ST. LOUIS • Ryan Costello of St. Charles likes to take the train when he travels, because it’s cheaper than flying and less hassle than driving.

Before boarding an Amtrak liner here last week for a business trip to Chicago, he acknowledged that what is billed as a six-hour ride can be unpredictable.

“Sometimes it can be more than that,” said Costello, 28, who takes the train about 10 times a year. “Most of the time it’s over six hours. Usually it’s seven or eight.”

Like many other Amtrak riders, Costello looks forward to the completion of a high-speed route through Illinois that could cut travel time to just about four hours, with trains capable of speeds approaching 110 mph in places.

But there is a significant impediment: The urban stretch from the station at the edge of downtown St. Louis to the station in Alton is slow going on rails shared with a high volume of freight.

Even though speeds may never break the 100-mph threshold through that corridor of industries, flood walls and tilled fields, there is room for improvement, rail officials say.

“The goal is to have 110 (mph) in all of the appropriate areas,” explained John Oimoen, deputy director of rails at the Illinois Department of Transportation.

Those appropriate areas are wide-open expanses beyond major urban areas on both ends. But that doesn’t mean there can’t be time saved closer to Chicago and St. Louis as well.

Illinois transportation officials have launched a detailed study on how to increase train speeds between St. Louis and Alton, where a new station is to be built. It can take an hour to get about 25 miles between the stations, with trains sometimes slowing to a stop.

“Speed increases are very possible,” said Mike McCarthy, president of the Terminal Railroad Association of St. Louis. It controls the MacArthur and Merchants bridges, the region’s two heavy rail crossings over the Mississippi River, and track on both sides.

Oimoen, of IDOT, said the St. Louis-to-Alton stretch is a “challenging geographic area” with a number of curves and other problem features.

A detailed environmental study will examine which route options make the most sense. Oimoen said the condition of both bridges will be assessed as part of that review.

   Amtrak corridor map
   click image to enlarge

The study, expected to take 18 to 24 months, also will examine the potential of a new river crossing for trains.

Some work already has begun along the 284-mile corridor. The high-speed rail project has a $1.4 billion budget that covers track and structures, real estate, stations, new trains, signals, grade crossings and fencing, officials said.

Because Amtrak shares tracks with private railroads, passenger trains can be slowed at times for freight. On Friday, for example, the 301 Lincoln Service train bound for St. Louis was more than an hour late arriving in Alton because of heavy traffic to the north.

A 2012 environmental study characterized Amtrak’s on-time performance between the two cities as “unreliable.” The prospect for delay is expected to increase with expansion of an train-truck intermodal facility in Joliet.

Oimoen said the period of 2014-16 is expected to see the heaviest construction along the high-speed rail corridor.

Despite its limitations, Amtrak logged double-digit passenger increases between St. Louis and Chicago last year — one of the passenger rail system’s most significant growth spurts in the country.

Still, more than nine of 10 people who travel between the two cities use cars — not trains or planes or buses.

The plan is simple: Make train travel faster and more reliable, and it may begin to pull some of those people off the highways.

“You don’t have to drive and don’t have to worry about all the traffic. You don’t have to pay for gas,” said Amtrak rider Thad Marshall, a sophomore at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. “Time-wise, it’s about the same. I can study. I can sleep. Everything’s taken care of.”

Marshall parked his Jeep near the Alton Amtrak station on Friday before boarding a train to Chicago, where he planned to celebrate his 21st birthday.

Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said demand for passenger service has outstripped the available parking outside the aging brick Alton station at 3400 College Avenue.