JOLIET, Ill. — In a modest milestone for President Obama’s high-speed rail vision, test runs started zooming along a section of the Amtrak line between Chicago and St. Louis at 111 miles per hour Friday.
The 30-mile-per-hour increase from the route’s current top speed is a morale booster for advocates of US high-speed rail who have watched conservatives in Congress put the brakes on spending for fast train projects they see as boondoggles. But some rail experts question whether the route will become profitable, pose serious competition to air and automobile travel, or ever reach speeds comparable to bullet trains across Europe and Asia at 150 miles per hour and faster.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Illinois Governor Pat Quinn were aboard when an Amtrak train hit 111 miles per hour for the first time in Illinois.
‘‘Four years ago we were nowhere,’’ LaHood said after the train reached the landmark speed. ‘‘Illinois and the country was a wasteland when it came to high-speed rail.’’
It maintained the high speeds for five minutes on a 15-mile stretch of track between Dwight and Pontiac before braking back to normal speeds.
‘‘The important thing is it’s a step in the right direction, but the question becomes what do we gain by doing this?’’ said David Burns, a rail consultant in suburban Chicago who drew up one of the first studies for high-speed service on the route more than three decades ago.
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.
They say it will give a growing Midwest population an alternative to travel by plane or car, promote economic development, and create manufacturing jobs.