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Maximum speeds increase to 90 mph on Amtrak’s Chicago-St. Louis corridor

By Bob Johnston | July 7, 2021

110-mph operation remains elusive; freight delays still an issue

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Passenger train passes signals
Passenger train passes signals
With a flagman providing protection, an Amtrak test train speeds through Chenoa, Ill., at 90 mph on June 25, 2020. The ITCS and I-ETMS interface had to be tested at every highway crossing before the route was certified. (Bob Johnston)

CHICAGO — As of today, top speeds are rising from 79 to 90 mph on much of Amtrak’s Chicago-St. Louis Lincoln Service corridor.

With signal system testing complete and certified for reliability by the Federal Railroad Administration, the higher speed will be allowed between Laraway Road, south of Joliet, Ill., and CP Wann, two miles south of Alton, Ill.

According to a Union Pacific general order effective at 3 a.m. today, trains can operate at the new upper limit if they are led by Amtrak locomotives equipped with both Alstom’s Incremental Train Control System (ITCS), to monitor the status of highway crossings, and the Wabtec Interoperable Electronic Train Management System (I-ETMS).

Since federal money for right-of-way and signaling improvements became available in the 1990s, Illinois has sought to shorten travel times on what had devolved from a Gulf, Mobile and Ohio two-track speedway into a deteriorated single-track line, with slow speed or out-of-service passing sidings under four subsequent.

More than $2 billion spent to upgrade the Joliet-Alton segment to 110 mph operation was accompanied by several failed attempts at devising signaling to support that speed and interface with highway crossing equipment. Illinois has required from the outset that crossings be equipped with obstructed-vehicle monitoring sensors in the pavement.

In 2015, a short segment between Dwight and Pontiac, Ill., which required locomotives specially equipped with both ITCS and UP cab signals, was tested on certain Lincoln Service trains. The technology ultimately was deemed unreliable and incompatible with UP’s decision to switch to the I-ETMS positive train control format throughout its network. That paved the way for the current setup.

I-ETMS is only currently certified as a vital system at speeds up to 90 mph. To get to 110 mph, the FRA requires more reliability testing and perhaps additional technological tweaks, which will require cooperation with the Union Pacific and additional expenditures by Amtrak or Illinois.

Although travel times will only be marginally reduced and schedules are not being immediately adjusted when Amtrak brings back its full slate of Lincoln Service trains on July 19, the corridor possesses state-of-the art crossing protection and signaling that are ready to accommodate the higher speeds once money becomes available.

The fastest Chicago-St. Louis schedule resuming in a few weeks is train no. 301, a 7 a.m. Chicago departure with limited stops that reaches St. Louis at 12:20 p.m. This 5-hour, 20-minute trip only matches what GM&O’s Abraham Lincoln achieved in 1965.

Travelers on the route still must contend with potential freight train interference delays in the Chicago-Joliet and Alton-St. Louis terminal areas and situations such as one inflicted on St. Louis-Chicago train No. 300 on July 1.

Trains News Wire learned from a Union Pacific source that the Norfolk Southern dispatcher, who controls a shared UP-NS double-track segment between the Hazel Dell and Iles control points south of Springfield, Ill., ignored passenger train priority. The dispatcher failed to hold two NS east-west trains instead of allowing train No. 300 and UP intermodal ZG4MQ to first pass each other where the UP dispatcher had set up a rolling meet. As a result, the passenger train was 1 hour, 19 minutes late into Joliet after waiting for the NS and UP trains to clear.

Such delays negate any gains made possible by the latest speed increases.

For more on the Chicago-St. Louis signal installation see, “Still seeking speed,” December 2020 Trains.

Amtrak passenger train with bilevel equipment
The Texas Eagle heads south through Gardner, Ill., in June 2020. The Eagle had been excluded from the 110-mph test in 2015, but now will be able to run at 90 mph between Chicago and St. Louis. (Bob Johnston)

20 thoughts on “Maximum speeds increase to 90 mph on Amtrak’s Chicago-St. Louis corridor

  1. OK….so over $2 billion dollars were spent to garner an 11 MPH increase in speed? I guess now we know why Illinois is going bankrupt.

  2. 1) Please complete dropped thought in 4th paragraph “. . . under four subsequent. . . “? Four subsequent railroads? ICG, Chicago, Missouri and Western Railway, Southern Pacific and then Union Pacific

    2) Yes, the investment results are slow and certainly did not meet initial goals. However more than just speed, the investment gained increased frequencies and better train stations as well as some speed. One might say what would you expect from government funding but just look at the PTC saga– time it took, cost, interoperability issues and failure to take full advantage of potential– does not prevent rear end collisions. Both suffered from depending upon technology that was not mature and rapid advances in computing power in general.

  3. For me, a US expat living 15+ years in Italy, I cannot understand American priorities that leave the citizens without basic services. I live in Trieste, an out-of-the-way place on the NE shore of the Adriatic with Slovenia on 3 sides and the Adriatic on the 4th. We have 60+ passenger arrivals/departures daily plus frequent freights, and once the trains are free from the curvature of the Karsian limestone deposits along the coast, 90 MPH running is normal for all passenger trains, even for the locals. This is not high speed trackage, it is normal, everyday trackage and has been that way for decades. Most highway crossings are bridged, something that is not done much in the US, and the ones that are at grade, are barricaded curb to curb with 6″ diameter pipe….another thing not done in the US. An incredible amount of money is spent n the military that projects like this get left behind.

    So yah, don’t spend for grade separation, but spend more for damage control, that makes a lot of sense (sarcasm). My advice — invade other countries less and take care of your own people.

    1. I think that if Italy would assume the US NATO obligations and expense, which defends Italy, we would have more money available for 6″ pipe. (I’m not even enlarging this discussion to a world view – not necessary.) P.S. The last time the US invaded Italy, it was to drive out the Nazi’s. Probably had a shortage of domestic 6″ pipe then, as well.

      1. As far as I know, the ONLY good thing that Trump did that was good was to get member NATO countries to contribute a certain percentage of their GDP to NATO. IIRC, Italy is in compliance with that. However, the US spends more on defence than the next 20 countries COMBINED, and THAT is the rub, not financially supporting NATO, which is just a SMALL portion of the US’s military budget. How many billions upon billions of bucks went into building the Navy’s littoral ships a few years ago? You know, the ones that the Navy is mothballing. Ever have a nice conversation with a General in anyone’s army? I have….an Italian General….had dinner with him once or twice. Nice fellow. BTW, the Italian Air Force puts on good air shows too.

        1. Glad you enjoyed the General’s company, whatever that has to do with the discussion, ditto your dinners and those Italian air shows, similarly irrelevant.
          Sorry, not taking the bait. Enjoy your expatriate sojourn and those trips down everyday trackage, together with your vast knowledge of US naval operations.

          1. Those comments are entirely relevant, it shows the military is in touch with civilian needs…something ours isn’t, besides the fact that the DoD had identified $125 Billion dollars in wasted money over a decade ago…and buried the report for fear Congress would slash their budget.

            As for the other points, he’s correct about grade separations, those should be priorities wherever possible, using highway trust funds(since it’s road work).

            As far as that one NS dispatcher above goes, I’d have put him on disciplinary action for failing to do his job…which is to maintain passenger train priority as designated by law.

        2. You shouldn’t have started this:

          …NATO countries to contribute a certain percentage of their GDP to NATO. IIRC, Italy is in compliance with that…
          No. You don’t recall correctly. Italy spends 1.6% of GDP on defense, far below (20% in fact) the required 2% of GDP by their agreed NATO membership. In fact, outside the US, only Greece, UK, Estonia, and Poland are in compliance.

          (T)he US spends more on defence than the next 20 countries COMBINED…
          3.7% of GDP, 14th in the World.

          …not financially supporting NATO…
          The ONE reason that Europe has been able to build its massive welfare state is due solely on the fact that the US rebuilt Europe with the Marshall Plan and then defended all of Western Europe from Soviet aggression with its ‘bloated’ defense spending.
          How many billions upon billions of euros went into improving Italian buildings and infrastructure that was destroyed in recent earthquakes. Talk about wasted money. How much went to the Cosa Nostra?

          I myself have had discussions with, served beside, went to church with, and had meals with an Italian general, American generals, Emirati, Kuwaiti, and Ugandan Generals. They were all quite nice people, too.

          As for the Italian Air Force Frecce Tricolori, the last thing I remember about them was the 1988 Ramstein Disaster where they killed 67 (including 3 of their own pilots) and injured over 500. A friend flew in on his US Army UH-60 to evacuate victims.

          The fact is that all that amazing rail service, “Free” medical care, etc., is due solely on the US. Period. Enjoy trashing your native land.

  4. Passenger rail will never make a profit absent tax subsidies and there is a lot of competition for this money. Except for NEC, comparing American passenger rail services with European passenger rail will lead to incorrect conclusions. They are not equitable. Further, according to the World Bank data for 2019, the US spends 3.4% of GDP for military items. Russia spends 3.9%. I would think we should be as prepared as our enemies are preparing. I am pleased to never have to use a warship in combat. Having the capability but not being forced to use that capability is wise. Finally, do not neglect the purpose of strong defenses is to insure free flow of goods and services.

    1. GDP is irrelevant in comparing military spending.. What is important is the percentage of military spending as a percentage of the federal budget, or maybe even the total amount spent. In either case the US leads the pack. If you have X dollars in the budget to spend, that’s it, it is not dependant on how many widgets you produce. Widget production is important if the tax structure supports it, but if the tax structure does not (low or no taxes), then it’s irrelevant.
      According to the Stockholm International Peace Institute, the US spent 39% of the global military spending, triple that of China, the next highest country. Just who is prepared here? I’ll let you figure that one out.

  5. I agree that the General and the flybys are irrelevant but it adds a bit of color. No bait intended. Bait for what I ask? I have no clue. I have no vast knowledge of naval operations, but I do read the news. And yes, we get American news here too. I have my choice of over 30 TV stations and get about a dozen news feeds via computer, so I am not in a vacuum here. The Littoral ships did make the news here as well as their decommissioning, and it’s all backed up by a look at Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Littoral_combat_ship

    As someone who has worked all my life in fields the required absolute accuracy, I learned early on that backup is essential if you’re going to stay employed. I could never pull things out of my ass….it HAD to be correct, and provable. So yah, when I talked about the Littorals, I looked it up to make sure it was accurate. I hope that you enjoy your next Amtrak trip at 79 MPH on rough as a cob track arriving 9 hours late like I have. And for what it’s worth, the Acela trip I took out of Boston to New York was so rough I could hardly stand up.

  6. Easy to cherry-pick bad rail experiences. Last time I was in Italy, I was sitting in my coach seat a few minutes before departure when (I learned later) the entire rail system went on strike. “My” train was two days late. Also had some very enjoyable trips in Italy, and I do wish there was more and better service here, but the world is a dark place. The price of liberty is eternal (and costly) vigilance. Ciao!

    1. Yah, strikes are common in Italy, not just for trains but for Alitalia, the local bus company, pretty much everyone goes on strike every once in a while. It’s a different lifestyle on every level. We were in the final stages of negotiating a 10,000 Euro contract with a plumbing store, when the lights were turned off, and the office closed so everyone could be with their families for lunch. We had to finish either later that day or the next day. So yah, life is different, and learn to live with strikes.

      As for cherry picking bad experiences….you don’t have to cherry pick with Amtrak. Back in the day I lived in Reno and wanted to take the CZ to see my son in the bay area. Some wag said that with the CZ, you didn’t need a watch, you needed a calendar. The train was so late that Amtrak hired a taxi to take us from Emeryville to San Jose because we missed ALL the connections. Instead of an afternoon arrival, we got in at midnight. I did that rout about 8 times and was NEVER even close to being OT.

      Then there was an 8,000 mile circle trip I’d planned out of Vegas. The train was 4 hours late leaving LA because the FDA condemned the diner. Upon arriving Salt lake, we had to wait 3 more hours for the Frisco section to arrive. We combined, and pulled out, only to go tits up on the Gillully Loops. The entire train was dead….no electricity at all. We sat there for several more hours, and was told that the car knockers will take care of it in Denver. We died again and waited on top of the divide for a UP pilot out of Denveer. We sat in Denver for a long time and they said that the train was fixed. We departed, and within 2 miles we died again….no lights, no air, no toilets, no diner, no nothing. A few hours later, we’re off again, this time for good. By the time we got into Nebraska, the diner was out of food, so all 400 passengers ate KFC. They brought a bunch of people out of Chicago to Galesburg to handle all the misconnects, because our arrival in Chicago was slated to be around midnight. They put me up at a hotel, gave me script for cabs, and provided a restaurant lunch for me.

      The tale continues. I was supposed to take a roomette on the LSL to New York, but they put me in coach on the Broadway. I cajoled a slumbercach room from the conductor as they “always keep two rooms open for misconnects.” My arrival in NY was uneventful, but I was supposed to take the Night Owl to DC. I couldn’t because it was annulled. They put me up in another hotel in NY. I was then informed hat Amtrak was on strike and all trains were annulled. I met with the passenger rep and they gave me a plane ticket back to Vegas….the rest of my trip never happened. Ever have a trip like that….ANYWHERE??

  7. Mr. Esse, as long as the U.S. is the 9-1-1 of the world, we will be obligated to spend a disproportionate amount of money on defense. Think Korea, Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, etc. There are lots of bad actors out there.

    1. Jeff —
      I understand 911, but are you old enough to remember Ike’s farewell speech on Jan 17, 1961 ? He was warning about the military industrial complex even back then. It’s obvious now that his warning fell on deaf ears as military spending went thru the roof right after that. 911 is almost 50 years later than that.

      If you put the shoe on the other foot, I’m 78 years old, and in those 78 years, America has been either in hot wars….WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Panama, Grenada, Afghanistan, Iraq (twice), Kuwait, Bay of Pigs, et al….and in a cold war that lasted decades. I have not seen a day without the US being at war with someone. I remember being in High School and looking up at the sky…seeing all those contrails in formation going in the same direction. My thought….IT STARTS. I was waiting for the big flash and the mushroom cloud. Ever see fallout shelters in all the big downtown buildings in Chicago or riding past the NIKE missile site next to the Outer Drive? I have. Ever practice atomic bomb drills in school? I have. It was a VERY scary time to live in. This stuff predates 911 by a half century.

      America has the big idea that they have to be the policeman of the planet. That has NEVER worked out very well. History says that.

  8. This is the Trains Newswire, and this barstoll argument has wandered too far. I’m older than you are, Mr. Esse. I remember my father telling me, in 1944, about D-Day. I still speak English, not German, or Russian, or Chinese, or Farsi. I’m sorry you had bad Amtrak experiences, I’m guessing, about 30 years ago. Some things have worked out. Truth is what we perceive it to be.

    1. I totally agree with you that is is wildly off topic. And Mr. Pins, I’m really happy that you are older than I am. Quite a few of my high school graduation class never made it this far, and I have to say that even if my knees and hips had to be replaced and I’ve lost a lot of my mobility, the alternative (death) is not so pleasant. So yah, I salute you and admire that you’ve made it this far. And yes, the Amtrak trip from hell occurred in the 80’s, 1987 if I remember correctly.

      As an aside, I made 5 round trips on NP’s North Coast Limited between Missoula, MT and Chicago in the 60’s and a one way from Libby, MT to Chicago on GN’s EB, plus many, many miles on the Mainstreeter and the Western Star. My impression may be clouded by bias, but I don’t remember such rough track as I experience today. I can remember the NP laying CWR on curves around 1965 or so, and it was smooth as silk. The jointed rail was smooth too, altho with a lot of track talk which I really enjoyed. My only really rough track experience was on a special move on the CNW in 1961. The HS prom chartered a train from Arlington Heights, Ill to Madison, WS, with the northward journey at 20 MPH or so and the return at track speed. The return was at an est speed of 60 and was REALLY rough. Quite a few kids remarked that they’d never ride a train again. Maybe they did, maybe they didn’t but a perusal of graduating class records revels about 40% mortality at this time, so their train riding time has expired.

      As an aside to the aside, I remember a Trains article years ago titled Pin’s Cushions and was about a guy named Pins who owned and operated a private car. Is that you?

      1. Yes, that’s me. As Casey Stengel once said, “Most people I know my age are dead, at the present time.”

        1. Yah, I know what you mean. With the exception of my younger sister, all of my relatives are dead, ditto for my wife’s relatives. She is the sole survivor. It’s lonely being old, isn’t it? I would love to talk more about many different things, but this venue is not the place for that. I tried and failed to find a way to contact you thu the community…but they don’t make searching people very intuitive, do they? My email is Stanford.flat@yahoo.com if you’re so inclined.

          I don’t have any experiences riding a private car but I did get to make a quick tour of one a few years ago on an Amtrak trip from Boston to San Carlos, CA and happened to notice NYC 3 tacked on the rear of the LSL and was granted a quick tour. It was hurried since train time was in about 3 minutes and my wife was on the platform waiting for me. We found our room as the train started moving.

          I did have some unusual experiences riding freights on the NP and GN tho. Life was different back in the day. I got invited in the caboose on a couple of trips and the engine crew allowed me to ride in the rear cab of an ABBA lashup of F-7’s out of Troy, MT to Whitefish. A 5′ snowfall over Lookout pass from Wallace, ID to Missoula was fantastic too. About a dozen GS gons, a box car, and 2 cabooses had those 3 geeps in run 8 all the way. Meeting MILW 263 at Haugen while on trackage rights was the icing on the cake. I had a near death experience on another trip that to this day I cannot fathom how I survived, but none of this is relevant here. That’s for another day and on another platform.

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