SPRINGFIELD -- After a test phase, Amtrak is whisking rail passengers at a new top speed of 110 mph over a short section of its route between Chicago and St. Louis in a step forward for the Midwest high-speed rail program, officials said Thursday.
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Trains accelerate to the higher speed over a 15-mile segment between the central cities of Dwight and Pontiac in an upgrade that Amtrak and state officials hope will generate buzz just in time for Thanksgiving weekend and the start to the busy holiday travel period. Amtrak, though it is still losing money, is experiencing record ridership numbers on many routes around the country.
"This next-generation rail system gives passengers a safer, more reliable way to travel across Illinois and connect with family this holiday season," Gov. Pat Quinn said in a statement announcing the achievement.
The Chicago-to-St. Louis route is an important spoke in the Midwest rail system, which has received a chunk of the $8 billion in stimulus funds set aside by President Barack Obama for high-speed rail projects.
Its current top speed over most of the route is 79 mph.
After another three years of upgrades, the $1.5 billion in improvements to the Illinois line are expected to enable speeds of 110 mph over 75 percent of the route. That is expected to shave about an hour off the 284-mile journey between Chicago and St. Louis, which now takes about 5 1/2 hours. Future plans aim to shrink the time to under four hours.
Besides the faster speed, some trains on Amtrak's Lincoln Service will offer free Wi-Fi service.
Amtrak says ridership on its four Illinois routes has grown nearly 75 percent over the past six years, reaching 2.1 million last year.