The Illinois Department of Transportation has reached a cooperative agreement with Union Pacific and Amtrak that will permit the release of a $1.1 billion federal high-speed rail grant to the state of Illinois to fund passenger rail improvements between Chicago and St. Louis. The agreement was proclaimed by state and federal officials as "historic" and hailed as "one giant step closer to achieving high-speed passenger service between Chicago and St. Louis." But stripped of its rhetoric, the announcement only reveals how inadequate and cost-ineffective the Administration's "high--speed" program is turning out to be.
The billion dollar program of improvements to be completed under the Cooperative Agreement will enable "higher-speed" trains to travel between Chicago and St. Louis in 4 hours and 32 minutes, cutting present trip time by 48 minutes when the planned improvements are completed by 2014. As the Springfield Journal Register pointedly observed, that is 22 minutes longer than the trip time of 4 hours and 10 minutes promised in the original grant application. A four-hour trip time was also pledged in the White House press release announcing the project last January.
Currently Amtrak operates passenger service between Chicago and St. Louis at an average speed of 53 mph. The announcement is silent about the expected improvement in the average speed when the project is completed but our calculations suggest that the planned improvements would increase average speeds only by 9mph, to 62 mph. Of the 284-mile Chicago-St. Louis route, a total of 210 miles of track will be ready for 110 mph operation under the present grant. Upgrading the remaining 74 miles of the line, between Dwight and Chicago, would have to await further federal aid. The State of Illinois originally requested $3 billion to complete the total project.
From what we can read between the lines, Union Pacific drove a hard bargain as a condition of signing the cooperative agreement. "Our priority in working out this agreement," the company’s CEO, Jim Young said in a prepared statement, "was to protect Union Pacific’s ability to provide the exceptional freight service our customers need and expect. ... This agreement allows us to deliver on those customer commitments." The message is clear: UP’s freight operations will take precedence over passenger rail operations. The route, we are told, is expected to accommodate as many as 22 freight trains a day ultimately.
Union Pacific also seems to have won out on another contentious issue. The cooperative agreement is silent about any penalties the railroad might face if on-time performance standards for passenger service are not met – a condition that the Federal Railroad Administration had insisted upon in its initial (and later withdrawn) guidelines concerning the terms of the cooperative agreements.
The announcement, released on December 23, barely two weeks before a new Congress takes office, was meant to give a boost to a program that is barely limping along. The record speak for itself. Two major high-speed rail projects — in Wisconsin and Ohio — have been cancelled by the incoming governors because of the cost burden the operation of the new rail services would impose on the state taxpayers. The Florida Tampa-to-Orlando high-speed line is still in doubt as Gov.-elect Rick Scott ponders its cost and economics. The California high-speed rail program, with its starter line in the sparsely populated Central Valley, has been ridiculed as "the railroad to nowhere." And several HSR cooperative agreements remain stalled in contentious negotiations. It’s not surprising that the Administration would be anxious to show progress and refute the widely held impression that the program is on its last legs. This is not how it was all supposed to end.
Whether the program will, indeed, come to an untimely end will depend on the next Congress. To the incoming Republican lawmakers, eager to make good on their promise to cut federal spending, any unspent HSR funds will present a tempting target for rescission. In addition, future appropriations for the program will have to compete with other urgent transportation priorities amid pressures to trim discretionary spending and Congressman Mica's announced intent to revisit the program and refocus it in ways that, in his words, "makes sense."
It is not a scenario that offers high-speed rail advocates much cheer in the New Year.
Ken Orski is a former senior U.S. Transportation Department official and publisher of Innovation NewsBriefs, a transportation newsletter now in its 21st year of publication.