Potential high-speed rail service cuts travel time from Chicago to campus

After finishing a class in Champaign, a student boards a train to the University of Illinois at Springfield to attend his next class on that campus.

Once that class is finished, the student waits at the station for the next train to Chicago’s campus so he can attend a professor’s lecture. After a long day of classes, the student then takes the train home just in time for dinner.

This kind of high-speed rail service has yet to be built in Illinois, but according to a recent study by the University’s Rail Transportation and Engineering Center, or RailTEC, and the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Urban Transportation Center, the cost of building such a service, while substantial, is feasible. 

Funded by the Illinois Department of Transportation, the study concluded that a 220-mph high-speed rail service connecting major Midwest cities could be financially sustainable year-to-year.

The rail service would connect O’Hare International Airport through Chicago to Champaign-Urbana before splitting between St. Louis and Indianapolis, servicing Decatur, Springfield and Kankakee in Illinois, among other cities.

Express high-speed trains are estimated to travel from downtown Chicago to Champaign in 45 minutes, to Springfield in one hour and 20 minutes, and to St. Louis or Indianapolis in two hours, according to the study. Rail tickets would cost less money than plane tickets.

Mohd Rapik Saat, technical manager of the project and research assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, said the main goal of the study was to determine technically and financially if the system was feasible to be developed in the future.

The researchers began focusing on the connection between Chicago and Champaign before expanding the area of study to include St. Louis and Indianapolis.

“By including these two other major cities besides Chicago, we could potentially have a larger ridership to support such a system,” Saat said.

Richard Harnish, executive director of Midwest High Speed Rail Association, said this kind of connection among these cities ends up tying together a very large piece of the Midwest.

It would bring the University closer to Chicago, make the government in Springfield more accessible to the public, and help maintain the relationships between money markets and the professors and staff, he said.

“Champaign is a critical university that needs to have a much stronger access to both downtown Chicago and O’Hare,” he said.  “Champaign students would have a much easier time to get home or to get to school, possibly go downtown to Chicago to see the plays or whatever you want to do downtown.”

Saat said with a 45-minute connection to Chicago, Champaign would become just a suburb of Chicago.

“This increased mobility would be something beyond what we could think of today because of the level of connection we have to the cities,” he said. “So we want to connect the brain in Champaign with the money in Chicago,” referring to researchers and investors.

This connection could grant access to added resources, which could indirectly support a higher level of graduate student enrollment, develop new classes, and develop new research areas for the faculty, Saat said.

Although the operating costs for the service would be covered by the estimated fare revenue, the key challenge is to come up with the capital cost, which has been estimated to be between $20 billion to $50 billion.

“Based on our present estimates of our ridership and revenues, they would not be enough to cover all of the capital costs, so the government or some kind of public-private partnership would be necessary to develop the capital funds necessary to build the system in the first place,” said Christopher Barkan, principal investigator and professor of civil and environmental engineering.

The researchers also estimated the economic benefit of a high-speed rail that they did not quantify in terms of dollars, such as employment, reduction in environmental pollution and accident rate.

“When you build a large transportation facility, it often tends to generate revenue-producing activities, such as retail stores, apartment buildings and offices buildings,” Barkan said, which can be observed overseas in Japan or Hong Kong, where high-speed rail services exist. “There are large concentrations of people traveling through these transportation systems, so the stations become very desirable places for a range of activities that generate financial activity and revenues.”

Current students might not be able to experience such connectivity before graduation since it takes many years, sometimes decades, to completely build a high-speed rail system. This project is the first step in a many-year process to develop a rail network in the United States.

“It’s a really big step,” Harnish said. “It’s really exciting that Illinois continues to push forward high-speed rails, and it really is critical that we start getting really serious about building it.”

Jacqui can be reached at [email protected]