Q: Please update us on that high-speed St. Louis-to-Chicago train they’re promising us. Has it been completed and how long will it take to make the trip? Also, since the old Alton Amtrak station will be torn down, will Amtrak stop in Alton?
T.M.K., of O’Fallon
A: Like the little engine that could, officials say high-speed service between the Gateway and Windy cities is still on track for its public debut sometime next year.
That’s anywhere from months to three years behind early projections, but those in charge of the project say the wait will be worth it. Although its 110-mph speed will be just 60 percent of many foreign bullet trains (Japan’s SCMaglev once did 375 in tests), it is expected to shave an hour off the 284-mile trip, from 5 1/2 to 4 1/2 hours. Perhaps more important, they’re also promising to raise the current 40- to 70-percent on-time performance to 85 percent.
With the upgrade, passengers will “have smoother rides, upgraded stations, (and) crossing and signal improvements for safety,” Illinois Department of Transportation Secretary Randy Blankenhorn said last August when the route’s two new Charger locomotives were unveiled at Union Station in Chicago.
But Alton residents haven’t had to wait to enjoy all the fruits of this modernized system. Two months before the wrecking ball recently slammed into the city’s old train depot at 3400 College Ave., Amtrak began stopping at the new Alton Regional Multimodal Transportation Center on Sept. 13.
If you haven’t seen it yet, it’s impressive. Boasting 9,000 square feet, the $14.4 million facility at 1 Golf Road is 10 times larger than the former station, which needed to be moved at an estimated cost of $150,000 to be saved. While the older station handled the bare necessities, the new building includes a bright, spacious waiting room, Madison County Transit connections, bicycle facilities and ample parking. While you’re waiting, you can take advantage of complementary wi-fi or tour an exhibit of the area’s railroad history.
To make it handier, the center has been made easily accessible from regional highways. Built on an old city golf course, it also has lots of green space and is close to walking and bicycle trails, but the city hopes to lure developers to add housing along with commercial, office and cultural spaces on the 30-acre site. The entire project, including associated road improvements, is thought to cost about $24 million.
It’s a fitting monument to the long, rich history of railroading in the area, according to the folks at greatamericantrainstations.org. The rail line from Alton to the state capital opened in 1853, and on Sept. 1, 1859, it was the first railroad to add a sleeping car prototype, which had been designed by George Pullman and built at the Chicago and Alton Railroad’s shops in Bloomington.
Then, on April 16, 2009, former President Barack Obama announced a grand collaboration between the federal government, the states, railroads and other key stakeholders to create a national network of high-speed rail corridors. As part of the High-Speed Intercity Passenger Rail Program, Illinois the following January was selected to receive a $1.2 billion federal award to bring the service to the state by 2015 to 2017. Later, the state Legislature voted to chip in an additional $400 million.
Just nine months later, renovation began on the Chicago-St. Louis corridor. Since then, it has been seven years of work to upgrade bridges and culverts, improve drainage, install fencing and high-tech signals, and redo out-of-date grade crossings and approaches.
This year, work has focused on relocating rail traffic in Springfield, which is needed to enhance safety and accommodate the higher-speed trains, according to IDOT. But the big photo op came in late August when officials showed off their new Charger locomotives. Part of a 33-locomotive package built by Siemens for $225 million, the diesel-electric engines are capable of reaching speeds of 125 mph while using less fuel, running quieter and emitting 90 percent less pollution than current engines. (New engines also will be used on the Chicago-Quincy and Chicago-Carbondale intrastate runs).
Now it appears we just have to be patient for a few more months before we can climb “All aboard!” for that first ride. Meanwhile, for a history and updates, go to www.idothsr.org. For a look at the world’s fastest trains, try www.weforum.org/agenda/2017/09/these-are-the-world-s-fastest-trains.
What city still offers a museum to convicted Confederate spy Sam Davis, who was hanged shortly after his 21st birthday?
Answer to Friday’s trivia: What kills most of the world’s children younger than 5 might surprise you. According to experts, pneumonia kills about 1 million children each year, more than HIV/AIDS, diarrhea and malaria combined. Two years ago, UNICEF launched its Every Breath Counts campaign to put more focus on the dangerous infection. World Pneumonia Day is now observed every Nov. 12.