JOLIET, Ill. (AP) — For the first time on a key Midwestern route between Chicago and St. Louis, an Amtrak passenger train topped 110 mph Friday, ripping through fog-shrouded farm fields and blowing past cars on a parallel highway.
The test run on a special train packed with journalists, politicians and transportation officials was a milestone in President Barack Obama's vision of bringing high-speed rail to the United States and transforming the way Americans travel. It also was a welcome morale booster for high-speed rail advocates who have watched conservatives in Congress put the brakes on spending for fast train projects they view as expensive boondoggles.
"Four years ago we were nowhere. Illinois and the country was a wasteland when it came to high speed rail," said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, among those celebrating onboard the train. "This is a dream come true today."
The silver five-car, two-engine train held the high speeds for about five minutes along a 15-mile stretch of track between the central Illinois cities of Dwight and Pontiac before braking back below its usual top speed of 79 mph. Paying passengers on the route will start experiencing the faster speed on that short segment by Thanksgiving. Most of the route will get the higher speed by 2015.
The goal was to hit 110 mph, and for a moment the speedometer that officials were watching ticked up to 111. Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn pumped his fist in the air and gave a thumbs-up. He and the other dignitaries cheered, shook hands and congratulated one another.
Away from the celebrations, some rail and policy experts questioned whether the route could become profitable, pose serious competition to air and automobile travel, or ever reach speeds comparable to the bullet trains blasting across Europe and Asia at 150 mph and faster.
Kristina Rasmussen, vice president of the Illinois Policy Institute, said she thinks it's very unlikely the route ever will make money. For one thing, she said, there will be political pressure to keep fares low, dimming prospects that Amtrak will take in enough to recoup maintenance and operating costs.
"We're yoking ourselves to trains that will obligate taxpayers to provide billions of dollars in future subsidies," she said.
Advocates say Midwest routes from Chicago hold the most immediate promise for high-speed rail expansion outside Amtrak's existing, much faster Acela trains between Boston and Washington, D.C. They say it will give a growing Midwest population an alternative to rush-hour gridlock and overburdened airports, while promoting economic development along the route and creating manufacturing jobs.
In first announcing his plans in 2009, Obama said a mature high-speed rail network also would reduce demand for foreign oil and eliminate more than 6 billion pounds of carbon dioxide emissions a year — equivalent to removing 1 million cars from the roads. He set aside $8 billion in stimulus funds, directing the first round of money to speeding up existing lines like the one across Illinois and calling it a down payment on an ambitious plan to change the way Americans travel.