ST. LOUIS — While most of a $1.95-billion upgrade of the St. Louis-to-Chicago Amtrak corridor was finished a year ago, long-promised faster rail journeys on the route have yet to happen.
Delays in installing and testing new GPS-related safety technology have kept Amtrak trains from hitting high speeds of 90 mph during 2018 as the Illinois Department of Transportation had predicted.
Trains still are allowed to go no faster than 79 mph on the route.
IDOT now projects that 90-mph speeds will be in place for Amtrak next summer from Alton, Ill., to south of Springfield, Ill., and along much of the remainder of the route by the end of next year.
However, the agency is no longer saying when it believes the more significant speed target of 110 mph will be reached.
IDOT says that would shave about an hour off the typical 5 1/2-hour Amtrak trip between St. Louis and Chicago. The 90 mph speeds would pare only about 15 minutes on average, the agency said.
Last year, IDOT had said 110-mph speeds would be reached by 2019.
An IDOT spokeswoman, Jessie Decker, said in an email last week that an early version of the safety technology, called positive train control, is in service on most of the 215-mile stretch of the 284-mile corridor solely owned by Union Pacific. Union Pacific also jointly owns 29 miles of the corridor.
However, Decker said Union Pacific, which operates freight trains on the same tracks, is still working with state officials to test and commission a higher-level version at all crossings needed to allow the faster speeds.
In addition, Decker said, Amtrak is upgrading software on its locomotives to communicate with the positive train control system.
Work also is underway on segments of the corridor owned by other companies.
As for when the 110 mph speeds will finally be authorized, “it is difficult to give an estimate” now, Decker said. Before that can happen, she said, further enhancements to the positive train control system will be needed.
She said the timing also will depend on other factors, such as how soon a second needed stretch of track in a national prairie area south of Joliet can be built, she said.
But she said IDOT is committed to working with its partners to get to 110 as quickly as possible.
Meanwhile, Union Pacific spokeswoman Hannah Bolte said her railroad is “100 percent committed” to doing what’s necessary to achieve 110 on the route. In the end, Bolte said, the Federal Railroad Administration has to sign off on speed signal systems.
Rick Harnish, executive director of a private group called the Midwest High Speed Rail Association, called the delays “incredibly frustrating” but said the testing takes a long time because the safety system is new.
Positive train control helps monitor trains’ position and speed. Among other things, should a train engineer fail to respond to an upcoming signal, the train will take over controls itself and slow or stop a train to avoid a crash.
The federal government has ordered passenger and freight railroads to implement positive train control this year but Union Pacific and other companies are expected to get extensions.
The 90 and 110 speeds will be used only in the more open expanses of the route outside the St. Louis and Chicago metro areas.
The 110 mph target speed for the project has been talked about by Illinois officials for more than 20 years.
The project was funded largely by federal economic stimulus dollars allotted under then-President Barack Obama.
The improvements already completed include new rails and concrete ties, new Amtrak stations in Alton, Carlinville and elsewhere and improved street crossing gates to keep vehicles from weaving around crossing bars.
Also added were sidewalk gates barring pedestrians from crossing while a train is approaching and 3-foot-high pedestrian fences at crossings.
Other improvements were aimed at reducing delays that sometime make trips longer than the usual 5 1/2 hours.
To cut delays, second-track segments and sidings were added or lengthened so two trains could run simultaneously in more areas.