June 5, 2009

SPRINGFIELD (June 5)—Illinois UTU members won a major victory in the 2009 state legislative session.

The General Assembly not only approved four bills to protect the safety of railroad crew members but voted $850 million in rail capital funding that is expected to grow both passenger-rail ridership and rail freight shipping and open up new jobs in the state’s rail industry.

“Illinois has never seen public-sector funding of rail on this scale before,” said UTU Illinois Legislative Director Bob Guy. “Gov. George Ryan’s 1999 Illinois FIRST capital bill contained about $70 million for track and signaling improvements on the Chicago-St. Louis Amtrak route. The rail funds in the new capital bill come to more than 10 times that number and will finance improvements statewide.”

The $850-million package includes $150 million for improvements to the current intercity passenger-rail program supported by the state, $400 million for new high-speed passenger-rail initiatives and $300 million for CREATE, a public/private partnership that will use more than $1.5 billion in government and rail-industry funds to update Chicago antiquated network of yards, main lines, interlockings and connecting tracks.

As in previous efforts to increase passenger-rail funding in Illinois, the UTU spearheaded a joint lobbying effort that included allies such as the Environmental Law & Policy Center and the Midwest High Speed Rail Association. The Association’s executive director, Rick Harnish, said the rail funding “could not have been passed” without the leadership of House Railroad Committee Chairwoman Elaine Nekritz (D-Des Plaines), Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Martin Sandoval (D-Cicero) and Gov. Pat Quinn.

Guy said the state-financed rail buildup will have a two-stage impact on the expansion of rail-industry jobs in Illinois.

“People will be put to work immediately building new tracks, rebuilding antiquated stations and platforms, installing modern signal systems and rebuilding passenger cars for the state’s Amtrak trains,” Guy said.

“Then, as these new assets are placed in service and more riders are attracted by the improved service, the state will open new routes and frequencies, and additional crews will be recruited and trained to operate the expanding services,” he said

The Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) has said it will use some of the high-speed rail funding to upgrade the 284-mile Chicago-St. Louis corridor for maximum speeds of 110-mph. When the upgrades are finished, state-sponsored train frequencies are expected to double–from the current four daily round trips to eight.

IDOT also plans track improvements that will enable it to open new passenger-train routes connecting Chicago with the Quad Cities as well as with Rockford, Freeport, Galena and Dubuque.

Guy said the CREATE improvements in Chicago also will grow rail jobs by helping the rail carriers to improve their performance and attract more shippers.

“The switching network in Chicago is so antiquated that an intermodal train that gets here in 48 hours from California can waste nearly a whole extra day just getting across 30 miles of track through Chicago,” he said. “Shippers pay extra to have their containers ‘rubber-tired’ across town from the Western carriers to the Eastern just to save time.”

But Guy said that could change once Chicago’s trackage is reconfigured for quicker crosstown moves, and the consequences for regional economic growth could be huge.

“If we can cut the fat and waste out of the Chicago switching network the carriers will be able to attract hundreds of millions of dollars worth of new business annually from truck to rail,” he said. “Our furloughed members can be called back to work, and the stage will be set for sustained growth in freight-rail traffic and freight-rail jobs.”

Railroad employment in Illinois also will get better because of four UTU-supported measures that passed in the current session.

Under Senate Bill 148, the Illinois Commerce Commission will work with the railroads and local communities to install cameras that will document incidents in which motorists drive around lowered crossing gates. Under House Bill 3730, rail carriers will install “Yield” signs or “Stop” signs at unprotected highway grade crossings. Under H.B 71, motorists, including drivers of contract-carrier crew vans, will be banned from texting while operating a motor vehicle, while H.B. 72 would prohibit such drivers from using a cell phone while operating in a school zone or construction zone.

“All of these measures will help protect the safety and well-being of the people who operate trains in Illinois, whether they’re aboard a train or in a motor vehicle” Guy said. “And during the 2010 session we will continue our campaign for more effective crew-safety legislation. We have accomplished much, but the battle is far from over.”