May 3, 2006

SPRINGFIELD (May 3)—Advocates for a buildup in state-supported passenger-train service gave a cautious cheer today as the Illinois House of Representatives approved a 2007 state budget that included funding for four additional Amtrak round trips between Chicago and Downstate points.

If the Senate also approves the budget in its vote scheduled for tomorrow, and if Gov. Rod Blagojevich signs the legislation, Illinois will see its network of state-supported passenger trains grow from three to seven round trips when Amtrak issues its fall timetables in October.

“I believe it will be the first time a state has more than doubled its commitment to passenger trains at a single stroke,” said UTU Illinois Legislative Director Joseph C. Szabo.

“California has a much larger roster of state-supported trains—60 a day—but their system has grown steadily in small increments,” Szabo said. “I don’t believe they ever doubled it on a single day as Illinois will when we go off Daylight Saving Time in October.”

Szabo rated the budget bill as having a “good probability” of being approved in the Senate, and he said it was probable as well that Gov. Rod Blagojevich would sign it. The new budget increases the state’s annual appropriation for passenger trains from $12.1 million to just shy of $25 million, which will cover the costs of the state’s three existing trains, plus four new trains, plus Illinois’ 25-percent share of bi-state funding for the Chicago-Milwaukee Hiawatha service.

“This is a tremendous step forward for the state of Illinois—and it may be coming just in time,” Szabo said. “You have to commend our legislators for having the foresight to move in this direction several months before gasoline prices began climbing to $3 a gallon. Thanks to their initiative, Illinois will have effective alternative intercity transportation up and running while other states are still debating how to provide their citizens with mobility.”

Szabo said the willingness of Illinois to step forward with passenger rail funding also means the state will be in a strong position when Congress finally addresses the need for a nationwide passenger-rail buildup.

“The Great White Father in Washington helps those who help themselves,” he said. “This investment by the state should make us eligible for more federal funding than other states that are still hesitant to act.”

The four new trains will include a second and third daily round trip between Chicago and St. Louis, which will give that line three daily state-supported round trips plus two round trips sponsored by Amtrak.

“At five frequencies a day rail travel really starts being attractive to people who otherwise might drive,” Szabo said, “and between Chicago and Springfield it can even be competitive with flying. We expect to see lots of visitors to the Abraham Lincoln Museum in Springfield switch from car to train.”

The additional money also will pay for a second daily round trip on the Chicago-Quincy route, including a morning departure that for the first time will enable Chicagoans to make a rail day trip to cities such as Galesburg, Macomb and Quincy. The current 6 p.m. train requires to Chicagoans to stay overnight at Western Illinois points.

“This is really good news for Galesburg,” Szabo said. “When you include Amtrak’s Southwest Chief and California Zephyr that town will now have four passenger trains a day to Chicago and a convenient morning train out of Chicago that will make business travel between the two cities far more convenient and affordable than it is today.”

The state also will fund a second Chicago-Carbondale train with a first-ever morning departure allowing Chicago business travelers to make day trips to Rantoul, Champaign, Mattoon and Effingham. With Amtrak’s long-distance City of New Orleans and the state-sponsored Illini already using the same tracks, travelers along the Chicago-Carbondale corridor will have three daily frequencies from which to choose.

“These new trains are good news for Illinois, for Illinois business and for Illinois tourism,” Szabo said, crediting the UTU, the Environmental Law & Policy Center, the Midwest High Speed Rail Association and the Illinois Municipal League for working as allies to persuade legislators to support the bigger passenger-rail budget.

Szabo said the new trains also are likely to create a “virtuous circle” making it easier for the state to fund additional frequencies—and even open up new routes—in the future.

“That’s because the state created an Intercity Passenger Rail Fund that receives $50 every time a state employee traveling on business takes the train instead of driving or flying,” he said. “On a round trip between Chicago and Springfield the state saves more than $200 every time an employee uses the train, so it sets aside part of the saving to fund rail service.

“With five round trips a day between Chicago and Springfield you’re going to see lots more state employees on the train—and a lot more dollars in the rail fund.”