A media report this week could have raised false hopes about Missouri's hopes for a transition to high-speed Amtrak service.

Illinois is testing trains at 110 mph as it gets ready for high-speed passenger service from Chicago to St. Louis, a line that would form the spine of a Midwestern high-speed network.

St. Louis to Kansas City would be part of that network, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. One statewide media outlet did that this week, when Missourinet reported that high-speed trains would be rolling in Missouri by the end of 2013. Here’s the report: www.missourinet.com/?s=amtrak

That’s not correct. By the end of 2013, the state plans to have completed several significant upgrades along the Union Pacific line that Amtrak uses for its Missouri River Runner service, with stops in Independence, Lee’s Summit and half a dozen other cities between Kansas City and St. Louis. Those improvements include a second bridge over the Osage River east of Jefferson City and a universal crossover – think of it as adding passing lanes – at Webster Groves.

Then the state can start talking – talking – with the UP about the complicated choreography of running faster Amtrak trains on those very busy tracks, says Eric Curtit, the Missouri Department of Transportation’s administrator of railroads. It can be done, but it’s still a matter of fitting short Amtraks – sometimes going against the flow of traffic – in amid very long freight trains.

The big picture is that we’re not – never have been – talking about high-speed service like the 200-mph plus common in Europe and Asia. Amtrak runs its Acela in the Northeast at up to 150 mph, but officials have defined 110 mph as high speed for the Midwest. And it will be a gradual change. Tracks are certified at various speeds. For example, the UP’s line that Amtrak uses in Missouri is pretty much top of the line, so a passenger train can, by rule, go up to 79 mph, thought Curtit notes that there are sections where it can’t get above 60. The next step up is 90, then 110, then 125. Each requires better tracks. The upgrade to 90 has been in the long-range plan for a decade and a half, so the UP knows MoDOT will want to sit down sometime after 2013 and discuss faster service.

“It’s not a mystery to them,” Curtit said.

With the current 79 mph, Amtrak takes five hours, 40 minutes to cross the state, with eight stops along the way. It frequently beats that by a few minutes, Getting up to 90 mph would help.

“I think the goal would be to get under five hours,” he said.