The hopes for high speed rail in America have downshifted somewhat into a hope for “higher speed rail.” Many of the tentpole high speed rail plans were scrapped, particularly in Florida, Ohio and Wisconsin, where Republican governors returned the money. The California plan, really the only survivor, has enough funds to build the first segment, but the funding gets really sketchy from there. We don’t really know the future of a national HSR network, but I wouldn’t hold my breath for one.

What we are starting to see are improvements on existing track and routes that will cut down on travel times. And this is definitely a positive step, filling a need for more predictable and swifter intercity rail service. In a test of an Amtrak route between St. Louis and Chicago, engineers plan to run at speeds up to 110 mph.

In a modest milestone for President Barack Obama’s high-speed rail vision, test runs will start zooming along a small section of the Amtrak line between Chicago and St. Louis at 110 mph on Friday.

Advocates say Midwest routes from Chicago hold the most immediate promise for high-speed rail expansion outside Amtrak’s existing, much faster Acela trains between Boston and Washington, D.C. They say it will give a growing Midwest population an alternative to traveling by plane or car, promote economic development along the route and create manufacturing jobs [...]

Amtrak ridership hit a record 30 million passengers nationwide last year. On the Chicago-to-St. Louis route, passenger numbers increased 11 percent over the last fiscal year to more than 619,000 riders — some of them pulled in by high gas prices, others by the convenience of being able to get work done while en route.

Clearly demand has grown. And improvements to existing rail lines will only feed that demand. One of the major stimulus projects fixed a bottleneck on rail routes coming out of Chicago, and the efficiencies gained there may approach those from the increase in overall speeds throughout the trip to St. Louis. This included realigning curves to support higher speeds, and installing safety measures like new signals and gates. What was previously about a 5 1/2-hour trip between Chicago and St. Louis, roughly the same length of time as a car trip, could now be reduced to 4 1/2 hours or even less. That makes it much more attractive to riders.

The theory is you can’t make this competitive with a “one-hour” plane ride. The notion that a plane ride costs just one hour of time is really silly. Between driving to the airport, security measures, baggage retrieval and the like, you’re talking about a much longer and more hassle-filled journey. High-speed or even higher-speed rail can provide another option for those who want to avoid the skies.

The list of accomplishments from the Administration probably won’t include the steady progression of improved rail service from Chicago to St. Louis, or the other intercity rail improvements they have made. But they are completely legitimate subjects to tout. Mass transit has great potential in America, given how it currently underserves the population. It’s a great investment in the future.