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


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