May 17, 2006

WASHINGTON (May 17)—U.S. Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) asked Amtrak President David Hughes to arrange a meeting between Amtrak officials and community leaders in Rockford, who want to learn whether passenger-train service can be restored to that community after a 24-year absence.

“As you know, Amtrak ended its Black Hawk route from Chicago to Rockford in 1982,” Durbin wrote. “However, since that time, the amount of commuters that travel from Rockford to the Chicago area has increased significantly even though public transportation options are severely limited.”

UTU Illinois Legislative Director Joseph C. Szabo called Rockford’s plea a “natural response” to the Illinois General Assembly’s recent funding action that doubles the state’s support for Amtrak and expands the number daily corridor trains from three to seven..
“We expected this,” Szabo said. “We knew that grass-root support for passenger rail is strong statewide and once the word got out that the state was funding additional service to Quincy, Carbondale, and St. Louis, other cities with no current service would step forward and demand that they be served as well.”

Szabo said Peoria, Decatur and the Quad Cities are the unserved communities most likely to demand restoration of their passenger-rail service.

“All three are important commercial centers that once had passenger-train service and need it again as one element in their overall strategy to re-invent and grow their economies,” Szabo said.

“Those communities would make excellent locations for new or expanded business facilities, except for one thing,” Szabo said: They’re too far from Chicago. Corporate managers who travel as part of their work don’t want to be stranded in a community that can be reached from Chicago only by expensive, uncomfortable feeder airline service or a long, tiring drive on a congested Interstate. We’re very glad Sen. Durbin has chosen to act on behalf of these communities. He knows transportation, and Amtrak’s people understand that.”

Durbin’s letter noted that extension of rail service to Rockford not only would enable residents of that community to commute to Chicago and its suburbs for work but also to access other Amtrak routes that hub at Chicago Union Station, “thereby growing Amtrak’s ridership numbers significantly.”

Szabo said any meeting between Amtrak and Rockford officials would only be an initial step in restoring service.

“The condition of the track, availability of rolling stock and the availability of state funding all have to be evaluated before a decision is made,” Szabo said. “Sen. Durbin’s letter is exactly what is needed to get that process started. We’re a long way from seeing new start-up service initiated, but it all starts with the need and desire. Passenger rail is about to enter a new and exciting era in Illinois.”