"Driving is just wasting my time," said Isaac Gaff, a 37-year-old music and arts director at a church who uses train time to plow through email on his laptop. He was waiting to get on the Amtrak line Thursday in Chicago to head home to Normal, in central Illinois.
Other riders say it's cheaper than flying, there's more space, and there are virtually none of the security headaches like at airports.
"It's not as much of a hassle, that's for sure," said Julia Markun, an 18-year-old college freshman getting on the same train.
But as the infrastructure currently is laid out, there is virtually no chance trains will go much faster than 110 mph, primarily because trains on Midwestern routes have to share the lines with the freight companies that own the tracks.
Work to upgrade the track began in 2010 and has included the installation of new premium rail and concrete ties as well as the realignment of curves to support higher speeds. Safer gates and new signals were installed at some highway crossings.
Transportation officials expect that after another three years of upgrades, the $1.5 billion in improvements can shave about an hour off the 284-mile journey between Chicago and St. Louis, which now takes about 5 ½ hours. Future plans aim to shrink the time to under four hours.
But to begin to seriously compete with the one-hour plane journey, travel time would have to go down to three hours, some experts say, leveling the playing field when factoring in the extra time to clear airport security.
By car, the trip can be done in about five hours. But to pry more people away from the door-to-door convenience of car travel you must have frequent trains, at least one an hour, said Burns, the rail consultant. Amtrak currently has six runs a day on the route.
A new generation of bi-level passenger cars for Amtrak's Midwest and California corridors is slated to be built at an Illinois plant operated by the U.S. subsidiary of Nippon-Sharyo, the company that makes Japan's bullet trains. And an entirely new fleet of locomotives also could be on the way, replacing designs that have been based on freight locomotives for decades.
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