FOR American rail passengers, "Meet Me in St Louis" is a proposition that requires careful planning and often a degree of patience.

The Midwestern city, which sits on the Missouri bank of the Mississippi River adjacent to Illinois, is served by three Amtrak services; the daily Chicago - San Antonio/Los Angeles Texas Eagle, the twice-daily Missouri River Runner to and from Kansas City, and the four-times a day Lincoln Service to and from Chicago.

A maximum speed of 127km/h on the 487km trip north to Chicago, and the prioritisation of freight traffic, means that journeys are often delayed and can be frustratingly slow. Despite this, ridership grew by 11% year-on-year in 2012 to 675,000 passengers, but this remains a drop in the ocean compared with road. While rail accounted for 1.3% of the approximately 50.7 million journeys on the corridor in 2010, which was marginally more than air's 1.1% share, road was the preferred choice for 49.4 million travellers, a massive 97.5% of all trips.

Rail is though set to become a much more attractive option. A $US 1.45bn programme of infrastructure enhancements and investment in new rolling stock is now well underway which when completed in 2017 will slash journey times on the line, and improve on-time performance reliability to 85%.

Amtrak and Union Pacific began testing 177km/h passenger trains on a 22.5km portion of the Union Pacific (UP) line between Dwight and Pontiac, Illinois, in August, and passengers using the Lincoln Service over November's Thanksgiving weekend were the first to experience 177km/h operations.

UPNew track, ballast and sleepers have been laid, while four-barrier gates at level crossings, new signalling, and other ancillary items such as lineside fencing have been installed.

This work is being replicated on other sections of track along the corridor. UP is carrying out the trackwork on the line using a Harsco TRT-909 track renewal train, completing the 155km section from Dwight to Elkhart, and the 29km stretch from Lenox to St Louis in 2011, and the 20.7km section between Godfrey and Wann, and 56.6km from Joliet to Dwight in 2012. In addition to track renewal on single-line stretches, a new passing loop and 38.6km of new double-track at three locations are being added to the line which will help to increase capacity. In addition, 15 passing loops will be upgraded to increase the speed of passing trains to 80km/h.­ Complete renewal is set to be completed on the entire 292.2km section between Dwight and Alton by 2015, and from Joliet to Dwight by 2017.

At this point the fastest journey times will be reduced by 1h 12min to 4h 30min between the two city centre stations on one of three 177km/h round-trip Lincoln Service trains, with the two other services providing a journey time of 4h 45min. This is a marked improvement on the current average journey time of 5h 30min and compares favourably with the equivalent road trip along Interstate Highway 55 which also takes around five hours. One Lincoln Service and the Texas Eagle will continue to operate at 127km/h and will take 5h 35min.

Passengers will also benefit from six new five-car locomotive-hauled trains. A $US 352m contract was awarded by California's Department of Transportation to the American subsidiary of Sumitomo, Japan, in November for 130 coaches, 88 of which are for passenger services in the Midwest. The coaches will be built at Nippon Sharyo's plant in Rochelle, Illinois. The diesel locomotive contract is yet to be tendered.

Double track

While local officials are cautious about labelling the enhanced railway "higher speed," further infrastructure improvements which would double-track the entire route and provide sufficient capacity for additional services by 2030 are planned. At present only the 59.5km Chicago - Joliet section which is owned by CN, and 30.6km of the 46.7km section between Godfrey and East St Louis, which is owned by UP and Kansas City Southern, is double-track.

The Illinois Department for Transportation (Idot) and the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) signed and issued a Tier 1 Environmental Inspection Statement for the high-speed project in November, following the completion of a $US 1.25m federally-funded study commissioned in 2010.

The study paves the way for future funding applications by outlining four build alternatives for the improved line which will provide 177km/h operation on longer sections of the corridor as well as increase frequency to eight passenger services per day. Journey times will be between 3h 51min and 4h 10min, and patronage is expected to increase to 1.7 million passengers, or 2.7% of the estimated 62.2 million trips on the corridor by 2030.

The study notes that the improvements are essential for a reliable passenger service in the long-term due to the construction of a new intermodal terminal at Joliet by UP which will increase freight traffic on the line from five trains per day at present to up to 22 within the next 10 years. However, the study rejected increasing line speeds to 200km/h "due to the magnitude of improvements that would be required to support trains travelling at that speed." Ridership was also not predicted to increase sufficiently compared with the 177km/h option to support the extra costs and environmental impacts.

The study favours adopting either one or two of the four proposed options for the enhanced line. The preferred options differ only through the use of an alternative route, the existing NS-owned line on 10th Street in Springfield, Illinois, which the study says is favoured because of its ability to provide extra capacity on what will become an increasingly-congested section. This line, like the existing UP line currently used by Amtrak services on 3rd Street, will be double-track and requires the addition of a short section of new track from the UP line as well as the construction of a new Springfield station.

Both of the preferred build alternatives take a different route from the existing Heritage route used by Amtrak trains in Chicago by using NS, Northeastern Illinois Regional Commuter (NIRC), and Rock Island Corridor (RIC) infrastructure to Joliet, all of which will be upgraded to double-track.

Beyond Joliet on the existing UP-owned line, track-doubling is proposed on the single-track Elwood - Dwight, and Dwight - Springfield sections, while 33.3km of loops of various lengths will be added. South of Springfield on the route to Alton, the line from Standford Avenue in Springfield to Virden, from Nilwood to Carlinville, a section in Macoupin County, and from Godfrey to Wood River will be double-tracked, while various grade separation projects will be implemented. There will also be new stations and improvements to existing stations. The plan also calls for construction of a new bridge upstream from the existing MacArthur Bridge in St Louis. This could either be double or four-track, with further studies of traffic requirements over the Mississippi River needed.

Upgrading the alternative Chicago route is expected to cost $US 1.5bn, $US 500m less than an equivalent upgrade of the Heritage Corridor, while the entire project is projected to cost $US 4.91bn - $US 5.2bn at 2011 prices without the Springfield alternative, or $US 5.1bn - $US 5.19bn if this option is chosen instead.

Join the club

While the Chicago - St Louis corridor might be gradually joining the 177km/h club, the Chicago - Detroit corridor is already a member after regular operations began on a 128.7km section between Porter, Indiana, and Kalamazoo, Michigan, on February 15 2012. Federal grants worth $US 350m are funding the programme which will extend 177km/h operation to Detroit and Dearborn by 2014 or 2015 after upgrading work began last summer.

The Detroit route is certainly a showcase for improved passenger operations, but with 373km of the 489km Chicago - Pontiac route in public hands, after the State of Michigan agreed to purchase the 217km Kalamazoo - Ann Arbor - Dearborn section from NS in 2011, officials say the Illinois corridor is a better fit for other states to model their own future passenger improvement projects.

According to Mr Rich Harnish, executive director of the Midwest High-Speed Rail Association (MHSRA), Illinois put the Chicago - St Louis corridor in pole position to secure funding because "the plans were in place" and because of the state Department of Transportation's aggressive pro-rail stance. Indeed, Illinois' preparation enabled it to land $US 1.1bn of the $US 8bn available in the Federal Stimulus package announced by President Obama in April 2009 and issued in January 2010.

Measured against the ambitious plans of the California High-Speed Rail Authority for a 354km/h service, or even against Amtrak's new long-term vision for its Northeast Corridor (IRJ September 2012 p107), the Illinois effort may appear insignificant in the high-speed rail arena. However, success on this route - one whose physical constraints have plagued Amtrak for decades - will showcase what benefit higher mainline speeds could offer to numerous routes, and the cities along them, in the not-too-distant future.

Not that Harnish is entirely satisfied. "I would call this upgrade the minimum that Amtrak should be," he says adding that the danger lies in low expectations. "We can't do much so let's not try to do much - it's a flawed and dangerous argument, although it's far better than what we had back in 2003 [when] we were clearly very stuck in place."

He says major lessons learned include "starting to understand better how to run high-quality services in cooperation with freight railroads" adding that he is not surprised by UP's ability to cooperate, since "they do a decent job" running Metra commuter trains in Chicago. The core issue, Harnish says, is the incremental cost formula. "We have to come to terms with the right way to compensate the freight railroads in any public-private partnership arrangement."

The current state-by-state patchwork approach to a federal inter-city rail system also needs to be resolved because this is a major roadblock to other projects getting off the ground.

"The fact that the UP route is in a single state is very important in allowing Illinois to move aggressively without objections from neighbouring states," Harnish says. "And the access into Chicago [from St Louis] is easier to deal with than the access to Chicago from Detroit," he adds indirectly referencing the proposed Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency Program (Create). This scheme proposes $US 3.2bn in improvements to rail infrastructure for passenger and freight in the Chicago region, and is currently awaiting approval from Congress.

Harnish says the State of Illinois has earned bragging rights simply by utilising federal funds to advance long-term projects that have stalled. If the Chicago - St Louis project proves to be a success, this should inspire other states to dust off their own improvement plans for further funding allocations. And with President Obama securing a second term in the White House, there is a chance that this will become available in the near future.

"Normal, Illinois, now has a new station," Harnish says. "The project had been on the books for a long time, but suddenly with the Tiger programme, there was money to do it. And Illinois was ready. That's huge. It's great to see new track in place, widened and cleaned-up right of way, and it's clear that the state is making an investment. We need to keep that pace up."