February 9, 2007

CHICAGO (Feb. 9)—After three full months of operation the Illinois Department of Transportation’s enhanced fleet of Amtrak corridor trains continued its record-breaking streak of ridership growth, posting whopping January ridership gains of more than 40 per cent system-wide and almost 70 per cent in the leading corridor.

IDOT officials said the Chicago-Champaign-Carbondale route showed a 68.6-per-cent uptick compared with its performance in January 2006.

The Chicago-St. Louis route, now protected by five round trips a day, showed ridership running 50.6 percent ahead of a year ago with a 103 percent increase on state-funded trains.

And despite a lower population base, the Chicago-Galesburg-Quincy route showed a robust increase of 44.6 per cent over its January 2006 ridership.

“This is the third consecutive month that we’ve maintained this explosive ridership growth,” said UTU Illinois Legislative Director Joseph C. Szabo. “It is proving out to be more than the novelty of the new trains or holiday travel. The ridership is real and it’s solid.”

But Szabo said the success of the new trains only highlights how much the state and federal governments need to invest in Illinois rail infrastructure.

“These spectacular results have been achieved in spite of spotty on-time performance and less than desired reliability,” he said. “Until we consistently achieve a 90% or better on time performance we won’t reach our full ridership potential. We must consistently – each and every trip – achieve the quality of service the residents of this state deserve.

“We must modernize signalization and increase track capacity to eliminate delays and reduce freight congestion,” Szabo said. “The Chicago-St. Louis route has outdated and inadequate sidings, and freight congestion has been causing serious delays on the Chicago-Quincy route. Freight business is good statewide and the rail infrastructure can’t efficiently handle it. Our passenger trains are suffering accordingly.

“We also need to expand high-speed signaling to embrace the entire CHI-STL route to reduce trip times and improve reliability. And we need to secure CREATE funding to improve the fluidity of the Chicago terminal that affects virtually all Amtrak, Metra and freight trains in the Chicago area.

Meanwhile, downstate mayors and economic-development officials are demanding that the system be expanded to Rockford, Galena, the Quad Cities, Peoria and Decatur.

“But that won’t be easy,” Szabo said. “The trackage serving many of those communities is not fit for passenger-train service. Capacity will again be an issue and several key segments lack block signals or 79 mile-an-hour speeds.”

Szabo said the push for needed funding is expected to take at least as long as the campaign that resulted in the four new Amtrak frequencies.

“The amounts of capital needed are somewhat intimidating,” he said. “IDOT estimates that it would take some $65 million just to connect the Quad Cities to the existing passenger rail network. And the many upgrades necessary to achieve high-quality reliability through out the state are equally as expensive.”

“Despite the price tags, we have to face this challenge,” he said. “The public is demanding better transportation alternatives – those that offer convenience, eliminate congestion, and are environmentally friendly. And nothing can achieve this better than rail. Likewise, the growth of the state’s economy depends on growth of the passenger-rail system.

“We’ll be working in the Illinois General Assembly this Session to try and secure significant state capital investment, and I expect to see Gov. Blagojevich working closely with Sen. Dick Durbin to secure congressional legislation that will create federal matching funds to supplement the state’s own capital,” Szabo said.

“We’ve seen Illinois’ willingness to invest operating funds in passenger trains,” he said. “Now it’s time to make the capital investments in to infrastructure that will achieve quality and reliability in service. You think that ridership has exploded to date? The best is yet to come.”