March 5, 2007

CHICAGO (March 5)—A feasibility study prepared by Amtrak for the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) says passenger rail service is warranted in the Chicago-Rockford-Galena-Dubuque corridor but that up to $62 million in track and signal upgrades could be necessary before the first trains can run.

The study, commissioned by U.S. Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) following a July 3, 2006, community meeting at the Rockford International Airport, said the cost of the upgrades could vary depending on which of three proposed route alternatives ultimately is selected.

No route has been selected thus far, but all parties agreed that growing highway congestion across the northern tier of Illinois makes the service necessary.

“Today we have a feasibility study that shows us that adding rail service along the Chicago-to-Galena/Dubuque corridor will give businesses a time-competitive and convenient alternative to the Northwest Tollway rush hour,” Durbin said.

Amtrak planners noted in the study that suburban sprawl northwest of Chicago has now reached more than halfway between downtown Chicago and Rockford and that at rush hour the corridor’s principal highway, the Northwest Tollway, suffers serious backups that make driving times unreliable and unpredictable. The region served includes O’Hare Airport, which accounts for much of its notorious traffic congestion.

“The general population growth along the eastern portion of this corridor has been strong the past decade, but passenger-train service formerly provided by Amtrak ceased in 1981,” the report noted. “Highway traffic volumes on Interstate 90 (Northwest Tollway) between Chicago and Rockford are significant, with frequent backups the closer one gets to Chicago.”

“With the completion of this report we are now closer than ever before to restoring Amtrak service to Rockford and Northwest Illinois,” said U.S. Rep. Donald Manzullo (R-Rockford).”Daily passenger-train service to Chicago will give our residents another great transportation option and bolster economic activity throughout northern Illinois.”

First, however, dollars will have to be found to complete the needed infrastructure improvements. While minimal upgrades will need to be built on the western 81 miles of the Canadian National/Illinois Central route between Rockford and the Mississippi River, the majority of the capital would be needed east of Rockford where the level of infrastructure upgrades would be based upon which one of the three alternative routes is ultimately selected.”

The least costly and most direct alternative would be continuing to use the CN/IC route all the way into Chicago. This is the route that was used when the IC operated its own passenger trains, the Black Hawk and the Land O’ Corn, until their discontinuance in the late 60s.

However, some planners advocate switching off the CN/IC route east of Rockford and onto the former Milwaukee Road alignment, now known as Metra’s Milwaukee West line, while a third route would use the Union Pacific Railroad’s unsignaled single-track branch line from West Chicago to Belvidere to connect with the IC route just east of Rockford.

But both the Milwaukee-Metra and UP routes would require building of interlockings to connect them to the CN/IC, and the UP branch would need signaling as well.

“The report shows the need for both a state and federal capital funding program to make this service a reality,” said UTU Illinois Legislative Director Joseph C. Szabo. “It is very hard to justify running three trains a day to Champaign and Carbondale and five trains a day to Bloomington-Normal and Springfield while leaving Rockford, a city of 100,000 people, and Galena, a booming tourist destination, without passenger rail service at all.”

Sen. Durbin agreed.

“Amtrak already provides quick, cost-effective and reliable public ground transportation to 30 communities in the state,” he said. “It’s time to add communities in Northwest and Central Illinois to that list.”

“And that’s just the curtain-raiser,” Szabo said. “We know that the Illinois passenger-train system must reach out to the rest of our principal downstate communities, including Peoria, Decatur and the Quad Cities. IDOT already has priced the Quad Cities infrastructure improvements at $65 million, and we will soon have an idea of the costs of serving Peoria and Decatur as well. Our ridership continues to explode. Now it is time for a capital funding plan to add new major markets to our state passenger rail network.”