Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Call for a New Peoria Service

How about a Galesburg-Peoria commuter line?


John Pulliam
Sunday, December 10, 2006
The few months I have been writing this column have been filled with suggestions. How to increase tourism, how to fix the mall, wish lists galore. As an early Christmas present to our readers, I have saved my most outrageous, uh, I mean, visionary, idea for the holiday season.
I believe I have said I wish the state had put a commuter line from the Quad Cities to Bloomington or Champaign in the median of Interstate 74. In Chicago, commuter trains run on tracks in the median of some expressways. It works quite well.
In all fairness, when the interstate system was built, gas was probably about 30 cents a gallon - or less - and the commuter line would be nothing but rusted rails cluttering up I-74 by now. But that was then and this is now.
Recently I read that cities in the Illinois Valley, such as LaSalle-Peru and Ottawa, are looking at using existing freight tracks for a commuter line to Chicago. It makes sense. With the cost of gas and jobs plentiful in The Windy City, but housing very expensive, there's a good chance the line would be used. Especially if gas some day reaches $4 or $5 per gallon, as we know it will.
What about Galesburg? Ever since Maytag and Butler abandoned the Burg, many people have been paying big bucks to commute to Alcoa and John Deere in the Quad Cities and Caterpillar in Peoria. Driving that far every day is expensive, tiring and causes you to need a new car about twice a month. Why not take the train? (Because there isn't one.)
BNSF has a rail line into Peoria from Galesburg. I have no idea of the condition of that line. Geesh, I'm just the newspaper columnist. Would it take expensive repairs to handle the speed of a commuter train? I don't know, but at one time we, meaning Galesburg, looked at spending $360 million to relocate the former Santa Fe tracks south of town. Yes, the powers-that-be came to their senses and didn't pursue that boondoggle, but this has to be more practical than that. I hope.
Not only could a commuter line take Galesburg workers to Peoria, but Peoria's nearest Amtrak service is Galesburg and Normal. Not good for a metro area of about 350,000 people. I know Peorians would rather have a direct route to Chicago, but the commuter train could bring them to Galesburg, where they could catch Amtrak to Chicago and many other destinations. As it is, they have to drive now to catch the Amtrak anyway.
Yes, my wife has to make the commute every day and, yes, she almost was stuck three nights in Peoria, rather than two, by the recent blizzard because her car was buried by snow in a Peoria parking lot. That's just my full disclosure, it doesn't mean looking into this is a bad idea. (Although there may be other reasons why it is a bad idea.)
This train would bring more shoppers to Galesburg, keep people from moving away when they weary of the commute to Peoria and give Peoria indirect Amtrak service to Chicago and all points beyond. And, no $10 a gallon gasoline. Think about it.
Then, how about a light-rail system to the National Railroad Hall of Fame from downtown ... hmm, maybe not

Quincy trains on a roll

Sandburg ridership soars
New Amtrak train from Chicago to Quincy credited with increase

Wednesday, December 27, 2006
The Register-Mail
GALESBURG - Amtrak officials are happy with ridership totals for the first month of The Carl Sandburg, the new Amtrak morning service from Chicago to Galesburg, Quincy and points in between.
Service began Oct. 30 on the state-subsidized route. The state also helps pay for Illinois Zephyr Service, which leaves Quincy in the morning and goes to Chicago. Illinois increased its Amtrak funding from $12.1 million to $24 million in the fiscal year 2007 budget in order to pay for the direct costs, including fuel and salaries. Those costs are about 75 percent of the full cost of the service, Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said in October.
New service between Chicago and Springfield and Chicago and Carbondale also was added.
Magliari said November ridership this year compared to November 2005 was 14,103, an increase of 3,634 from 10,469. That was for both the Illinois Zephyr and the Carl Sandburg. Including all service between Chicago and Galesburg, including the Southwest Chief, the California Zephyr and the state-subsidized trains, ridership was up this year from 12,885 to 16,597, an increase of 3,712.
"We're off to a great start," Magliari said, "and the response, especially in the Galesburg to Quincy corridor, has been very strong."
He cautioned, however, this is based upon the results of one month. December ridership figures will be available in about 2 1/2 weeks.
The new train is the first to give Chicago morning service to west-central Illinois. The Carl Sandburg leaves Chicago at 8 a.m., is scheduled to arrive in Galesburg at 10:39 a.m. and in Quincy at 12:15 p.m. Then train leaves the Gem City at 5:30 p.m., arrives in Galesburg at 6:56 p.m. and in Chicago at 9:48 p.m.
"I would say we're up more than 3,000 on the Chicago to Galesburg run," Magliari said. "Most of that on the new state-subsidized route."
He said there are few available seats for Galesburg riders on the long-distance trains.
"The new morning departure from Chicago and the new afternoon train from Quincy gives people a lot more flexibility," he said.
Other Amtrak service from Chicago to Galesburg requires Chicagoans to stay overnight, if this is their destination and they plan to ride Amtrak home.
"I want to see how we do with Railroad Days in the summer," Magliari said.
Galesburg's two-day railroad festival, held the fourth weekend in June, has attracted enough interest to schedule excursion trains here from Chicago in previous years. Now, it will be possible for Chicago railfans to board the train at Union Station in the morning, spend the day here, have time to eat dinner, then catch the train and be back in the city before 10 p.m.
Magliari said an earlier concern about the freight lines getting used to the new service still is being addressed.
"We've seen an improvement in the on-time performance," he said. "There's still some capacity issues we're going to have to work through."
The first day of the Carl Sandburg saw it run into a number of delays as the passenger train was forced to wait on sidings to accommodate freight trains. Magliari said there is double track from Chicago to Galesburg but only a single track from Galesburg to Quincy, causing the capacity problem.
"We're working with IDOT (Illinois Department of Transportation) and the BNSF Railway to work with these capacity issues," Magliari said. "We expected them going in."

Wisconsin service lacking

Passenger railroad will skip central Wis.

By Tracey Ludvik
For Central Wisconsin Sunday

Despite progress on the Midwest Rail Initiative, passenger rail service won't be returning to central Wisconsin anytime soon. But those who want to travel by the initiative's new high-speed trains will be provided better access.

According to Randall Wade, a member of the Wisconsin Department of Transportation's intercity rail systems committee, the high-speed rail initiative would expand Amtrak service to include Madison, Green Bay and Appleton. Currently, Amtrak travels between Milwaukee and Minneapolis through Portage, Wisconsin Dells and La Crosse.

The Midwest Rail Initiative is a collaborative effort among eight Midwest states and Wisconsin to expand and modernize the region's passenger rail system.

"Unfortunately, there are no short-term (rail service) plans for Wausau," said Wade, who added that an Amtrak shuttle bus would take Wausau passengers to the station in Appleton for connecting service to points across the nation.

Wade said he's not sure why Amtrak doesn't serve the area But he said it's likely due to the initial contract Amtrak made with Canadian Pacific Railroad to maintain their train tracks between Milwaukee and Minneapolis to handle passenger trains.

Amtrak is the federally supported passenger train system developed when private passenger trains stopped service.

Wade said Amtrak currently takes customers by bus from Wausau to Milwaukee for connecting routes.

Robert Taylor, an Amtrak reservation specialist, said the public rail service uses Lamers Bus Lines in Mosinee to transport customers to Milwaukee once a day. Taylor added that westbound passengers can catch the Empire Builderat a train platform in Portage.

Last week, Wade was in Washington, D.C., lobbying for federal support to implement the rail initiative in Wisconsin and provide better service here.

Passenger rail proponents are encouraging potential passengers to contact their federal lawmakers in support of the rail lines. Wisconsin lawmakers already have approved $50 million for the Midwest Rail Initiative, including projects to upgrade tracks, buy new locomotives and expand the Amtrak service. But that funding represents only 20 percent of the total cost of the project, said David Rasmussen, a spokesman for Wisconsin Association of Rail Passengers. The initiative needs the remaining $200 million from the federal government to get the project under way.

"We need to upgrade the tracks and purchase high-speed locomotives," said Wade, who explained the new trains would travel up to 110 miles per hour compared to the current maximum of 79 miles per hour.

Ronald Beckman, 68, is a local train enthusiast who took his family on vacation by rail when his children were growing up. He now travels by train to visit his children, but says it's inconvenient. "It's a problem where to leave your car. It's a security issue.

"I think an overwhelming majority of people -- historians and economists -- (say) it really doesn't make much sense for autos and trucks (to be the primary mode of transportation)," Beckman said.

He explained that central Wisconsin mimicked the nation when the federal government began underwriting the construction of highways for cars.

"One thing about Americans is we've gotten too comfortable with cars."

Thursday, December 14, 2006

General Accounting Office releases a report on National Policy and Strategies for Intercity Rail

The GAO released a report laying out the state of passenger rail in the United States. It's important to remember that Amtrak is not a synonym for national passenger rail; it's just the current provider with most of its structure still the original 70s-era design.

We don't have a clear goal for national passenger rail.

We don't have a clear role for stakeholders (Congress, Amtrak, the corporations that own and maintain the tracks and the state governments).

And we definitely do not have a reliable source of funds.

We need the three of those set up, as most other nations enjoy.

The full report is here.

Now, the report suggests we should dump the long-distance routes in favor of so-called corridor routes of less than 500 miles. We take the position that long-distance routes are misunderstood and undervalued. We think we should be adding frequencies to our long-distance routes, especially those that regularly sell out. But this report is worth a read (if you're into passenger rail policy).

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Szabo and the United Transportation Union celebrate huge ridership and advocate for more frequency

The United Transportation Union in Illinois is fully dedicated to advocating for modern passenger rail service. Their website here includes a great analysis from Joe Szabo on the centrality of frequency for passenger rail networks. Illinois bold move for decent frequencies has paid off in a big way and every other state (not to mention Congress) should embrace frequency of service.

Ridership breakthrough! Chicago-St. Louis passenger traffic virtually doubles in first month after new trains added—Carbondale, Quincy corridors also see strong growth

SPRINGFIELD (Dec. 12)—Intercity passenger-train ridership in Illinois skyrocketed in November after Amtrak began operating four additional daily frequencies paid for by the Illinois Department of Transportation.

IDOT said the 284-mile Chicago-Springfield-St. Louis corridor, which got two new state-sponsored daily round trips, was the system’s growth leader--up 91 per cent over November 2005.

But growth also was impressive on the 310-mile Chicago-Champaign-Carbondale corridor, where a new morning departure from each end of the line drove ridership up by 61 per cent, and on the 258-mile Chicago-Galesburg-Quincy route, where a second daily frequency raised patronage 35 per cent.

“This was what we’ve been trying to say all along—there is a pent-up demand for inter-city passenger rail, and increased frequencies raise ridership exponentially,” said UTU Illinois Legislative Director Joseph C. Szabo. “Our union’s campaign for an expanded passenger-rail program in Illinois is paying off big-time, and it’s paying off quick.

“A 91-per cent increase in the first month of operation is unheard of,” Szabo said. “Illinois’ new trains only started running on October 30, and in their first full month of operation one of the routes nearly doubled its business. Even in California, which is the national leader in state-sponsored passenger trains, they’ve never seen a one-month jump in ridership on that scale.”

Szabo said that contrary to what passenger-train critics had claimed, the new frequencies are building new markets rather than cannibalizing riders from the existing trains.

“There’s been a shifting of some riders from the old trains to the new ones, but it’s negligible,” he said.

“Look at train No. 305, the 5:15 p.m. departure from Chicago to St. Louis,” Szabo said. “In November 2005, when it was one of only three daily trains and the last departure of the day from Chicago to Downstate, it carried 6,074 passengers.

“In November 2006, when it was one of five daily departures, including a new 7 p.m. departure that lets travelers linger in Chicago for dinner, it carried 6,047 passengers, meaning it lost less than one passenger per day to the two new trains. Meanwhile, the new trains added significant numbers of their own new riders.”

Szabo said such performance refutes skeptics who long have claimed that rail travel in the U.S. is a “niche” market with a low, fixed level of demand that would not rise if more service were provided.

“Illinois has totally demolished that kind of logic,” he said. “The market for rail travel is much bigger than anyone has imagined.

“Frequency is the key,” Szabo said. “When people have only one daily round trip to ride, they essentially have no choices. When we had only one 6 p.m. departure from Chicago to Quincy and one 6 a.m. departure from Quincy to Chicago, people could not make a day trip from Chicago to Quincy. They had to take the evening train out, spend a night in a hotel in order to see Quincy in daylight, and then spend another night in a hotel before catching the 6 a..m. train back to Chicago. No wonder people stuck with their cars.”

By doubling the number of frequencies, IDOT actually tripled the number of choices, Szabo said:

“Now they can take the morning train out and the evening train back on the same day, or take the evening train out, spend a night and a day in Quincy and take the evening train back on the second day, or do it the old way and spend two nights and a day in Quincy,” he said.

“The bottom line is that as the frequencies grow by addition the choices grow by multiplication—and so does the ridership.”

Szabo said continuing ridership growth also will depend on settlement of other issues that currently plague the trains.

“We have to get on-time performance over 90 per cent or better,” he said. “Nothing less is acceptable. Reliability is extremely important to people when they make their travel decisions. We also have to improve overall train speeds, and reduce trip times, which is why infrastructure development is so important.

“Likewise, customer service has to be absolutely top-notch at all times. The state is funding these trains and they have very high expectations from Amtrak, the freight partners, and even our train crews. All of us must excel in order to continue to expand the network.”

But as for passenger-train demand, Szabo sees no problem:

“The new trains have proven it’s virtually bottomless,” he said. “As long as we can get the quality up and keep it up, any quantity we add to the system will find its market and keep it. The future of passenger rail service in Illinois is whatever we want to make it. Think of the job growth….”