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Amtrak trains hit new high speeds in Midwest

By Jon Hilkevitch, Chicago Tribune –

CHICAGO — Amtrak passenger trains sped up to 110 mph for the first time Tuesday in western Michigan and northern Indiana on two routes serving Chicago, officials announced.

But the railroad crossings lack safety mechanisms that will be installed on Illinois’ high-speed corridor to prevent vehicle-train collisions.

The faster service, which is the first expansion of regional high-speed trains outside the northeastern U.S., is occurring on about 80 miles of a 97-mile stretch of Amtrak-owned track between Kalamazoo, Mich., and Porter, Ind.

Trains operating on the corridor are the Amtrak Wolverine Service between Pontiac, Mich., and Chicago via Detroit and Ann Arbor; and the Amtrak Blue Water between Port Huron, Mich., and Chicago via East Lansing.

The increase in speed from 95 mph to 110 mph followed the Federal Railroad Administration’s approval of a positive train control system. The technology provides safeguards to override human error and prevent train-to-train collisions, speed-related derailments and accidents caused by track-switching errors or malfunctions, according to the agency.

But the positive train control system installed by the Michigan Department of Transportation does not include vehicle-detection technology to alert train crews about a vehicle stopped on the tracks at a crossing, or additional protections, including four-quadrant gates, to prevent vehicles from snaking around lowered crossing gates. It does, however, monitor whether the crossing gates, flashing lights and bells are working, officials said.

Crossings on the system being installed in Illinois on the Chicago-to-St. Louis 110 mph corridor will be outfitted with full four-quadrant gates and an obstacle-intrusion detection system to tell locomotive engineers about vehicles on the tracks with enough advance warning so that the train can stop before the crossing, according to the Illinois Department of Transportation. Amtrak service at up to 110 mph is scheduled to begin in 2014 on part of the route, IDOT said. The current top speed is 79 mph.

Using a less-robust crossing system not only increases the risk to vehicle drivers and their passengers, but also to the riders aboard high-speed trains involved in a collision at a crossing, experts said.

On Feb. 1 at a crossing near Jackson, Mich., on the eastern end of Michigan’s 110-mph rail corridor, an Amtrak train derailed when it struck a semi-trailer truck that was stuck on the tracks. More than 10 people on board the Chicago-bound train were injured.

Federal railroad officials said the Michigan plan meets all regulations and that it is up to each state to decide on “an acceptable level of grade crossing risk.”

The Federal Railroad Administration “has every confidence in the Michigan Department of Transportation’s and Amtrak’s ability to determine the appropriate safety mechanisms at their grade crossings,” said Mike England, a spokesman for the agency.

Michigan rail officials said the safety system they selected on the 110-mph corridor is the most cost-effective while also being safe.

“This was not a decision we made lightly,” said Tim Hoeffner, director of the Office of Rail at the Michigan Department of Transportation. “What you put at the crossing is only one component of grade-crossing safety. You also must have police enforcement and the education piece to go along with the engineering.”

“One of the most important factors is that we are dealing with the railroad in a part of the state where people understand the issues better and have a better grasp that when the flashing lights, bells and gates go on, the train is going to be there quickly and leave quickly,” said Hoeffner, who rode aboard the 110 mph service on Tuesday.

Sustained operations at 110 mph on the 80-mile section in Michigan and Indiana will cut 10 minutes off the 95-mph schedules and about 20 minutes off the 79-mph speed that Amtrak trains operated at as recently as 2001, officials said.

Future steps include expanding 110-mph service from Kalamazoo to central and eastern Michigan, officials said.

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