Saturday, November 18, 2006

Michigan ridership spikes, bringing state subsidy down

Great news out of Michigan -- ridership is spiking, and with all that new revenue, the operating subsidy comes down. The more ridership, the better. Ask someone to take Amtrak.....word of mouth matters.

The article in the Lansing State Journal is here.

Amtrak riders to save Mich. nearly $1 million
Blue Water Line, used by students, brings in $3.4 million

By Derek Wallbank
Lansing State Journal

EAST LANSING - Record setting ridership on Michigan's three Amtrak lines will save the state almost $1 million, state officials said.

A record 664,284 riders drove ticket revenue up more than 21 percent from Oct. 1, 2005, to Sept. 30, and the state subsidy down to $6.2 million from $7.1 million.

"We attribute this excellent growth to higher gas prices at the pump, and increased marketing efforts on the part of local communities," said Department of Transportation Director Kirk Steudle.

Operational costs for both the Blue Water Line, which runs from Port Huron, through East Lansing to Chicago, and the Pere Marquette (Grand Rapids to Chicago) are funded in part by state subsidies.

The Blue Water Line, especially popular with Michigan State University students, brought in revenue of $3.4 million.

The Wolverine, which runs from Chicago to Detroit and Pontiac, is not operationally subsidized.

Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said the short term plan for Michigan trains is to work with the state to raise the speed of the trains between Kalamazoo and the Michigan-Indiana border from 79 to 95 miles per hour.

Eventually, Magliari said, Amtrak would like to run trains along the 40-mile stretch at up to 110 miles per hour.

That would make the Great Lakes state home to the first American high speed rail line east of the Allegheny mountains.

Contact Derek Wallbank at 267-1301 or

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Nice analysis by Mike Ramsey of how expansion occurred

Mike Ramsey of Copley New Service is one of the best reporters for passenger rail in Illinois. Here is his dispatch on how Illinois was successful at doubling Amtrak service -- when Illinois cut back Amtrak service a decade ago.

From the State Journal-Register here.

Back on track
Amtrak's budget gains millions of dollars in 10 years

Published Sunday, November 05, 2006

CHICAGO - What a difference 10 years makes.

In summer 1996, lawmakers and then-Gov. Jim Edgar eliminated "The Loop," a round-trip weekday train that connected Chicago with Springfield, to save $1.1 million in the state's growing Amtrak budget. The Loop had made day-trip runs since 1986.

State budget-makers had left $6.5 million to preserve daily Amtrak service between Chicago and St. Louis (via Springfield), Carbondale, Quincy and Milwaukee. But that amount was considered costly, so officials planned to impose fare hikes and scale back schedules to help make ends meet.

Fast forward to November 2006. Illinois government has just launched a $12 million Amtrak expansion, adding four round-trip trains on three downstate rail corridors, including a pair of extra trips on the Chicago-to-St. Louis line. The state's passenger rail budget has doubled to $24 million.

What happened?

George Weber, the longtime chief of the passenger rail section for the Illinois Department of Transportation, said the cuts of a decade ago were a "wake-up call" to communities and universities that relied on Amtrak. He said stakeholders formed a grass-roots movement and forged coalitions with IDOT that ultimately led to this year's rollout of additional trains.

"It takes time and circumstances, but I think it's what the cities want," Weber said last week. "It's what they conveyed to their legislators ... The governor and the General Assembly heard the message."

It helped advance the cause of rail advocates that demand for the state-supported trains (different from the cross-country Amtrak trains that also stop in Illinois) grew in recent years, as Amtrak cities helped market the service to business and leisure travelers.

The "State House" train that linked Chicago and St. Louis attracted 133,036 riders in the most recent fiscal year that ended June 30, compared to 83,000 riders in 1995. Collectively in the last fiscal year, nearly 1 million riders took the state trains, including the "Hiawathas" to and from Milwaukee. The latest tally represented a more than 10 percent increase over the previous annual period.

High gasoline prices and security-check hassles at airports also are believed to have helped the cause of passenger rail. And observers say Amtrak - which has faced perennial battles with Congress for federal funds - has streamlined its operations and takes better care of its equipment these days.

"Decent equipment and on-time performance - that's the name of the game," said retired Amtrak conductor Jim Carmany of Blooming- ton, who worked on the last Loop trains 10 years ago.

Based on the experiences of other states that have expanded intercity rail, Illinois could see its Amtrak ridership grow by 75 percent, Weber said.

But meeting the new train schedules could be Amtrak's biggest challenge in attracting and keeping riders as it navigates tracks owned and used by freight railroads. The new passenger trains started running Oct. 30, and almost immediately there were delays on some routes.

In one case, freight rail cars derailed in the south suburbs, making the new southbound "Saluki" train to Carbondale at least an hour late. Meanwhile, Amtrak also is trying to refine the process on the Chicago-to-St. Louis corridor whereby oncoming trains traveling on the same track use rail "sidings" to let one of the locomotives pass.

"Dispatchers manage the trains using the schedules as their guides, but they have to make operational decisions minute by minute, based on what's happening out there," Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said Friday. "It's important for everyone to hit their marks, and we have work to do and others do, too, as we execute a very new plan."

In the last fiscal year, Amtrak's "on-time" performance rate - getting to the final destination within 15 minutes of the schedule - was just over 70 percent on the Quincy and St. Louis corridors and 87 percent on the Carbondale corridor, IDOT said. But Weber, the rail section chief, said Amtrak is largely dependent on freight railroads to stay on target. He added that Amtrak meets its contractual obligations with the state to start its trains on time from the original departure points.

For the first five days of the Amtrak expansion last week, the passenger railroad booked nearly 7,000 reservations, according to figures Magliari provided. The numbers do not reflect final ticket sales, but of the downstate corridors the Carbondale line had the most reservations with 2,579, followed by the Chicago-to-St. Louis line, 2,367; and the Quincy line, 1,870.

Mike Ramsey can be reached at (312) 857-2323 or

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.

Lincoln Service Begins

Amtrak's expanded service begins

Published Tuesday, October 31, 2006
CHICAGO - The inaugural run of Amtrak's new Lincoln Service departed Union Station early Monday carrying dozens of travelers, including passenger-rail advocates, a business commuter and a junior college student taking his first train ride.

Train 301 left on time at 7 a.m. for St. Louis via Springfield - part of a $12 million Amtrak expansion in Illinois that will add four daily round-trip trains on three rail corridors linking the Windy City with downstate.
"Now we have the next step towards a real high-quality service," said Rick Harnish, executive director of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association, which lobbied state lawmakers and Gov. Rod Blagojevich earlier this year to pay for the extra trains.
Harnish and about 20 members of his Chicago-based organization reserved business-class seats on the first train to St. Louis. They planned to have lunch there before catching a northbound train that would bring them back to Chicago in the evening.
The new 7 a.m. train from Chicago is a daily express that skips some stops to shave minutes off the usual trip. It is one of two new Amtrak trains that will give passengers in either direction an additional morning and evening travel option.
The total number of trains on the Chicago-to-St. Louis corridor increases to five round trips - three state-supported Lincoln Service trains and two cross-country trains from Amtrak's national network.
Computer consultant Senia Bartl of LaGrange said she's happy to have a 7 a.m. train that gets her to Normal earlier in the day. She said she spends her work week in Bloomington and relies on Amtrak to get her to central Illinois and back. The cost: $22 round trip.
"It's cheap. There's no way to beat the ticket price," Bartl said as she prepared to board.
Jon Brengle, 19, was taking his first trip on Amtrak after missing a bus ride to the St. Louis area, where he attends Florissant Valley Community College. He said he expected the train to be "faster than a bus, smoother."
Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said 92 people had bought advance tickets to ride the first southbound Lincoln Service, including 63 who were expected to board in Chicago. The train's capacity was about 225, he said.
Also departing for the first time from Union Station Monday was the new Carl Sandburg train connecting Chicago with Quincy via Galesburg (where the legendary Sandburg, a poet and LIncoln biographer, hailed from). Passenger train enthusiast George Strombeck of Rockford and his friend Deems Jensen of Chicago wanted to be among the first passengers for the 8 a.m. train heading west.
They planned to spend the day in historic Quincy before returning by train later in the day.
"We've been on last runs," Strombeck said. "This is a first run, and it's exciting."
The new trains - designed, in part, to stimulate business travel and tourism in Illinois - hit a potential snag last week when it was disclosed that Canadian National Railway Co. was having second thoughts about granting Amtrak access on two rail corridors.
The CN owns tracks on a portion of the Chicago-to-St. Louis corridor and all of the tracks between Chicago and Carbondale that will feature a new Saluki train, named in honor of Southern Illinois University. Under pressure from members of Congress, the CN came to an agreement with Amtrak.
Passenger rail proponents have said more travelers will choose intercity trains over automobiles and planes if they have several arrival and departure options. Harnish, head of the high-speed rail group, said Illinois ideally would offer passenger train service every two hours on the Chicago-to-St. Louis line.
The new trains, which are starting during the first four months of the state fiscal year, have doubled Illinois government's Amtrak budget to $24 million.
Illinois Department of Transportation spokesman Matt Vanover said the agency would pursue a full year of funding in the next budget plan. He said it would cost more but declined to offer estimates; one source said the tab could be in the $30 million range.
Amtrak ridership on state-supported trains grew to nearly 1 million during the last fiscal year, IDOT has said. That figure included passengers who rode Amtrak's daily Hiawatha service connecting Chicago and Milwaukee; the cost is shared with the state of Wisconsin.
Mike Ramsey can be reached at (312) 857-2323 or

Carl Sandburg Arrives in Quincy

By Kelly Wilson
Herald-Whig Staff Writer
Mark and Julie Krogman of Quincy smiled broadly as they walked off Amtrak's new Carl Sandburg train Monday.
They were among the two dozen passengers on the train's inaugural run from Chicago to Quincy, and they didn't even mind that the train arrived in Quincy more than an hour late.
"It was great," Julie Krogman said.
The Krogmans, traveling with their two young daughters, spent the weekend in Chicago and were excited they could take advantage of new scheduling options now that a second daily train between Chicago and Quincy is in service.
"It was nice because we were able to stay that extra night (in Chicago)," Julie Krogman said. "They have school tomorrow, and we didn't want to come back late."
Before Monday, the daily Zephyr was the only option for train travel between Quincy and Chicago. That train departs Quincy at 6:12 a.m. and arrives in Chicago at 10:30 a.m., and departs Chicago at 5:55 p.m. and arrives in Quincy at 10:10 p.m.
The Carl Sandburg departs Chicago at 8 a.m. and arrives in Quincy at 12:15 p.m., and then leaves Quincy at 5:30 p.m. and arrives in Chicago at 9:48 p.m.
Passengers arriving at Quincy's Amtrak station Monday — at about 1:30 p.m. instead of the scheduled 12:15 p.m. — were greeted by local dignitaries, including Quincy Mayor John Spring.
"This gives a person four options, and they can mix and match," Spring said, adding that the second train will benefit business people, tourists, sports teams, and college students and faculty all along the route.
"For businesspeople, it will be a huge, huge plus," he said.
Spring commends the various federal, state and local officials who played a role in getting the second train between Quincy and Chicago.
"They have worked and dedicated themselves to making this possible," he said.
Because of high ridership demands, Gov. Rod Blagojevich and the legislature this year increased the state's annual subsidy for Amtrak to $24 million. The subsidy had previously been $12.1 million and had partly covered the costs of service along routes to Quincy and other downstate locations. The increased subsidy will cover the cost of extra trains to Quincy, Carbondale and St. Louis.
"It's overdue," said passenger James Christen of the second daily train between Chicago and Quincy. "It gives people greater flexibility, and I think there will be more riders overall. Ridership was pretty good for the first day."
Christen, a former Quincyan who now lives in Michigan, rode the Carl Sandburg from Chicago to Quincy and back Monday.
"I came to be part of history today," he said. "I wanted to be part of the inaugural train service."
Sonl Patel, a Quincy University student from Chicago, wasn't as happy as most passengers. Because the train was late, she missed a test in a class.
"I have to drop out of a class because of this train," she said. "And I lost my ride. So now I have to take a cab."
Spring admits "there will be a few bugs they have to work out," but he can't say enough about how beneficial the Carl Sandburg will be for area travelers.
"It opens up a whole new world to the Tri-State area and certainly Quincy," he said.

USA Today article on high speed rail

The article is here.

High-speed rail service derailed

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HARRISBURG, Pa. — Denny Spicher, a risk management consultant, wants to love the new high-speed electric train that started this week between here and Philadelphia.

After his first ride Wednesday, however, he reluctantly reports that the train rode a lot like the rickety old diesel trains he's ridden for years on the 102-mile route.

"Don't get me wrong. I welcome the new service. But I couldn't see a major difference. It's not quite there yet," says Spicher, 52, a Dauphin, Pa., resident.

When it comes to high-speed rail, "are we there yet?" is a question worth asking. Other than the new service here and the Acela train line between Washington, D.C., New York and Boston, high-speed passenger rail service isn't scheduled to arrive anywhere else in the country for a very long time.

Amtrak introduced the new high-speed rail line this week, amid little fanfare. The Keystone Service will increase maximum speeds between Harrisburg and Philadelphia from 90 mph to 110 mph and cut 15 to 30 minutes off a two-hour trip. The service costs as little as $20 each way.

The train will connect to the heavily traveled high-speed line between Washington, New York and Boston. The Acela train, introduced in December 2000, reaches speeds as high as 150 mph in parts of New England and 135 mph elsewhere on the route.

The Philadelphia-to-Harrisburg route became a high-speed route for practical reasons. It's the only rail line other than the Acela that is wired for electric trains, which reach high speeds more efficiently than diesel engines.

Kiran Mudambi, 20, of Mountain View, Calif., took the train Thursday to interview for the medical student program at Pennsylvania State University. By flying into Philadelphia, instead of Harrisburg, and taking the train to his final destination, he saved $250.

"Quite a bit for a college student," he says.

'Balanced transportation'

Amtrak, which receives about $1.3 billion a year in federal money, spent $145 million upgrading the track and rail switches. The federal government paid $58 million of the cost, Pennsylvania borrowed $14.5 million for its share, and Amtrak paid the rest.

Pennsylvania also pays $6.8 million a year to subsidize the cost of operating the Keystone route, in service since 1834.

"It's part of Gov. (Ed) Rendell's vision of a balanced transportation system," says Rich Kirkpatrick, press secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. "Pennsylvania has stepped up to the plate to make this high-speed service viable."

High-speed rail got attention in the 1990s when the federal government started designating high-speed rail corridors around the country. Today, there are 11 designated high-speed rail corridors through 28 states.

Actual development of high-speed routes has slowed to a crawl or gone completely dormant. For example, Florida voters approved a high-speed rail project in 2000, then repealed it in 2004.

In other key proposals:

•The California High-Speed Rail Authority, established in 1996, wants to bring European-style high-speed trains — with speeds exceeding 200 mph — from San Diego to Sacramento. In 2004 and 2006, the state decided against asking voters for funding. A proposal to borrow $10 billion could be on the 2008 ballot.

•The Southeast corridor, created in 1992, is supposed to bring high-speed passenger rail to Atlanta, Jacksonville, Raleigh, N.C., Washington and other cities.

"The problem is there's no federal money, other than some planning dollars," North Carolina transportation planner David Foster says. It will cost $5.5 million per mile — or $2.5 billion — just to upgrade the 450-mile Charlotte-to-Washington line, he says.

• The Midwest corridor, centered in Chicago, has been getting more trains, but none that travel at high speeds. Last Monday, Amtrak doubled the number of trains running downstate out of Chicago, using $24 million in state money to add service. But the trains don't go faster than 79 mph.

"All we do is talk, talk, talk," says Rick Harnish, executive director of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association, a private group.

Harnish says Illinois could start high-speed rail service quickly by purchasing available rail-switching technology. "It would cost peanuts — so cheap it's embarrassing," he says.

Matt Vanover of the Illinois Department of Transportation says the state is waiting for a report on a train-control system under development. He also says details need to be worked out with Amtrak, Union Pacific, the federal government and Chicago.

Will the public get on board?

High-speed rail service in the USA is going nowhere because it doesn't make economic sense, says William Garrison, co-author of the book Tomorrow's Transportation and a professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley.

"What passenger rail lacks isn't money. It's riders," he says. "These high-speed rail proposals are big boondoggles. We're reluctant to subsidize high-speed rail for good reason: There's not a market for it."

John Spychalski, a transportation expert and professor at Penn State, says the problem is lack of political will. "People didn't bat an eyelash when we decided to build the interstate system in 1956."

He says high-speed passenger rail has technical, as well as financial problems. Railroad tracks in the USA are almost all privately owned by freight companies that run slower, heavier trains. "They aren't too keen on operating a 125-mph passenger train when they're running heavy freight trains at 30 to 70 mph," Spychalski says.