Thursday, January 12, 2006

Whistle-stop tour from Springfield to St. Louis a big success


Legislators and advocates hit the rails this week to kick off the Illinois General Assembly with a call for more Amtrak service, and the Alton, Belleville and St. Louis press picked it up.

We got a lot of press. Here's a front-page, above-the-fold article from the Alton Telegraph.

The link is here.

Advocates call for more train trips between St. Louis, Chicago
LINDA N. WELLER, The Telegraph

ALTON -- The state needs two more trains a day running between St. Louis and Chicago, among other additions, state representatives and train travel advocates said Tuesday. The contingent, including representatives from Amtrak and the Midwest High Speed Rail Association in Chicago, stopped Tuesday in Alton to tout the need for Gov. Rod Blagojevich to allocate $15 million more in the forthcoming state budget to cover a total of four additional train trips per day.

Of that, $8.9 million would be used for the two additional daily trips between St. Louis and Chicago, increasing the number from three to five. The rest of the $15 million would cover adding one more trip each day between Chicago and Carbondale, and one more between Quincy and Chicago.

The total request is for an additional $40 million, with $25 million earmarked for high-speed track improvements in the Joliet-Chicago area.

"With hundreds of million dollars going to highways, railways are getting the short end of the funding stick," said Dan Johnson-Weinberger, an attorney and lobbyist for the Midwest High Speed Rail Association.

The panel held a news conference in City Council Chambers in Alton City Hall. The "whistle stop" promotion, partly by car and partly by train, began in Chicago, stopped in Carlinville for another news conference, and continued on to St. Louis after Alton.

The tour purposely was held one day before the Illinois General Assembly starts its 2006 session. The contingent plans to ride a train to Springfield today to talk with legislators.

Members of the group said they want the public to contact their state senators and representatives, as well as the Governor’s Office, about adding train trips.

State Rep. Dan Beiser, D-Alton, said he supports adding the runs between St. Louis and Chicago to increase tourism in Alton.

"All of us from Alton know what we have going for us tourism-wise; with Amtrak, we could complement that," he said. "Not only are we in the starting phases of redeveloping that riverfront, it’s going to be the premier riverfront in all of Illinois -- except Chicago."

State Rep. Jack McGuire, D-Joliet, assistant House majority leader, said the additional trips would help tourism and be convenient for local students who ride trains to universities in Bloomington and Normal.

State Rep. Kathy Ryg, D-Vernon Hills, said Illinois needs to work with other Midwestern states in a coalition to promote railways to help members’ economies.

"There is the high cost of fuel and environmental concerns," she said. "We have to make sure we participate with our Midwest leaders. What I want to really drive home is that rail is really important in Illinois."

"This is the next logical step to promote Illinois’ economy," said state Rep. Elaine Nekritz, D-Northbrook.

Ray Lang, director of state and local affairs for Amtrak in Chicago, said the state pays the difference between "cost of service" and revenues from Illinois train trips.

He predicted annual revenue of $5.7 million from the new routes.

Lang called the current setup between St. Louis and Chicago "a bare bones service."

"The corridor is under-served," he said.

As ridership increases and an integrated transportation network improves, so will the need for even more trip offerings per day, group members said.

Even without the added trips, more people are opting to ride trains in Illinois each year, Johnson-Weinberger said. He said 33,344 passengers boarded trains in Alton last year; 30,221 in 2004; and 26,995 in 2003.

"Even without the additional service, in five or six years, we will see double-digit increases" in the number of passengers, he said.

Two trips between St. Louis and Chicago, which both the states of Illinois and Missouri subsidize, had 242,144 riders in 2005, and 212,999 in 2004. Some 3 million people rode to and from Illinois’ 29 major stations in 2004, Johnson-Weinberger said.

"In the three years since one daily round trip was added between Chicago and Milwaukee in 2002, annual ridership has increased by 100,000 people," the Rail Association brochure says.

Rick Harnish of the Rail Association said an improved rail system and more trips would more closely link northern and Southern Illinois cities."Our goal here is to get to Chicago in three to three-and-a-half hours, nine times per day" from St. Louis, after first getting five trips, he said.

The group also is proposing that the state fund the Abe Lincoln Express, which their materials say would "shave 40 minutes off the trip from Chicago to Springfield.""At two hours and 40 minutes, and an average of about $30 one-way, it would make the train a viable alternative to both the car and the plane," the association’s statement says.

Additional trips would offer more travel choice and make riding trains more convenient, the group said. Other benefits to increased train ridership that Johnson-Weinberger cited are reduced road congestion and road repair costs; fewer traffic crashes; energy conservation; competitive edge for business; conservation of energy; cleaner air; and better preparedness to move people during an emergency.

The Rail Association brochure says if the Chicago-St. Louis corridor is completed, "It would save more than 6.5 million gallons of fuel each year by taking thousands of cars off the road."