January 13, 2004

CHICAGO (Jan. 12)—UTU Illinois Legislative Director Joseph C. Szabo said today he came away “encouraged” about the future of the rail industry in the state after a nearly two-hour meeting in which Illinois Department of Transportation Secretary Tim Martin updated Szabo and others on the progress of two critical rail development programs.

“Sec. Martin provided the strongest assurances we have yet heard that the CREATE program to upgrade the Chicago area’s freight-rail infrastructure is moving forward,” Szabo said.

“And Dick Smith, IDOT’s Director of Planning and Programming, told us IDOT has submitted a budget request to Governor Blagojevich and the General Assembly for funds to support additional Amtrak frequencies in the Chicago-St. Louis corridor.”

“While Smith also indicated that this will be a very ‘tight budget year,’” Szabo said, “we are encouraged that at least IDOT understands the importance of ultimately building additional frequencies.

“Both of these developments are extremely encouraging,” Szabo said. “Successful funding of CREATE and passenger rail would enable the rail industry to divert millions of tons of freight each year from trucks to trains, while additional Amtrak frequencies would divert thousands of travelers a year from I-55 to passenger trains. The payoff in more railroad jobs, economic development and reduced highway congestion and accidents would be tremendous, which is why the UTU has taken a leadership position on behalf of these initiatives.”

In the meeting, which was held in the Secretary’s Conference Room at IDOT’s Chicago regional headquarters, Martin said U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Yorkville) and Cong. William O. Lipinski (D-Chi.) have indicated that Congress is moving steadily toward a national transportation bill that could include funding to cover many of the CREATE programs projects.

“At this time it appears that the Metra Heritage Corridor using the Illinois Central/Canadian National route between Chicago and Joliet could be among the first of the Chicago-area rail routes to be upgraded,” Szabo said.

“If so, that is tremendous news for freight shippers, travelers, commuters and rail employees,” Szabo said. “By installing flyovers at the congested and antiquated Brighton Park and Argo crossings, CREATE would speed the flow of freight traffic across Chicago, attract more truck shipments to rail, cut 20 minutes out of Amtrak’s running time between Chicago and St. Louis, and enable Metra to double its Heritage Corridor commuter service between Chicago and Joliet. You would definitely see more train service, fewer trucks on the road, and more railroad jobs once these improvements are installed.”

Even without the improvements, however, IDOT would like to increase Amtrak service between Chicago and St. Louis, Szabo said.

“We were told by Dick Smith that IDOT would like the current number of Amtrak round trips between Chicago and St. Louis to go from the current three to five or six,” Szabo said.

“That depends, of course, on whether the General Assembly can provide the necessary funding,” he said. “Dick said Amtrak and IDOT are working together to develop the costs of the new services. While I understand what a very difficult budget year this will be for our state, UTU is going to do all it can to make sure our legislators understand the importance of making more room for passenger trains in the state budget. Ridership in the Chicago-St. Louis corridor grew 23 per cent last year. More frequencies will make the service more convenient and popular than ever.”