Illinois Eyes Economic Growth with High-Speed Rail Study

In a plan to help boost Illinois' global economy, the state will launch a 1.2-million-U.S.-dollar study to determine the cost of building a 220 mph (354 km per hour) high-speed rail system, hoping to follow in the footsteps of leaders like France and China, officials said Thursday.

The bullet train would travel between Chicago and Champaign-Urbana, reducing a 133-mile (214-km) trip to about 50 minutes, Governor Pat Quinn announced Thursday at a news conference during a three-day High Speed Rail Conference near downtown Chicago.

The study, expected to last about a year, will be conducted in conjunction with the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. Officials will reach out to governments overseas that have experience in building and operating 220 mph systems, which includes France, Japan and China.

Quinn said Illinois is leading the nation in its effort to expand high-speed rail lines. The goal of the study is to provide a fast-moving train from O' Hare International Airport through downtown Chicago, to McCormick Place and to Champaign-Urbana. The study also will try to determine if the system should extend west to St. Louis, Missouri, or east to Indianapolis, Indiana, or both.

"The underlying goal of rail improvements is long-term economic growth for our cities," Quinn said. "Chicago is a global center. Competing globally in the 21st Century requires visionary investments in mobility, which will help to produce a sustainable competitive advantage. Countries around the world are embracing and realizing the benefits of high-speed rail in today's ultra-competitive, global marketplace. The U.S. simply cannot afford to fall behind."

China already is on the cutting edge of high-speed rail, boasting the world's longest system. Last October, China unveiled its 220 mph system that speeds from Hongqiao, a suburb of Shanghai to Hangzhou. Next month, it will unveil a faster-than-220 mph line between Shanghai and Beijing.

Because of its expertise, Chinese companies are looking to expand to countries like the United States, which has the largest freight rail technology in the world. Two Beijing companies attended the event, including China National Technical Import & Export Corp. and CSR Corporation Limited, China's largest maker of rail vehicles.

"China has built more high-speed rail lines than any other country over the past five years," said Thomas Hart, vice president of the U.S. High Speed Rail Association, who traveled to China twice last year.

"The other global leaders include France, Spain, Germany and Japan. It's in every developed country except for the United States. Hopefully, America can adapt the best practices of these countries to build and operate a state of the art high-speed rail system. One of the advantages of being last in the market is that you can learn from those who have preceded you," he added.

Before leaving office, former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley also visited China to seek investors for a high-speed rail system and to market the city as a destination for tourists and businesses.

"We do want to encourage those who are making high-speed rail cars and locomotives to locate in Illinois," Quinn said Thursday. CSR already has a small office in Chicago.

The state broke ground last year on its signature high-speed line between Chicago and St. Louis. Speeds of 110 mph (177 kph) along parts of the corridor are expected to be reached as soon as next year.

In addition to the Chicago-St. Louis system, U.S. President Barack Obama has provided funding for the Chicago to Iowa City via the Quad Cites and Chicago to Detroit corridors.

President Obama has been a champion of high-speed rail, dedicating 8 billion dollars in stimulus dollars to the projects across the nation.

Richard Harnish, executive director of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association and a member of the advisory board for the Illinois project, said developing the rail system is pivotal in positioning the state as a global leader in the high-speed marketplace.

"Governor Quinn's visionary leadership is the reason Illinois leads the Midwest in this vital technology, which will transform our lives, sustain our cities and small towns and help wean us off foreign oil," Harnish said.

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