March 30, 2006

SPRINGFIELD (March 30)—Acting Amtrak CEO David Hughes told key members of the Illinois General Assembly and the Blagojevich administration yesterday that Amtrak is excited about the prospect of operating four additional state-supported frequencies and will have the required rolling stock and crews ready if state funding is approved.

After being introduced on the floor of the State Senate by Appropriations Comm. Chmn. Jeffrey Schoenberg (D-Evanston), Hughes said Amtrak officials believe they can reallocate rolling stock and hire and qualify crews in time to deploy the four additional frequencies concurrent with the annual timetable changes when Daylight
Saving Time ends in October.

Hughes’s visit here was arranged by the UTU Illinois Legislative Board as part of its campaign to secure state funding so that Amtrak can operate four additional daily Illinois corridor frequencies. Added to the state’s current passenger-train budget, the new funding would enable Amtrak to operate a second daily frequency between Chicago and Quincy, a third frequency between Chicago and Carbondale, and a fourth and fifth frequency on the Chicago-Springfield-St.Louis route.

“Hughes was emphatic that Amtrak would ‘do what it takes’ to reallocate equipment and hire and qualify additional crews in time to inaugurate these new frequencies when the new schedules are issued in October,” said UTU Illinois Legislative Director Joseph C. Szabo. “He said Amtrak would have to do a certain amount of hustling to get it done, but that if the state wanted the trains and approves the funding, it would get done.”

Szabo said that with 47 of 59 state senators and 97 of 118 state representatives serving as co-sponsors of legislation appropriating the additional funds, the issue is ‘in the thick of the fight’ during final budget negotiations.

“We find there is genuine interest in the governor’s office,” Szabo said. “The governor’s office wants to see these trains run, but the final budget negotiations remain tight and intense. While there is no assurance that funding will be secured, everybody is motivated to see it happen.”

As Hughes spoke with concerned legislators and executive staff, the state’s senior U.S. senator, Richard J. Durbin, sent Hughes a letter urging Amtrak to make every effort to match the state’s funds with its own commitment.

“Ridership on the Chicago-to-St. Louis ‘State House’ service was up 13.7% in the 2005 Fiscal Year, and the Carbondale and Quincy routes witnessed ridership increases of 12.8% and 8.9%, respectively,” Durbin wrote, adding: “Due to the increasing amount of travelers choosing Amtrak in Illinois, the State is considering providing operating assistance on up to four new train sets…I respectfully request that Amtrak offer its assistance in furnishing the necessary equipment, which could include the procurement or transfer of refurbished rolling stock, so that the State of Illinois can meet its commitment to increase Amtrak service in the state.”

And the day after Hughes’s appearance, two Downstate papers published stories indicating grassroots support for the expanded state passenger-rail program is growing.

The Galesburg Register-Mail reported that State Sen. Christine Radogno (R-Lemont) had called for a buildup in train service because the state needs a cheaper way for its employees to travel on business.

“It will save money for the state in that we can have state employees taking the train instead of more expensive air transportation,” Radogno said. The newspaper also quoted Sen. Schoenberg as saying that state employees would gravitate to the train service even if the General Assembly did not pass a law requiring them to use it.

“Common sense and the desire to take the most economical course would drive those decisions,” Schoeberg said. “If you add the trains, they will come.”

Quincy Mayor John Spring told a State House press conference that his city needed the additional service in order to make Quincy more accessible to business travelers and tourists. The current single daily train leaves Chicago at 5:55 p.m., reaches Quincy at 10:10 p.m., and returns to Chicago first thing in the morning, leaving Chicagoans with no way to make a convenient day trip to Western Illinois.

“This is important for business, for tourists and for other travelers,” Spring said. “It’s important for our region and the entire state.”