February 8, 2008

WASHINGTON (Feb. 8)—The number-two member of the U.S. Senate, Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, told Union Pacific Railroad Chairman James R. Young today to start fixing deteriorated track and signals on UP’s Joliet-St. Louis main line that are delaying Amtrak trains, discouraging potential passengers and postponing the arrival of a “passenger-rail renaissance” driven by a growing popular demand for train travel.

“The Lincoln Service along the Union Pacific track from Chicago to St. Louis was late 53 per cent of the time during Fiscal Year 2007,” Durbin wrote in a Feb. 8 letter to Young.

“Amazingly, during that same time ridership increased an impressive 56 percent,” the Illinois Democrat and Senate Majority Whip noted. “Clearly, there is strong demand for passenger train service in Illinois.

“Even strong demand, though, will not withstand perpetual delays.” Durbin told Young. “Lackluster on-time performance leads to lackluster passenger demand. That is an experience we cannot afford.”

Durbin’s letter to Young came two days after a 30-minute meeting with the UP CEO in the Democratic Whip’s office in the U.S. Capitol. A Durbin staffer characterized the meeting as an “amicable discussion.”

In reaching out to UP’s CEO, Durbin raised an issue that has been causing increasing frustration to the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) and to the passenger-train caucus in the Illinois General Assembly: the possibility that the spectacular growth in ridership on state-sponsored Amtrak trains could begin to plateau if timekeeping continues to be unreliable.

“Train ridership is on a roll in Illinois,” said UTU Illinois Legislative Director Joseph C. Szabo. “Business on the Chicago-St. Louis corridor was up nearly 29 per cent over January 2007.

“But unless the on-time performance improves substantially it’s going to be very difficult for rail in Illinois to attract really demanding customers, especially the business-class travelers who buy the expensive tickets,” Szabo said. “Not only end-point-to-end-point timekeeping, but the timekeeping between intermediate stops, has to be tightened up.”

Durbin called on Young to address the timekeeping issue primarily by catching up with neglected maintenance on the route’s track and signal systems, particularly disabled grade-crossing circuits that force train crews to flag their trains manually across streets and country roads.

“Rusty track and sidings along this corridor interfere with electric currents that detect the presence of trains and activate crossing lights and gates,” Durbin wrote. “…[T]trains operating in sidings must come to a complete stop at some crossings. When this happens, a conductor must disembark and literally flag the train across a crossing with a red flag.”

Durbin also noted that the Automatic Block Signaling (ABS) system protecting some 30 miles of route between is “well beyond its useful life.”

“In many places between Joliet and Mazonia, wiring hangs from poles and touches the ground,” Durbin wrote. “This situation has left the railroad vulnerable to theft of copper wiring and adds to delays for Amtrak trains. Bringing this signaling system into a state of good repair is essential to improving Amtrak’s on-time performance.”

Observers have long attributed UP’s neglect of the Joliet-St. Louis main line to its low importance to the carrier’s freight service. Through freight between St. Louis and Chicago uses a different route, with the Amtrak line hosting only a daily grain local and an occasional coal train.

Under the 1970 Rail Passenger Services Act, however, so-called “freight railroads” that handle Amtrak trains are obligated to maintain their tracks and signals for passenger-train speeds at their own expense. Durbin’s letter re-emphasized that such investments are legally the carrier’s own responsibility.

“Passenger rail is on the brink of a renaissance that could take cars off the road, relieve congested highways, minimize emissions that are harmful to air quality, and lessen our dependence on foreign oil,” he told Young. “Ushering passenger rail into that renaissance requires a serious commitment from the freight railroads that own and maintain the track where Amtrak trains operate.”

Durbin did, however, hold out the possibility that some form of federal capital might become available for upgrading UP’s portion of the Chicago-St. Lois Amtrak route to high-speed rail status.

“This portion of track is unique in the national system because it does not have heavy amounts of freight traffic like most other Amtrak routes,” he wrote. “This situation makes the line ripe for a high-speed-rail demonstration project that would move passengers to and from Chicago and St. Louis at speeds significantly faster than car travel. Eliminating the delays along this route takes us closer to the day when we can make that possibility a reality.”

Szabo said that Durbin’s friendly yet no-nonsense outreach to the UP CEO reflects not only his willingness to lead the fight for passenger-rail expansion but his qualifications to do so.

“Dick Durbin’s railroad background is in every line of that letter,” Szabo said. “He was brought up in East St. Louis by a father who was a yardmaster and a mother who worked as the New York Central’s telephone operator. Dick and his brother both worked for the Central as young men.

“Nobody else in the Senate could have written that letter, and nobody else could have sat down with the CEO of the Union Pacific and held such an informed discussion,” he said. “On rail issues, Dick Durbin speaks with total authority.”