The Chicago - St. Louis Corridor

Much improved but not quite done

For those of us aching for more fast, frequent and reliable trains around the country, the State of Illinois’ upgrades to the Chicago - St. Louis Lincoln Corridor is a great project—but it’s taking longer than we’d like.

It is time to move to the next step: At least 8 trains a day in each direction at 90 mph.

Here is a look at what’s been accomplished, and what challenges remain.

This is a shared-use line linking Chicago and St. Louis.  There are 5 daily trains a day.  The 300-mile trip takes roughly 5 hours and 30 minutes.

The Joliet to East St. Louis portion was completely rebuilt, with the goal of taking an hour of the current schedule.

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. Thunder storms 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. Passing other trains often meant stopping and backing into sidings where crews had to get out and throw switches by hand.

Rebuilt from the ground up

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.

Safer Grade Crossings

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.

New Stations

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.

New Trains

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 Brightline in Florida.

New Signals

The good news is that all the signals have been replaced with state-of-the-art techonology.

Track owner Union Pacific also installed I-ETMS, the Interoperable Electronic Train Management System, which emerged as the de facto standard among the various railroads to meet Positive Train Control requirements. 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 mph between Joliet and Alton soon. 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. 

In any case, IDOT should move forward with additional departures at 90 mph.

Next Steps

The route needs at least three more daily roundtrips.  An earlier arrival into Chicago and mid-afternoon departure from Springfield are desperately needed.

The goal should be to get additinoal daily departures at 90 mph ASAP.

We have created a sample schedule to illustrate what we think is the minimum service level needed to attract substantial passengers.

We assumed the same travel times as today, even though the trains will be faster soon. The trains highlighted in pink were in operation prior to COVID. The trains in green fill critical gaps.  The grey trains are one way to fill desirable slots that pose an operational challenge.

To be clear, this schedule is intended to illustrate the concept.  It is not yet known what improvements are needed to make this schedule work.

But, you can help make it a reality by getting involved.