Friday, November 03, 2006

Expansion off and running

New Amtrak train late on first day

Monday, October 30, 2006 4:52 PM CST

By Scott Miller

NORMAL -- The new Amtrak train to Chicago arrived at the Normal depot 30 minutes late Monday, the first day of the added service.

In addition, several passengers awaiting its arrival nearly boarded a late St. Louis-bound train that arrived when the Chicago train was scheduled to depart.

“We really hope Amtrak can make the schedule work,” said Joe Schweiterman of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association, which lobbied for the new trains from Chicago to St. Louis and Chicago to Carbondale.

“Reliability is extremely important. We’re optimistic. Freight travel on this rail is really light,” he said, while waiting for the Chicago train.

From Normal to Chicago, the new trains are scheduled to leave at 9:31 a.m. and 8:26 p.m. Both trips take about two hours and 24 minutes.

From Chicago, the new trains leave at 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. and arrive in Normal at 9:14 a.m. and 9:14 p.m.

The new service began Monday after the passenger rail company and the owner of the track struck a deal late last week. Few waiting to board the train in Normal Monday knew the added service was in limbo as track-owner Canadian National Railway tried to wriggle out of contracts it signed in July.

CN dropped its opposition last week when Amtrak agreed to study whether or not the added service would disrupt freight between Chicago and Joliet. Freight trains receive priority for use of the track.

On Monday, the 9:14 a.m. train to St. Louis arrived about 15 minutes late.

Some travelers thought it was the Chicago-bound train, right on time. It wasn’t. That train didn’t arrive until 10:02 a.m., and Amtrak employees scurried to make sure people boarded the right trains.

Amtrak is on time 70 percent of the time, said spokesman Marc Magliari.

That statistic must not bode well for business travelers.

No one boarding the new Amtrak train Monday was traveling for business. Most were college students or travelers visiting friends, and they weren’t on tight schedules.

Bloomington native Evan Skidmore, for example, was heading back to Columbia College in Chicago. He didn’t have a class until Tuesday, so time wasn’t an issue.

“This trip is going to be a huge advantage for students because the trains will be coming in sooner,” said Stephen Gossard, an Amtrak ticket agent at the Normal depot. “A lot of people that would have come back Sunday evening now come home Monday morning.”

About 16 people purchased tickets on the new 9:30 a.m. train Monday, he said, while 35 got off the train coming from Chicago. On a weekend, Gossard said, the trains often carry around 100 Twin City passengers.

Amtrak added the service to offer earlier and later departures to and from Chicago.

The boost in service also comes as Amtrak sees an increase in ridership. Last year, 93,885 people departed or arrived on Amtrak trains in Normal, up 13 percent from the 82,905 in 2004.


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