May 16, 2007

CHICAGO (May 16)—Planners and engineers at the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) announced today they believe the former Illinois Central “Black Hawk” route across Northern Illinois represents the best alignment over which to run a proposed Amtrak passenger service connecting Chicago with Rockford, Freeport and Galena, Ill., and Dubuque, Ia.

The decision came after 10 ten months of governmental studies, community meetings and Web-based discussions on which of three possible rail alignments would be best for the Chicago-Rockford segment of the new service.

“I’m glad all of the parties were able to come to such a quick agreement over the right route,” said UTU Illinois Legislative Director Joseph C. Szabo. “Each route had its partisans, but under the leadership of Sen. Dick Durbin [D-Ill.] and U.S. Rep. Don Manzullo [R-Rockford], they put public interest first and agreed on the route that could be upgraded and opened for passenger service in the shortest time and at the lowest cost – and it has the best ridership projections.”

IDOT estimated the single-tracked line, block-signaled line, which still includes substantial stretches of jointed rail, could be upgraded for Amtrak service in two construction seasons for about $32 million.

Originally part of the Illinois Central Railroad’s Iowa Division, the line now is owned by Canadian National Railway. It runs northwest out of Chicago through the suburbs of Broadview, Addison and Elmhurst and through Genoa in DeKalb County before entering Rockford, 85 miles from Chicago. It then continues for another 98 miles to Dubuque via Freeport and Galena.

“The Galena people have been particularly eager for passenger service,” Szabo said. “Their historic resort community is extremely popular with Chicagoans, many of whom own summer homes or ski cottages there, but U.S. 20 is dangerously congested and there is no budget to improve it. Rail service represents a real economic-growth opportunity for that area.”

Although the CN line is the only one linking Rockford, Freeport, Galena and Dubuque, two other possible routes exist between Rockford and Chicago, and each had its advocates.

One group urged using Metra’s Milwaukee West line between Chicago and Elgin, then switching to a Union Pacific line between Elgin and Belvidere, then switching to the CNIC alignment where CNIC and UP parallel each other west of Belvidere.

Others preferred continuing past the end of Metra’s service at Big Timber onto track owned by the Iowa, Chicago & Eastern railroad, including an ICE branch that would serve the Rockford Airport before rejoining the CNIC alignment near downtown Rockford.

But the other two alignments would have required constructing expensive powered interlockings to connect their different parts, and the Rockford Airport route would have required major rebuilding of a deteriorated and unsignaled branch line. The CN route also proved to be the shortest.

“The CN route really was the best solution, and we can thank Sen. Durbin and Cong. Manzullo for the leadership they showed in helping the community leaders come together and agree on a route,” Szabo said. “Now that the route issue is settled, all of those leaders can present a united front in Springfield and Washington and make a unified case for the state and federal funds needed to upgrade the CN line and pay Amtrak to operate the trains.”

In addition to the $32 million for infrastructure improvements, the startup will require about $5 million per year in state support for train operating costs. Plans call for one round trip per day initially.

At a May 17 hearing before the House Railroad Safety Committee in Springfield, City of Rockford Legal Director Patrick W. Hayes noted that Rockford remains the largest city in the state with no passenger-rail service and said the city’s economic growth will sputter if it remains dependent solely on auto transportation.

“We’re the third-largest city in the state and we need train service for global competitiveness,” he said. “We need to prioritize this service in our budget. Look at the economies of Europe and Asia and then look at the passenger trains they’ve got. Don’t think that trains are part of our past. They should be part of our future.”