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After many years of discussion and planning, high-speed rail is inching closer to reality.

Already, some passenger trains along rural stretches of Central Illinois reach in excess of 100 mph, while slowing for construction work in towns whose rail beds are not yet upgraded.

And although the trains won't travel at 110 mph as they pass through the Twin Cities, tracks here also needed upgrades. That work is nearing completion, with work at a West Washington Street railroad crossing and another in Normal signaling the end of major improvements.

The Washington closure, between Western and Gas avenues, is necessary to finish street work. The track was rebuilt in November. Work on the final crossing in Normal, at eastbound College Avenue near uptown in Normal, is nearly completed.

That's welcome news to Twin City motorists, and those who take the train to travel north and south. For several years, during construction, Amtrak passengers sometimes had to ride buses along Interstate 55 to get where they were going.

High-speed rail is expected to shave about an hour off the Chicago-St. Louis run, which now takes about 5½ hours. The entire corridor is tentatively scheduled to be completed by the end of 2017.

The track upgrades — both for safety and for equipment — have posed problems. In rural areas and small towns, crossings often were closed for some time. New fencing in one town blocked available parking for a business. In some areas, rural crossings were closed permanently.

In Bloomington, a major bridge replacement several years ago on Market Street caused noise problems and made it almost impossible for customers to patronize some businesses. The College Avenue crossing in Normal has caused a lot of motorists to drive in circles until they can find their way back to eastbound College.

High-speed rail also has intruded into the uptown plans, with an initial plan for a pedestrian overpass now possibly changing to a pedestrian underpass. 

And, although they're used to dealing with various rail and street crossings, the closures meant police, firefighters, paramedics, and drivers of school and commercial buses had to change their regular routes.

The process, from a technical standpoint, has been interesting. Rail beds were torn up and rebuilt, with track-laying machines setting up new rails. New signals include not just lights and warning bells but crossing arms. And much of that work was done by workers who came to Illinois for the jobs, spending money on food and housing.

Yes, the high-speed rail upgrade process has been loud and noisy and disruptive and long. But once the work is finished, rail passengers will benefit from faster trains and Illinois, in general, will benefit from people and businesses interested in both both short and long trips.

And, in Illinois, we'll take good news where we can get it.


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