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High-speed rail efforts gain momentum across the country

The fields of north-central Illinois may seem like an unlikely backdrop to showcase the future of the nation’s transportation system, but for fans of high-speed rail, they may have done just that.

On Friday, a train on Amtrak’s Chicago-St. Louis corridor traversed those fields at a speed of 111 mph., 40 percent faster than the line’s normal top speed of 79 mph and faster than any U.S. train outside Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor.

“It was interesting to see how smooth the transition was from 79 to (111),” said Josh Kauffman, spokesman for the Illinois Department of Transportation, who was on the train, along with other officials, including Illinois Governor Pat Quinn and U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood.

“It was an historic ride,” said Kauffman, “and we’re extremely pleased with the results.”

It was also, perhaps, an unintended acknowledgment of the fact that, after years of high hopes, high-speed rail in the U.S. remains a slow-going affair. Despite the celebratory mood aboard Friday’s train, it’s worth noting that the “historic” high-speed ride only covered 15 miles of the 285-mile route and that extending the service will take years and billions of dollars.

“People keep talking about top speed, but what really matters to travelers is average speed — the trip time itself,” said Kenneth Orski, publisher of transportation newsletter "Innovation Briefs," and a former DOT official. “Even with billions of dollars in improvements, the average speed won’t improve that much.”

Still, efforts to expand the nation’s high-speed rail offerings continue. Among the most recent developments:

  • Last month, Amtrak ran several tests along its Northeast Corridor, running Acela Express trains at speeds of up to 165 mph — current top speed is 135 mph — on four sections of track in Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, Rhode Island and Massachusetts, as part of efforts to raise regular service speeds to 160 mph by 2017.
  • Earlier this year, trains on Amtrak’s Wolverine service between Chicago and Pontiac, Mich., began running at 110 mph on a 90-mile section between Porter, Ind., and Kalamazoo. At build-out, officials hope to cut travel time between Chicago and Detroit to less than four hours.
  • In California, plans to build an 800-mile high-speed train line between Los Angeles and San Francisco moved forward last month after the federal government approved a section of the route between Merced and Fresno. Construction is expected to start next year, although several lawsuits have already been filed against the project.

Ironically, perhaps, such projects come at a time when train travel in the U.S. in general is at a crossroads. On the one hand, Amtrak carried 31.2 million passengers during the last 12 months, the highest annual ridership total in the company’s 41-year history. On the other, funding for multi-billion-dollar projects is increasingly uncertain at a time of budget cutbacks, ballooning deficits and a presidential election defined by two diametrically opposed views of government.

In the meantime, riders on the Chicago-St. Louis corridor may take solace in the fact that Amtrak expects to begin offering regular 110 mph service on that 15-mile stretch by Thanksgiving and on 75 percent of the route by 2015, cutting trip times by more than an hour.

“The difference between 79 and 110 mph isn't necessarily all that much, but at 110, the number of people they can carry improves dramatically,” said Rod Diridon Sr., executive director of the Mineta Transportation Institute at San Jose State University. “At that point, it really begins to compete with short-hop air travel.”

Rob Lovitt is a longtime travel writer who still believes the journey is as important as the destination. Follow him on Twitter.