By Benjamin Yount | Illinois Watchdog
SPRINGFIELD — Illinois is looking for the railroad equivalent of a unicorn — a super-fast, super-clean, super-cheap locomotive that is not real.
The Federal Railroad Administration has placed Illinois in charge of buying 35 new, “next generation” locomotives to serve the to-be built high-speed rail lines in Illinois, Michigan, Missouri, California and Washington, even though the locomotives do not yet exist.
“Currently these are not being manufactured,” said Joe Schacter, high-speed rail point man for the Illinois Department of Transportation. “We are fully confident that such a locomotive can be manufactured and will be manufactured.”
Schacter said Illinois has $175 million to spend — $5 million per locomotive.
“It may end-up being more expensive,” Schacter added, though he noted California did not spend all of its $352 million for high-speed rail passenger cars.
The $175 million comes from federal grants, but Illinois will end-up owning the high-speed trains when they are delivered. Kristina Rasmussen, executive vice president of the Illinois Policy Institute, said that should worry anyone who knows about Illinois and its current fiscal state..
“The state of Illinois should (not) be in the habit of buying anything right now,” Rasmussen said as she pointed to Illinois’ $9 billion in unpaid bills.” If anything, they should be selling off assets to get rid of things we can’t afford.”
Schacter said Illinois, Missouri, and Michigan still have to work out who will own which locomotives. Schacter said those states want to make sure Amtrak can “share” the new engines.
“I hope locomotive makes are willing to wait, given Illinois history of non-payment,” Rasmussen added.
Rasmussen calls Illinois’ high-speed rail project a “boondoggle” that has seen government spend a lot of money in the hope that high speed rail will succeed.
“(Locomotives) are a huge asset to purchase, not knowing what energy efficiency will look like,” Rasmussen said. “Ten years from now, who knows what technology will look like. But (the state) will be locked into what will then be last-generation technology.”
The FRA has already spent $1.3 billion on new railroad tracks and will spend millions more to upgrade train signaling along the Chicago to St. Louis route.
Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn bragged on the new track last year when an Amtrak train hit 110 mph over a short stretch between Pontiac and Dwight. Quinn was bragging again last month, when the FRA tapped Illinois to buy the new locomotives.
“This decision by the federal government is a testament to Illinois’ role as a national leader in high-speed rail,” Governor Quinn said.
But Schacter is more realistic about Illinois’ role.
But Schacter said even the few miles, between Pontiac and Dwight, that see a few 110 mph runs each day is a “good test.”
Rasmussen said taxpayers shouldn’t be paying so much for a test.
“They may be going super-fast for 10 miles, but 10 miles further down the stretch you come to a complete stop to let trains pass you,” Rasmussen said. “You are not seeing the kind of major improvements people thought they’d be seeing out of high-speed rail.”
IDOT has said it hopes to have the Chicago to St. Louis corridor ready for high-speed trains by 2017. But even then, the fast trains will only run from about 70 miles south of Chicago to about 20 miles north of St. Louis. The trains will have to slow down for the seven stops and other towns along the way.
Contact Benjamin Yount at [email protected]