July 19, 2004

CHICAGO (July 19)—Two of the Midwest’s busiest and fastest-growing passenger rail routes have been selected by Amtrak to be developed for higher speeds, increased train frequencies and route extensions under the carrier’s 2005-2009 Five Year Plan.

Amtrak CEO David Gunn told a Washington news conference June 29 that the Chicago-Springfield-St. Louis route, now served by three round trips per day, has been targeted by Amtrak planners for additional infrastructure and signaling upgrades that could lead to five daily round trips within three to five years and up to 10 daily round trips over the longer term.

Gunn also announced that Amtrak planners are seeking funding to upgrade the Chicago-Milwaukee “Hiawatha” corridor from its current schedule of seven round trips per day to a near-term goal of 10 daytime passenger shuttles and a long-term roster of 17 round trips.

In addition, Amtrak will seek funding to extend the Hiawatha Corridor another 85 miles to connect Milwaukee with Madison. Amtrak said that if funding for the rebuild could be secured, six of its projected Chicago-Milwaukee “Hiawatha” trains would be extended to Wisconsin’s state capital. The two cities have not been connected by scheduled passenger-train service for more than 40 years, and WisDOT must rebuild and signalize 36 miles of 10-mph freight-only track before passenger operations can start.

Still no federal funds

But Gunn noted that none of the plans can go forward until Congress passes legislation to provide states with federal matching funds dedicated to building the new tracks and funding the needed rolling stock. And he noted that federal infrastructure funding is needed not only to develop stronger passenger service but also to open up additional capacity for freight railroads struggling with unprecedented traffic growth.

“The freight railroad system is under a lot of stress,” Gunn said. “If we don’t redress the imbalance in the transportation system, the national rail system is in terrible jeopardy.”

States “rewarded” for self-funding

But while neither Amtrak nor the federal government currently has funding to match rail infrastructure funds committed by state legislatures, Amtrak’s Five Year plan effectively “rewards” those states that have made their own funding commitment by granting them “Tier I” status under the Five Year Plan’s Corridor Development Program. A Tier I designation means those corridors would be the first to receive federal funds when they become available.

“There’s no mystery why Amtrak has targeted these two Midwestern corridors for track and service upgrades,” said UTU Illinois Legislative Director Joseph C. Szabo. “Both corridors have received strong support from their respective state departments of transportation.”

Szabo said Illinois has invested more than $60 million worth of its taxpayers’ money into upgrading 118 miles of the Chicago-St. Louis route with high-speed track and has secured another $70 million in federal and private funding to install a global-positioning-satellite guidance system.

“That’s a big plus with federal planners,” Szabo said. “The more a state is willing to spend money of its own, the greater the likelihood that the federal government will match the state’s expenditures when Congress ultimately decides to fund a federal matching-grant program. All we need now is that federal program.”

Szabo said Wisconsin has stepped up to the plate as well, providing $3.9 million to transform Milwaukee Union Station into a convenient intermodal transfer center and working with federal and airport officials to construct a platform next to Milwaukee’s Mitchell Airport. Travelers from Chicago’s North Shore suburbs would use the new platform to transfer from Amtrak trains to commercial airline flights.

Rail is getting popular

The Amtrak Five Year Plan comes at a time when the Chicago-St. Louis and Chicago-Milwaukee corridors both have shown spectacular growth. Ridership on the Hiawatha trains grew 13.3 per cent between May of 2003 and May of 2004. Between June of last year and June 2004 the Chicago-St. Louis trains boosted their ridership more than 11 per cent.

“Those are amazing figures when you realize that the number of frequencies is still very low,” said Rick Harnish, Executive Director of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association. “The Chicago-St. Louis route has only three round trips a day, yet it’s growing by double digits. Very few American businesses are growing that quickly these days. There’s no doubt that if we had a reasonable amount of funding for capacity improvements and rolling stock you would see a rail-travel boom across the Midwest.”

“Unfortunately, Congress is lagging way behind the Midwestern states in its willingness to fund railroad improvements,” Szabo said. “Neither Congress nor the administration so far has acknowledged that we are in a transportation crisis in this country.

“Air and highway transportation are pressing against the limits of their respective technologies,” Szabo said. “Rail alone has the potential to provide more mobility for passengers and freight alike. Yet we still lack a federal matching-grant program to assist states in improving railroad track the way the federal government helps states build highways and airports.”