Louis from three to five. Springfield is a stop on the Chicago-St. Louis corridor. It also wants to add one train a day to the Chicago-Quincy route and one train a day to the Chicago-Carbondale route.

Rick Harnish, executive director of the association, was in Springfield Wednesday to lobby for support of the budget request.

The group wants to add a 6:45 a.m. departure from Chicago that would arrive at 9:45 a.m. in Springfield and continue on to St. Louis.

"That allows people to come down here either for state business or to visit the museum and get here at a reasonable time during the day," Harnish said, referring to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum.

The association also would like to see a 7:15 p.m. departure from Chicago traveling south. The proposal calls for two northbound departures from Springfield, at 8:30 a.m. and at 7:05 p.m.

Travelers to Springfield would be able to arrive in time for a 10 a.m. meeting and catch an after-dinner train home, Harnish said. He's dubbed the proposed route the "Abe Lincoln Express."

Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said the rail service and the Illinois Department of Transportation have been exploring the possibility of more trips. He noted that Amtrak ridership grew last year in Illinois and nationally.

"I can't verify that that schedule is doable or if that name is available legally," Magliari said of Harnish's idea. But "it's certainly an interesting proposal."

IDOT and the Union Pacific Railroad have upgraded a 120-mile stretch of freight tracks between Dwight and Springfield. The eventual goal is to upgrade the entire Chicago-St. Louis corridor to handle passenger trains traveling at speeds up to 110 mph, up from 79 mph.

A more immediate goal of Harnish's nonprofit group is to make modest track improvements that would cut Chicago-Springfield travel time by 15 or 20 minutes. Harnish believes the work could be done using money left over from the upgrades on the tracks between Dwight and Springfield.

Improving the tracks and running an express train could cut the train trip from Springfield to Chicago down to as little as 2 hours, 40 minutes, according to a flier promoting the idea. That train trip now takes about three hours and 20 minutes.

Harnish is asking the governor to include the $15 million for the budget year that begins July 1, 2006.

A spokesman for Blagojevich said the governor has not decided how much spending to propose for Amtrak. Blagojevich is in the preliminary stages of drafting a budget he will introduce in February, Gerardo Cardenas said.

Blagojevich has maintained state spending for passenger service for the past three years while cutting other programs, Cardenas noted.

Harnish's request would more than double what the state now spends on passenger rail service. This year, the state set aside $12.1 million as its contribution to the federally subsidized Amtrak. The state's share is expected to rise next year just to maintain existing service. Harnish wants to add another $15 million.

"We need to continue making the steps toward the plan that we've already committed to doing," Harnish said.

Money for trains comes out of general-revenue accounts that also cover basic services such as schools and police.

"Those are very scarce dollars," said IDOT spokesman Matt Vanover. "The governor certainly supports passenger rail, but it's a very difficult time."

The number of passengers traveling from Chicago to St. Louis was 242,144 for the Amtrak budget year that ended Sept. 30, according to the Amtrak Web site. That's a 13.7 percent increase over the previous year.

Lisa Kernek can be reached at 788-1459 or lisa.kernek@sj-r.com.