June 3, 2003

CHICAGO (June 3)–For years critics have complained that the U.S. has an unbalanced transportation system. Travelers are virtually forced to fly or drive because government in the U.S.pays for highways and airports but not for improvements to rail infrastructure.

That may be true in many some states, but not in Illinois. The 1999 Illinois FIRST program put the state into railroading big-time, setting aside $185 million for track and signal upgrades and $400 million for new rolling stock while positioning Illinois to receive even more rail-development money in the form of federal matching grants.

“Thanks to Illinois FIRST, our state is starting to build a balanced transportation system,” said UTU Illinois Legislative Director Joseph C. Szabo. “Travelers will start getting real choices again. They won’t be forced to rely totally on their cars or on the airlines.”

When the projects are finished in 2005, intercity rail travelers will be moving at 110 miles per hour over 118 miles of the Union Pacific’s Chicago-St. Louis main line, while Chicago’s Metra commuter rail system will open nearly 17 miles of route extensions into the outer suburbs and carry its growing ridership in 300 new state-of-the-art bi-level coaches.

“The Illinois FIRST program has really jump-started passenger-rail development in this state,” Szabo said. “Because of the money going into the ground as well as into rolling stock, thousands of people who never rode a train before are going to become regular satisfied users.”

Actually, the $185 million allocated by Illinois FIRST to track and signal improvements only partially reflects the scale of the upgrades. That’s because the money provided by the Illinois General Assembly is matched by roughly equal federal grants.

So the $49 million in Illinois FIRST funds dedicated to extending Metra’s Southwest Line is being matched with another $49 million from the Federal Transit Administration. The $98-million total will allow Metra to rebuild 11 miles of deteriorated freight track so Metra can extend its trains from their current Cook County terminus in Orland Park to Manhattan deep inside fast-growing Will County.

And the $32 million that Illinois FIRST is investing in Union Pacific’s West Line is being matched by an FTA grant of $40 million. The $72-million total will permit Metra to extend its service 6.3 miles from Geneva to Elburn, where a new yard is being built to accommodate the fleet during its overnight layovers.

And a $32-million grant from Illinois FIRST is being matched by $66 million from the FTA to permit 20 miles of double track to be installed on the former Wisconsin Central Railroad (now owned by Canadian National) between Franklin Park and Antioch.

“All of the projects are scheduled to be finished in late 2005,” said Metra spokesman Tom Miller. Once the new trackage is open, he said, new service startups will begin.

“On the Southwest Line the service will nearly double–from eight round trips a day to fifteen,” he said. “On the North Central service the number of round trips will double–from six to twelve.”

Those new services will require additional rolling stock. Fortunately, Illinois FIRST provided for that as well, with $400 million that will allow Metra to buy 300 bi-level commuter coaches. Designed by Sumitomo of Japan, the cars are being assembled by SuperSteel Corp. in Milwaukee. Some 15 new cars already have been received and are in service, Miller said. The new coaches will permit Metra to retire about 250 bi-levels dating back to the 1950s, leaving a net increase of about 50 cars for assignment to the new services.

Extension of service on the UP West Line from Geneva to Elburn will not result in additional service, at least initially, Miller said.

Rather, it will allow the railroad to run more efficiently by establishing for the first time a layover yard at the actual end of Metra’s operating territory.

Currently, Metra service ends at Geneva, Milepost 35.5 from Chicago, Miller explained. But the actual layover yard for the trains is 5 miles east at West Chicago. Each morning, Chicago-bound trains start their day with a westbound deadhead move to Geneva before heading back east on the “real” part of the trip. The new terminus at Elburn will eliminate the twice-daily deadhead shuffle and open up additional track slots for UP’s burgeoning freight operation.

But Illinois FIRST’s biggest track project is well away from the Chicago area. It starts at Mazonia, 63 miles southwest of Chicago on Amtrak’s Chicago-Springfield-St. Louis route, and runs for 118 miles to Springfield.

Using $50 million worth of Illinois FIRST funds, that track was entirely rebuilt and reconfigured during the summer of 2002 for higher speeds. An additional $70 million contributed by the Federal Railroad Administration and the Association of American Railroads now is paying for installation of an advanced Positive Train Control system that will allow passenger trains to run at 110 miles per hour.

“That new track and signaling is the reason why the UTU joined with IDOT and three advocacy groups recently to travel to Washington and ask the Illinois congressional delegation for federal matching funds,” Szabo said. “The Mazonia-Springfield segment will be opened for high-speed service in a little over a year. If we can get a $200-million federal match for the state’s money, Illinois can buy trains that will cut almost an hour off the Chicago-Springfield run. The timing will drop from 3 hours and 46 minutes to about 2 hours and 40 minutes. And if we can keep upgrading the track and signals all the way into Chicago and St. Louis, we can cut Chicago-Springfield to a flat two hours and Chicago-St. Louis to 3 and a half.

“At those speeds, almost no one would fly between Chicago and St. Louis unless they were connecting between flights at O’Hare,” Szabo said. “And thousands of travelers would switch from car to train just for plain old speed, convenience and safety reasons. Amtrak would become as popular for intercity travel as Metra has become for suburban commuting.

“All it takes is a little public investment,” Szabo said. “That’s why Illinois FIRST was such a success. And that’s why the UTU will continue to fight for higher levels of state and federal funding for rail infrastructure improvements. Only rail has the power to deliver the additional mobility our state needs for sound economic development.”