With the 2009 economic stimulus, a new high-speed rail plan is in the offing for Illinois, that would reduce travel times from Chicago to St. Louis from 5 1/2 to 4 hours with about $2 billion in improvements to allow trains to travel at 110 miles per hour for most of the route. This has sounded very exciting in the various press releases – 4 hours ALMOST competes with air travel for the same distance when you factor in going to the airport, etc.
The Midwest High Speed Rail Association has just released a study touting a 220 mph corridor that could make the same trip in 2 hours. You can see the study at http://www.midwesthsr.org and you should, because the study points out a couple of things that get lost in the press releases. One: The new high-speed rail plan for Illinois isn’t new or even very high-speed. Two: The fast route is different from the one currently being discussed.
This is the Gaylord Building, A National Trust Historic Site which was first built along the Public Landing of the Illinois & Michigan Canal in Lockport in 1838, twenty years before the railroads arrived. When they arrived, there was no place to put them, so they just ran the tracks down Commerce Street next to the Gaylord Building, where they remain today, host to six Amtrak trains daily on the Heritage Corridor line, cutting through the heart of Lockport’s National Register district. The tracks are also adjacent to the 1855 Norton Building, another rare treasure, and a number of other downtown historic structures and they cross at grade all the way to Joliet.
So, I am worried about high-speed rail because it could harm these historic buildings, right? Well, yes there will be increased traffic, BUT there will be no high-speed rail in Lockport. The six-year old study that chose this route acknowledged as much, and it is also evident in the Midwest High Speed Rail Association study. Trains today – and in the high-speed future – are limited to 79 mph in Lockport. All of the time savings for the 110 mph trains have to come AFTER the trains cover the 40 miles between Chicago and Joliet at the same speeds they run today. The grade crossings pretty much insure that. There is an alternate route in Lockport along the BSNF route outside of the downtown that avoids crossing Illinois Route 7. But the six-year old study notes that route will cost more and require rerouting of freight trains, which is expensive and difficult. Or, at least it was expensive and difficult in a world before stimulus money.
To me the BIG issue is: This is being sold as a high-tech high-speed plan when it is in fact a shopworn hand-me-down pieced together with garage sale surplus. It takes no risks and follows the path of least cost and least resistance. This is not a bad thing, but it is not a visionary future-oriented plan. The Midwest High Speed Rail Association plan for a 220 mph corridor IS a visionary plan, and at a cost well over $10 billion, it should be. It follows a route that avoids historic districts in Lemont, Lockport, Dwight, Bloomington and Carlinville, AND it avoids the slow 79 mph sections between Chicago and Joliet and between Alton and St. Louis. So why not do that? It isn’t shovel-ready, and we need to be ready to start shoveling the billions or someone else might get them.
What would Daniel Burnham say, 100 years after his Plan of Chicago?
Make some little plans?