January 8, 2008

CHICAGO (Jan. 8)–A long-awaited Amtrak study released today says passenger-train service between Chicago and the Quad Cities could be re-established for a one-time investment of about $23 million in capital improvements plus annual state support payments of about $6 million. The state operating support would cover two daily round trips.

“Those are very reasonable figures and actually something of a bargain,” said UTU Illinois Legislative Director Joseph C. Szabo. “A few years ago we were hearing suggestions that it might cost as much as $50 million to upgrade the infrastructure for passenger trains to the Quad Cities. Now that we know how reasonable the cost is going to be, there’s a chance to make it happen quickly.”

But the route recommended by Amtrak planners would not be the historic Rock Island Railroad line via Joliet and the Illinois River valley.

Instead, Amtrak planners recommended a substantially shorter route that would use the BNSF Railway’s former Burlington Route for the first 111 miles, then switch to the old Rock Island alignment just west of the village of Wyanet in rural Bureau County. The last 48 miles of the route would follow the old Rock Island alignment to a station yet to be designated in either Moline or Rock Island. That part of the former Rock Island now is owned by the Iowa Interstate Railroad (IAIS).

The new joint route would be almost 19 miles shorter than the all-Rock Island route over which passenger trains last operated in 1978 and would cost substantially less to prepare because only the 48-mile IAIS segment would need to be upgraded for passenger service. Amtrak said if the old Rock Island route were selected for the entire route it could cost up to $94 million to upgrade all of the former Rock Island track–now split between CSX Corp. and Iowa Interstate ownership–to 79-mph passenger operation.

“Most of the capital budget for opening the new route would be devoted to replacing the remaining stretches of jointed rail on the 48 miles of IAIS track and restoring Automatic Block Signaling, which was removed when the Rock Island was liquidated in 1980,” Szabo said. “Without the signals the trains would be limited by FAA regulations to 59 miles per hour, which is not competitive with highway travel. The track also will need some new ties and surfacing work, plus a layover track in the Quad Cities. All of that work is estimated to cost about $17 million.”

Amtrak planners also said they will have to spend up to $6 million to construct remote-controlled interlockings and a connecting ramp to link up the BNSF and the IAIS just west of Wyanet. At that point the BNSF’s double-track route passes over the single-tracked IAIS on a viaduct and the two alignments are not physically connected.

Amtrak’s report said the cost estimates do not include the price of rolling stock or stations. Amtrak currently is experiencing a chronic shortage of coaches and would have to spend about $4.2 million to rebuild enough mothballed equipment to supply each of the two daily round trips with two coaches and a food-service car. Local communities would be expected to pay for building or restoring stations as well as for station maintenance and staffing.

As tentatively proposed, Amtrak would operate two trains a day in each direction on a 3-hour-20-minute schedule that would include stops at LaGrange Road, Naperville, Plano, Mendota, Princeton and Geneseo.

“Several of those stations currently are served by IDOT’s two daily Chicago-Quincy trains,” Szabo said. “That means if these stations also became stops on the new Chicago-Quad Cities route, residents of those communities would have four trains a day connecting them to Chicago, putting thousands of rural residents within commuting distance of jobs around Naperville, Aurora and La Grange.

“These trains literally have the potential to change the economics of working, living, spending and commuting in much of Northern Illinois,” Szabo said. “They can open up new employment and housing possibilities for thousands of families, attract new businesses and jobs to underdeveloped areas and enable thousands of people to shift from inefficient auto transportation to fuel-efficient, ‘green’ rail travel.”

The Amtrak report estimated the two daily round trips would carry 100,800 riders in their first year.

“I would term that a conservative estimate,” Szabo said. “The two Chicago-Quincy trains carried over 240,000 passengers in their first year, and Quincy is a much smaller city than the Quad Cities area–48,000 people versus almost 400,000, and the Quad Cities trains are badly needed: The drive to Chicago can be punishing even in the best weather and traffic conditions, and airline travel is not an option for most people. A one-way ticket between Moline and O’Hare costs over $300, and when you figure in airport delays and ground travel, the plane trip takes just about as long as the 3-hour-and-20-minute train ride. I think these trains will be very popular.”

Szabo said the people of Illinois owe a debt of gratitude to U.S. Sen. Richard J. Durbin for pressing Amtrak to evaluate the potential of the Chicago-Quad.

“Once again, Sen. Durbin has demonstrated he understands the enormous contribution that good passenger-rail service can make to the state’s economy and quality of life,” Szabo said. “His concern and his sense of urgency are keeping Illinois mobile in spite of increases in the price of gasoline and jet fuel.”