Updated: November 28, 2012 6:07AM
State and federal officials were giddy a week ago when an Amtrak test train reached 111 mph during a 15-mile trip between downstate Dwight and Pontiac. The test run was for Amtrak’s planned start of high-speed rail service soon between the two towns — a first step in a $4 billion project to rebuild about 280 miles of track to accommodate high-speed trains between Chicago and St. Louis.
We understand the excitement over the smooth trip at a speed that a Metra rider can hardly imagine, but forgive us if we don’t share government officials’ optimism about high-speed rail. Our doubts center on finding the money to pay for it, the likelihood of its popularity and whether it’s fast enough. We said it before on this page that high-speed rail advocates need to turn their attention to Amtrak’s Chicago-to-Milwaukee run.
The Obama administration’s high-speed rail plan calls for creating a national network to serve 80 percent of the population by 2025. That’s fiscally unrealistic in light of the long-term battle in Washington over the national debt and the infrastructure needs for auto and air travel, more popular means of transportation. Limiting it to select routes between major cities makes more sense.
For the Chicago-St. Louis route, about 70 percent of track improvements have been paid for via about $1.6 billion in federal and state grants. But funding remains uncertain for the remaining $2.4 billion or so, which includes installing a separate rail line for freight trains.
And if we pour many billions into building a high-speed network across America (Uncle Sam has spent about $8 billion so far), will it pay for itself or have to be subsidized by government as Amtrak is today? We know it’s popular in Europe, but Americans for decades have driven or flown to get where they want to go. Will they view faster trains as a sensible alternative?
A train trip at 110 mph between Chicago and St. Louis would take nearly four hours, or about 90 minutes less than by car, officials say. Add to that the time it takes to get to and from the train station. There’s also the greater convenience of going by car. And any cost savings by train are iffy unless you travel alone and won’t need to take a cab or rent a car once there.
We have our doubts, but the major one is the Chicago-to-St. Louis route, which we think is on the front burner because Chicago area lawmakers can get to Springfield just a tad faster.