Coordinating a project of this scope, size and time-frame requires ultimate cooperation between all parties involved.
The Illinois High-Speed Rail (HSR) project between Chicago, Ill., and St. Louis, Mo., is progressing right on schedule and currently wrapping up construction for the 2013 season. While the full project will not be complete until 2017, a significant portion of the work will be in place to support speeds of up to 110 mph over about 75 percent of the route by the end of 2015. The project will shave about an hour off travel time between Chicago and St. Louis, with about half of this savings in place by the end of 2015.
An endeavor of this magnitude, with a price tag of $1.6 billion, requires detailed schedules and planning to ensure all aspects run smoothly, safely and are completed on time. The overall program consists of a significant number of individual construction projects, each requiring environmental analysis, planning and design activities. Overarching them all is coordination with many partner institutions and a strong public outreach program.
Project status, successes
Corridor improvements have been underway between the Joliet and the East St. Louis area since 2010 at the start of the project.
"We expect that by the end of 2015, infrastructure improvements will be in place to support speeds up to 110 mph on a significant portion of the segment between Joliet and Carlinville, Ill.," said Joseph Shacter, director, Division of Public and Intermodal Transportation, Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT). "Infrastructure improvements to support the remaining 110 mph service and other upgrades are expected to be in place by the end of 2017."
Daily operation of higher speed Amtrak passenger service between Dwight and Pontiac began on November 22, 2012, and since that time, ridership on the Chicago - St. Louis corridor has increased by nearly 67,000 when compared with the same period a year ago, totaling nearly 627,000 passengers; an increase of 11 percent, which sets the stage to break the record of 675,295 set last year.
During the first three years of the program, improvements to the existing mainline were largely completed, including the installation of about 626,000 new concrete ties, spreading of 1.3 million tons of ballast and initial renewal of 235 crossing surfaces and approaches. Work has begun and continues on passing siding upgrades, limited extensions of double track, structural and drainage improvements, preparation for positive train control (PTC) installation and design of additional improvements including stations and related work.
With infrastructure improvements well underway, an updated fleet of rail cars and locomotives equipped to handle these higher speeds was next on the agenda.
A national request for proposals for new state-of-the-art passenger cars was released in April 2012 with the state of California taking the lead in a joint procurement including Illinois, California, Michigan and Missouri. Nippon Sharyo was awarded a $352-million contract in November 2012 for 130 rail cars.
In March 2013, IDOT was selected to lead a joint procurement between Illinois, California, Michigan, Missouri and Washington for 35 next-generation diesel locomotives. The request for proposals for the locomotives was released on August 8, 2013.
As for environmental concerns, a comprehensive Tier 1 Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) was completed and the Federal Railroad Administration issued a Record of Decision (ROD) in December 2012 for future work. In the fall of 2013, additional Tier 2 environmental studies began to further evaluate portions of the corridor, including Chicago to Joliet, Alton to St. Louis and a flyover near Springfield, Ill.
"The ROD identifies the preferred alignment for additional future passenger rail improvements between Chicago and St. Louis and presents the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) decisions, determinations and findings on the proposed program, as evaluated as part of the Tier 1 EIS," explained Shacter. "The signing of this document also positions the project to be ready for future federal funding to improve passenger rail speeds, frequencies and reliability."
Shacter points to scheduling and coordination between agencies as the two most difficult challenges thus far for the Chicago – St. Louis HSR project.
"The use of American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds and the expedited schedule required modification of a wide variety of processes and practices by IDOT, Union Pacific and partner agencies," he explained. "This included finding common ground on a wide range of institutional issues from engineering design to procurement to invoicing and others. Additionally, an extensive program of Tier 2 National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) activities, driven by federal funding, has had a major impact on the schedule. Projects were packaged based on construction and operating logistics, but also on the expected timeframe for NEPA completion for that package."
Coordination with local agencies to reach consensus on highway/rail crossing improvements has been extensive, he says and points to the quad gates with loop detection system, fencing and significant geometric improvements, which will result in unprecedented levels of grade-crossing safety on this corridor.
"Union Pacific, IDOT, Amtrak and the FRA worked diligently to develop an approach that meets legislated requirements for PTC, as well as grade-crossing activation," he said. "This combines Interoperable Electronics Train Management System (as planned by most freight railroads) and the Incremental Train Control System (for crossings)."
Coordinating the team
The Chicago - St. Louis HSR team is comprised of professionals from IDOT and Program Management Consultant team, led by Parsons Brinckerhoff. The team works closely with project partners from the FRA, Union Pacific, Amtrak, Illinois Commerce Commission, other host railroads on the corridor and many representatives from the communities and cities located along the corridor.
"Project planning is handled through the significant effort of professionals skilled in a number of specialties, ranging from engineering, planning, environmental sciences and rail operations to finance and communications and a variety of others," Shacter said.
In addition to the infrastructure improvements along the corridor, the program is also providing new or renovated station facilities and technology enhancements at Dwight, Pontiac,
Bloomington-Normal, Lincoln, Springfield, Carlinville and Alton stations. All of the station enhancements are expected to generate economic development and improve transportation connections in the corridor communities, Shacter notes. Construction of multimodal stations at Bloomington-Normal, Joliet and Alton include funding from other sources driven by the cities and the state.
Shacter points out that transportation improvements have been made possible with the support of Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn's $31 billion Illinois Jobs Now! capital construction program, which includes $14 billion for transportation through 2015, including $400 million toward design and high-speed rail construction.
"Our investments in high-speed rail and transportation create jobs, foster economic development and promote economic growth, while moving people swiftly and safely across our state as people should expect in the 21st Century," Gov. Quinn said in a statement.