August 21, 2001

Amtrak Chief Executive Officer George Warrington and U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) met with more than 30 Illinois mayors and economic-development officials August 13 to ask their support for legislation that could make $12 billion in federal funding available to build high-speed track for passenger trains.

“I am optimistic we will see action on this bill this fall,” Warrington told the group, which had gathered in a hearing room in the State Capitol in Springfield to hear about S. 250, the High Speed Rail Investment Act.

“As a senator I can tell you that Congress listens when mayors reach out and ask for action,” Durbin said. “I think it would be great if every mayor in this nation were to contact their state’s senators and congressional representatives and ask them to pass the High Speed Rail Investment Act.”

Passage of S. 250 would allow Amtrak to raise up to $12 billion over a ten-year period by selling bonds to investors. Instead of being paid back in cash dividends, the investors would receive federal tax credits which could be sold to corporations seeking to reduce their federal taxes. Amtrak would use the proceeds of the bond sales to build advanced track, signal and safety systems that would permit higher trains speeds along ten intercity routes designated by the Federal Railroad Administration as high-speed passenger-train corridors.

“Chicago-Springfield-St. Louis is a very powerful corridor” that would be eligible for funding under S. 250, Warrington told the civic officials. Illinois Transp. Sec. Kirk Brown reminded the audience that Illinois already has committed $70 million in funds from Gov. George Ryan’s “Illinois First” program to upgrading 118 miles of the Chicago-St. Louis line between Mazonia, just north of Dwight, and Springfield. In fact, several of those attending the conference saw the track improvements in progress while riding Amtrak from Chicago to Springfield. Ballasting, tie replacement and installation of 115-lb. welded rail on curves is well under way, and high-speed turnouts have been assembled in panels so that trains will be able to enter and leave sidings without slowing down to a crawl.

“If we had $150 million more we could upgrade the whole 285-mile route to 110 miles per hour,” Brown said.

However, Warrington sounded a sobering note when he reminded the officials that the U.S. still has not held the kind of “great debate” over the importance of rail travel that it held before deciding to make the long-term, multi-billion-dollar commitments that enabled the nation to build the Interstate highways network, the coast-to-coast system of commercial airports and air traffic-control technology funded by the Federal Aviation Administration, and the 23,000-mile dredged-and-dammed Inland Waterway System built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. But that debate is coming, he said, because the existing transportation infrastructure, and in particular the highways and the airways, cannot be expanded to handle the demands of a growing U.S. and global economy.

“I am hopeful that debate will now occur,” Warrington said. “We sidestepped it for many years, but now we have to face the fact that without a modern passenger-train system we cannot provide the people with the mobility they need. I travel twice a week around our system, and I can tell you high-speed trains are not a Northeast Corridor phenomenon any more. I’m hearing from more and more mayors and economic-development people outside the NEC that we need high-speed trains. I’m a transportation guy–I’ve run trains, buses, highways and the Philadelphia Port Authority–and the more I look at our transportation systems the more I realize that rail is the most underdeveloped of all our transportation resources in this country.”

Sen. Durbin told the group that he agreed to become the first co-sponsor of the High Speed Rail Investment Act because its author and sponsor, former Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) asked him personally for his help.

“If people are going to switch from cars and airplanes to trains we simply have to have higher speeds and higher frequencies,” he said. “That means additional track, signals systems, grade-crossing separations and other improvements have to be built. You have to have the higher frequencies so people can come and go when they please. To do that you have to have more capacity in the infrastructure, which is what we’re trying to build. The High Speed Rail Investment Act will make it possible to run more trips with shorter trip times.”

Although Sen. Durbin’s commitment to high-speed rail has plenty of economic and social reasons behind it, he admitted that he also is driven by a more personal form of motivation. At a small private breakfast held in a Springfield hotel prior to the meeting, Durbin told guests, including UTU Illinois Legislative Director Joseph C. Szabo, “I’m not just in this because it’s good public policy. I’m in it because I’m a railroad man from a railroad family. My mother, my father, myself and my two brothers all worked for the New York Central Railroad in East St. Louis.”