The Chicago - St. Louis 110 mph Project
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.
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.
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.
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. That could then be important for California as it looks to integrate its new high-speed line with existing tracks.
The route needs a least two more daily roundtrips. An earlier arrival into Chicago and mid-afternoon departure from Springfield are desperately needed.
Another major to-do is getting trains moving faster as they near Chicago. 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.