Expect Faster, Quieter Trains in Normal This Year

Amtrak Normal IL Faster Quieter Trains.jpg

Normal saw passenger counts soar 6.9% this year

The $2 billion Illinois High-Speed Rail project is nearing the end of its years-long journey. With goals to reduce travel times and increase safety and reliability, the busy Chicago-to-St. Louis will bring railway passengers up to 110 mph speeds.

Train speeds should increase to 90 mph this summer, with full 110 mph service along the corridor in 2019, The State Journal-Register reported.

First, Amtrak needs to install Positive Train Control (PTC) equipment on its locomotives. Designed to prevent train accidents, PTC technology automatically controls train speeds and movements, helping to mitigate human error. Railways have until December 2018 to meet the federal mandate for full PTC implementation, with the option to apply for an extended deadline.

Work is still underway to add fencing and complete station upgrades in Springfield, Alton, and Wilmington. These projects will continue through the new year, said IDOT spokesperson Kelsea Gurski. Some work, including the delivery of newly purchased Amtrak high-speed rail cars, will likely extend beyond 2018.

The Town of Normal hopes to move forward with its plans for improved rail travel in 2018, too, as Amtrak ridership continues to grow at Uptown Station. Boardings and alightings increased nearly 7% between Amtrak’s FY2016 and FY2017.

The Town of Normal is also now a week away from the much anticipated "Quiet Zone". The Quiet Zone will limit the amount of noise that trains will make while coming through the area. Improvements such as, "railroad gates, flashers, upgraded railroad circuitry, raised medians" through the high-speed rail development make the Quiet Zone possible.

The south passenger platform at Uptown Station has stood ready for service since the end of 2016, said Wayne Aldrich, Director of Public Works for The Town of Normal.

Before trains can begin loading and unloading from the south platform, Amtrak needs to approve a lease agreement with Normal. Hopefully, the lease will be approved within the next month, Aldrich said.

Once the south platform is up and running, two trains will be able to load and unload simultaneously, though Aldrich said most trains will still stop on the north side of the tracks. If trains plan ahead of time to stop at the south platform, Uptown Station would have the option to open the former Amtrak station, now remodeled as an additional waiting facility.

Completion of the planned underpass connecting the north and south platforms will be a longer process, said Aldrich. The Town Council deliberated several options to carry passengers between the two platforms before approving the concept of an underpass in June of 2017.

Engineering firm WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff is still working to submit the required environmental documents to the Federal Railroad Administration, said Aldrich. He anticipated the firm’s engineering team will submit more refined design concepts for approval sometime in January.

“Hopefully in late summer or September or October, we will be done with this Phase One process,” said Aldrich. With the necessary forms submitted and conceptual plans agreed upon, WSP will then begin preparing construction plans.

The Town of Normal also needs additional funding to move forward with the project. Aldrich said the Town applied for a Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant in the fall of 2017 to help fund the underpass and surrounding areas, estimated to cost between $15M-20M. He predicts the Town will receive a response to its request in the spring.

Without the underpass, passengers will need to cross the tracks at Broadway Street once the south platform opens. Pedestrian safety gates with audiovisual warnings are already in place at the Broadway Street crossing. Aldrich said the Town also purchased a tram to move passengers with mobility issues across the tracks.

When it all comes together, Aldrich said the planned improvements could help boost economic development in the community.

Passengers traveling between Chicago and Bloomington-Normal will likely see 4 to 6 minutes shaved off their trip with 90 mph speeds in the corridor; Amtrak estimated that time savings could increase to 25 minutes once speeds reach 110 mph.

“I think that’s fairly substantial for travel time,” said Aldrich, who envisions residents commuting between Normal and Chicago with the added convenience of increased on-time performance and faster speeds. “Maybe some folks will prefer to live in Uptown and say, ‘I can take the train and commute to Chicago easily if I have to.”   

As we begin 2018, 93% of infrastructure improvements to the corridor have been completed, said IDOT spokesperson Kelsea Gurski, suggesting that, for Bloomington-Normal residents, full high-speed rail access may not be too far in the future.

Feature Image Credit: Pinterest, Slideshow Images: Amtrak Media Center