Chicago to St. Louis line is much improved but not done yet
For those of us aching for more fast, frequent and reliable trains around the country, the State of Illinois’ upgrades to Lincoln Service trains between Chicago and St. Louis is a great project—but it’s taking longer than we’d like. Let’s take a look at what’s been accomplished, and what challenges remain.
First, a note about nomenclature: While this project is very important, it is not high-speed rail. With diesel trains running at top speeds of 110 mph on tracks shared with freight, the Lincoln Service improvements will result in substantially better, faster trains—you might call it really good regular rail—but not the true high-speed service that dedicated, electrified tracks allow.
With what’s been completed so far, there’s already a night-and-day difference. Before this project, the line was suffering from years of deferred maintenance. Bumpy tracks made for a rough ride. Rain showers would knock out signals along the line, slowing trains to a crawl. Even in good weather, grade crossing equipment would fail, requiring trains to come to a complete stop to cross roads. Crossing paths with other trains often meant stopping and backing into sidings where crews had to get out and throw switches by hand.
The roadbed and tracks have been rebuilt from the ground up, providing a buttery smooth ride. It sets a new standard that all tracks that carry passenger trains should meet. Improved sidings give passenger trains more flexibility to pass freight trains or meet opposing trains with less delay.
All the grade crossings have been rebuilt and improved, with gates that are harder to drive around and systems to detect trapped vehicles. There are also lots of improvements around the tracks, including rebuilt roads and sidewalks, plus attractive fences to protect tracks as they pass through towns.
The stations are either completely remodeled or brand new. These are not only nice for passengers, they are landmarks that bring fresh energy to the small- and mid-size towns along the line.
Trains are now pulled by brand-new locomotives that are clean and quiet, accelerate quickly, and are more reliable. And although we were due to be riding on new bi-level passenger cars be now, the delay to that project has a serious silver lining: We’ll instead be getting beautiful new single-level coaches like the ones passengers are raving about on Virgin Trains (Brightline) in Florida.
One big remaining task is getting the trains up to the promised top speed of 110 mph, which will cut as much as an hour from a full-length trip. This relies on the signal system being capable and federally approved, but the Lincoln Service project has been caught in the storm of Positive Train Control (PTC) that has enveloped the entire American railroad industry for the past few years.
Track owner Union Pacific opted to install I-ETMS, the Interoperable Electronic Train Management System, which emerged as the de facto standard among the various railroads during the PTC transition. Interoperable is the key word, as it means one railroad’s locomotive should be able to pass over another railroad’s tracks. But, I-ETMS is so new that it has yet to go through any sort of federal approval process for trains operating faster than 90 mph.
The State of Illinois hopes to raise train speeds to 90 between Springfield and St. Louis later this year. And getting up to 110 is still planned, but the timeline is unclear.
Getting I-ETMS certified for 110 mph is uncharted territory, but Illinois could be the one to blaze that trail. That could then be important for California as it looks to integrate its new high-speed line with existing tracks.
Another major to-do is getting trains moving faster as they near Chicago and St. Louis. The improvements to the line stretch from just south of Joliet, on the outskirts of the Chicago region, to a point a few miles north of St. Louis. After speeding along through the countryside, traversing these stretches of congested urban rail at a halting pace feels interminably slow, and it adds serious time (and potential for delays) to the journey.
The better path into Chicago is pretty clear: New connections would let Lincoln Service trains travel from Joliet to downtown Chicago over an upgraded Rock Island line, which is already publicly-owned and dedicated to passenger trains.
The path into St. Louis is trickier, as it probably requires a new bridge over the Mississippi River. Done right, this would be a bridge that would serve the next 100+ years of trains to St. Louis, including 220-mph high-speed trains from Chicago, Indianapolis, Louisville and Nashville. Until this can be planned and built, a few slow miles into St. Louis can be forgiven if everything else is working well.
Finally, the line needs at least two more round-trips each day to fill gaps in the schedule, like an early-morning arrival into Chicago and more mid-afternoon trips.
Illinois has made great progress on this project, but there are still important parts left to complete. We look forward to working with new Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker on solving the 110 mph dilemma, identifying funding to build the needed connections into Chicago, and adding more service.