High speed rail system under consideration

In the near future, the trek from Chicago to the Champaign-Urbana area could be much faster by rail — to the tune of 220 mph.

The University, in collaboration with the Chicago campus and the Illinois Department of Transportation, or IDOT, is currently working on a preliminary study to determine the feasibility of a high-speed rail service from Chicago to Champaign-Urbana.

In June, Gov. Pat Quinn announced the partnership between the schools and the state. A $1.25 million contribution from the Illinois Jobs Now! Program made the study possible, which officially began in July.

The study is led by Christopher Barkan, director of the Railroad Engineering Program and professor in civil and environmental engineering. The Railroad Engineering Program is a University-led program devoted to railway engineering and education. Barkan, a national rail scholar, said there has been little progress made so far but added that there is still plenty of time. The study is slated to be a 12 to 15 month endeavor, after which their findings will be presented to IDOT.

Early plans for this rail line include stops at O’Hare International Airport, downtown Chicago, McCormick Place and Champaign-Urbana, said IDOT spokesman Guy Tridgell. Railcars on this line would reach speeds of 220 mph.

He also added that IDOT would consider extending the high-speed line to other major cities, such as Indianapolis and St. Louis.

This potential project would be separate from the Chicago-St. Louis high-speed rail line currently under construction. That 110-mph line is expected to be completed in 2014. Tridgell noted that IDOT is considering other potential high-speed rail projects as part of a Midwest high-speed rail system, but there is no concrete plan for other projects as of now.

The only high-speed rail line in the U.S. today is the Northeast Corridor, which runs from Boston to Washington, D.C. While there are high-speed rail corridors under construction throughout the U.S., Barkan said it makes sense that Champaign-Urbana is also being considered.

“The Northeast Corridor is (in) an area with high population and great demand,” Barkan said. “There is a belief there are many areas in the country that are suitable for the upgrade, including here.”

Another high-speed line in Illinois, Tridgell said, would demonstrate the state’s commitment to railroads and intent to boost employment and tourism, as well as help develop a relationship with the University.

“We feel there’s tremendous potential connecting Chicago with one of the state’s premier universities,” Tridgell said.

In addition to Barkan and IDOT, the study will have contributions from UIUC and UIC faculty, staff and students and a special advisory group. Notable contributors include Stephen Schlickman, UIC Urban Transportation Center Director, and University visiting scholar Tsung-Chung Kao, who was involved in the development of the Taiwan High-speed Rail Project and offers a high-speed rail engineering course unique to North America and only available at the University.

Barkan said the various members of the study will look into all facets required for such a project, including ridership projections, economic impact and financial analysis. The ultimate goal of the study is to determine whether such a rail line is possible in the Champaign-Urbana area.

“This is only a preliminary feasibility project right now,” Barkan said. “In a year or so, we will let you know more about those possibilities.”