On Tuesday, the Federal Railroad Administration approved speeds of 110 miles per hour (177 kph) on a 97-mile section of track between Porter, Indiana, and Kalamazoo, Michigan, on Amtrak‘s Chicago-Michigan routes. Amtrak actually owns this section of track, so it does not have to be concerned with mixing its passenger trains with slow-moving freights. The new speed limit is up from 95 miles per hour—already fast by Amtrak standards—and will cut at least 10 minutes off running times linking Chicago with Pontiac/Detroit and Port Huron. So far, Amtrak hasn’t posted a revised schedule, but you’ll probably see it soon.
A top speed of 110 miles per hour isn’t a big deal by world standards, nor is a 10-minute time improvement. Internationally, 150 mph is the minimum threshold for high speed rail. Nevertheless, 110 mph is the highest top speed for any train in the U.S. outside the Northeast Corridor. Ironically, it finally returns to the speeds that railroads regularly hit on straight, flat Midwestern tracks when I was a kid.
Still, 110 miles per hour is a step in the right direction, and it didn’t require the billions of dollars in completely new roadbed construction that true high speed would require. Nor is this upgrade finished: Amtrak and the State of Michigan are negotiating to buy the rest of the line from Kalamazoo to the Detroit outskirts, which they will then upgrade; and Amtrak and the State of Illinois are working on similar upgrades to allow 110-mph trains between Chicago and St. Louis. And although 110 mph on 97 miles of track isn’t a big deal, 110 mph most of the way from Chicago to Detroit or St. Louis would bring route times down to under four hours on both routes—times that would start to look good compared with the hassles of flying.