JOLIET, Ill. — For the first time on a key Midwestern route between Chicago and St. Louis, an Amtrak passenger train topped 110 mph Friday, ripping through fog-shrouded farm fields and blowing past cars on a parallel highway.
The test run on a special train packed with journalists, politicians and transportation officials was a milestone in President Barack Obama's vision of bringing high-speed rail to the United States and transforming the way Americans travel. It also was a welcome morale booster for high-speed rail advocates who have watched conservatives in Congress put the brakes on spending for fast train projects.
"Four years ago we were nowhere. Illinois and the country was a wasteland when it came to high speed rail," said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, among those celebrating onboard the train. "This is a dream come true today."
The silver five-car, two-engine train held the high speeds for about five minutes along a 15-mile stretch of track between the central Illinois cities of Dwight and Pontiac before braking back below its usual top speed of 79 mph. Paying passengers on the route will start experiencing the faster speed on that short segment by Thanksgiving. Most of the route will get the higher speed by 2015.
The goal was to hit 110 mph, and for a moment the speedometer that officials were watching ticked up to 111. Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn pumped his fist in the air and gave a thumbsup. He and the other dignitaries cheered and congratulated one another.
Away from the celebrations, some rail and policy experts questioned whether the route could become profitable, pose serious competition to air and automobile travel, or ever reach speeds comparable to the bullet trains blasting across Europe and Asia at 150 mph and faster.