Missouri won’t have high-speed passenger rail service tomorrow, but our day is coming.

Missouri won’t have high-speed passenger rail service tomorrow, but our day is coming.

The billions in federal funds announced Thursday for projects across the country include a handsome amount to get a Midwest high-speed system going, including $31 million for work in Missouri. That’s pretty good, given the competition.

Congress set aside $8 billion in stimulus money for all of this, drawing hundreds of requests totaling $57 billion. Winners: Florida, California and the Midwest, which is getting $2 billion to start a system that would connect Chicago with Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Detroit, Cleveland and St. Louis – and then Kansas City. (Losers include Oklahoma and Kansas, which want to upgrade service that in theory could some day tie in the Chicago-based plan.)

This is good news for Eastern Jackson County, where Amtrak makes stops in Independence and Lee’s Summit. Rail improvements have made that service far more reliable in the last couple of years, and the Missouri Department of Transportation says projects announced Thursday mean those gains won’t vanish as the economy improves and Union Pacific freight traffic picks up again, making the tracks more crowded. The improvements include:

 Finally adding a second bridge over the Osage River. That’s huge. It means a straight shot – double track all the way – from Jefferson City to St. Louis.


  Crossing improvements at about 15 places between Lee’s Summit and Sedalia. That’s for safety, but it’s also part of upgrading the system to handle high-speed traffic.


 A crossover in Kirkwood, Mo., easing the flow of traffic.


 Money to study extending a siding near Knob Noster, similar to the one that just opened near California, Mo.

The spine of the Midwest system is a line from Chicago to St. Louis, with trains at 200 mph. That doesn’t mean, however, that any 200-mph bullet train will be stopping in Independence anytime soon. The whole UP line across the state would have to be upgraded over time, and freight interests might still overshadow passenger service interests. But this is a needed step toward reliable and steadily improving service.


How fast is fast?

Amtrak trains in most of the U.S. are limited to a top speed of 79 mph because of rail design standards. To get faster, a section of rail has to be upgraded to ensure safety.

MoDOT says the Missouri River Runner – the four-times-a-day cross-state trains – do hit 79 mph, but usually only in places such as the straight, flat section from Jefferson City to Washington, Mo. Trains have to slow for curves, if there are a lot of crossings and when they’re in populated areas. Amtrak usually averages 45 to 55 mph.

The next step in Missouri is upgrading track to handle 90 mph, then maybe 110 mph, according to MoDOT. It will take years and come step by step, section by section.

And what about those really fast trains? Japan has one that does 159 mph, China has one at 245, and France has one that – in tests – gets to 357. As a rule, those are new systems built from the ground up, rather than overlaying the system on freight tracks, as we do in the U.S. That would be like building a new interstate system, requiring lots of new rights-of-way and a massive capital investment – something Washington has neither the money nor the stomach to tackle.