The railroad crossing work that started recently in Braidwood is a reminder that high-speed rail is on its way.
The Illinois Department of Transportation has said high-speed rail work from Chicago to St. Louis should be finished by the end of 2017, taking one hour off the train ride that now takes about 5 hours and 15 minutes.
Projects along the way range from railroad crossing improvements, such as those in Braidwood, to the $50 million multimodal facility being built in Joliet.
In Wilmington, a new railroad bridge will be built over the Kankakee River, and IDOT plans to make improvements on two other railroad bridges running through the city.
When all is completed, the maximum speed for trains in the corridor will be 110 mph compared with 79 mph today.
Expectations are that ridership will increase.
The total budget for the high-speed rail project is $1.95 billion. Federal funds account for $1.65 billion. So far, about $1 billion has been spent, according to IDOT.
“Will it attract additional people who will see this as an alternative to driving? Absolutely,” said Steve Jones, director of economic development for Joliet.
High-speed rail was a motivating factor in 2010 when then-Gov. Pat Quinn came to town days before an election and announced a $32 million grant for the Joliet multimodal facility.
Joliet officials back then had promoted the city as the soon-to-be first high-speed rail stop outside of Chicago on Amtrak’s Lincoln Service line that runs between Chicago and St. Louis, although there is also a stop in the Cook County suburb of Summit. Still, city officials suggested the attraction of high-speed rail could be a magnet to draw Amtrak travelers to Joliet and avoid congestion in the big city.
Amtrak boardings and departures in Joliet last year totaled 64,349, according to Amtrak.
The potential of high-speed rail has been mentioned less and less over the years as the state and Joliet have struggled to keep funding in place to finish the project.
The future Joliet train station is one five to be built along the Chicago-St. Louis corridor, according to an IDOT website. Others are in Dwight, Pontiac, Carlinville and Alton.
Jones said better facilities, along with faster trains, should help persuade more people to consider rail travel.
“You put the comfort into the experience of people using the train, and it creates a more favorable experience for people who have options,” he said.
Amtrak looks forward to new stations along the Lincoln Service line, including Joliet, Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said.
“The more inviting the station is, the more likely people are to be drawn to the product, which is why we are so desirous to see the completion of [the Joliet] project,” Magliari said.
Most work along the Chicago-St. Louis line has been devoted to rail and bridge improvements.
According to IDOT, more than 260 miles of track have been replaced. Curves have been realigned to allow for faster trains.
In Wilmington, the state plans to replace the railroad bridge that crosses the Kankakee River and improve bridges over Water Street and Forked Creek.
The state is doing an environmental study in the Kankakee River in preparation for that project, Wilmington City Manager Tony Graf said.
“They had a biologist out in the area last week, collecting mussels to do an assessment,” he said.
The city has control over building permits for the two other bridges. Graf said the city has not issued the permits, as it is pressing a case for compensation for expected damages to surrounding streets as construction equipment moves in.
“The main issue is that our roads are residential and not built to handle that truck traffic,” Graf said.
Wilmington wants the state to invest an estimated $475,000 in road improvements.
“Otherwise,” Graf said, “the roads are going to be damaged.”
The Braidwood project at Main Street, also Route 113, is designed to improve crossing safety, according to IDOT.
The project includes the installation of four-quadrant gates to prevent vehicles from crossing the tracks while trains pass. There also will be new signs and pavement markings, as well as improvements to pedestrian crossings and sidewalks.
The Braidwood work is scheduled to be completed by July 25, depending on the weather.
BY THE NUMBERS
Lincoln Service (Chicago-to-St. Louis) ridership
Joliet boardings and departures