Thursday, January 17, 2008

City of Champaign weighs in on Amtrak route changes

The City of Champaign wants to improve, not worsen, their Amtrak service to Chicago.

Makes sense.

Today's News-Gazette has a story by Mike Monson explaining how the owner of the track between Carbondale and Chicago (the CN Railroad) plans to abandon the last five miles of track before Union Station if they get approval to buy another Chicago-area railroad.

Here's the heart of the matter (as concisely explained as only a journalist can do):

According to a city memo on the issue, Canadian National has asked the Surface Transportation Board to allow it to purchase the Elgin, Joliet and Eastern Railway in order to bypass downtown Chicago. Canadian National is seeking expedited hearings on the request, city planner T.J. Blakeman said.

The purchase of the Elgin, Joliet and Eastern Railway would not necessarily cause a delay in Amtrak lines, but Blakeman said Canadian National has also indicated its eventual intention to abandon, with two other owners, the St. Charles Air Way, an elevated line that leads into Chicago's Union Station.

That abandonment wouldn't be a problem if Amtrak were to use the Norfolk Southern Railroad at Grand Crossing, near 75th Street and South Chicago Avenue in Chicago, as a route into Union Station. In fact, such a route would actually save 15 to 20 minutes each trip, Blakeman said.

But the problem is that a new connection would have to be built at Grand Crossing, at an estimated cost of $25 million, before that would be a feasible alternative.

Otherwise, Amtrak lines rerouted into Union Station could take longer than they currently do, he said.

And at this point, it isn't clear which entity would be responsible for constructing the connection, he said.

I hope the State of Illinois takes the same stance that the City of Champaign just took on the issue.

And I hope every state and municipality along the entire City of New Orleans corridor takes the same view.

This purchase could really improve passenger rail -- *if* we get the right investments in infrastructure (particularly the Grand Crossing).

It's so dumb that we have to back in to Union Station now for all Champaign-Carbondale-Memphis-New Orleans travel.

If we can fix that 20 minute problem and improve freight rail flows in Illinois, all the better.

For background on the issue, see the Midwest High Speed Rail Association's fact sheet on the CN and the EJ&E.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Quad Cities expansion closer to reality -- study released today shows cheaper cost

Good news!

Amtrak released a study of expansion to the Quad Cities and the numbers look great.

The press release from Amtrak announcing the release (as well as the meat of the study) and the the study itself on the Illinois Department of Transportation's website are both linked.

The capital costs to upgrade the track are around $14 to $23 million -- so incredibly cheap compared to a highway or airport expansion!

Since we're in the midst of discussion about a casino-fueled capital investment by the State, allocating $14 to $23 million for expanding Amtrak to the Quad Cities should be an easy priority.

We had thought the cost might be in the $45 to $60 million range. As it turns out, it could be, if the route would have connected up with existing service at Joliet. Instead, it's much cheaper to connect up with existing service west of Princeton on the Quincy-Chicago line instead of looping through LaSalle and Morri to hook up with the St. Louis-Chicago line at Joliet.

The annual operating cost is projected to be around $8.5 million to run two daily round-trips (at speeds faster than driving). Ridership is projected to be between 90,000 and 110,000 depending on how fast the trip takes (the faster the trip, the higher the ridership and thus the more ticket revenue is generated). That ticket revenue is projected to be around $2 million, leaving a $6 million annual operating cost for the state to run those trains. Again, such a cheap way to invest in economic development for the entire region!

It looks like Amtrak and IDOT did a very nice job with this report, so congratulations to them (as well as to Senator Dick Durbin who showed a lot of leadership to help get Amtrak expansion to new markets on the political map after the General Assembly and the Governor doubled frequency on existing routes in 2006).

Note to other elected officials in the nation: score some points by convening local stakeholders around Amtrak expansion or increased frequencies. People love it and you'll be doing your job. Just ask Dick Durbin.

Thanks and congratulations also to the Quad Cities Passenger Rail Coalition, a project of the Quad Cities Chamber of Commerce, for organizing and mobilizing thousands of residents behind this investment.

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