Monday, February 11, 2008

Senator Dick Durbin demands better on-time performance for Amtrak trains on Chicago-St. Louis route

It's nice to have the #2 man in the U.S. Senate really care about passenger rail.

On Friday, Illinois Senator Dick Durbin released the following letter to the Union Pacific railroad. The Union Pacific (UP, in railroad parlance) owns and operates the tracks between Joliet, Bloomington-Normal, Springfield and St. Louis. This route is probably the nation's best opportunity for high-speed rail in the next few years, since passenger demand is huge and growing with existing Amtrak service and there really isn't much freight traffic to block Amtrak trains.

There is only one track for most of the line, and the UP has let much of the infrastructure deteriorate below a state of good repair. The result is that trains are forced to slow down and often sit and wait in a siding for another one to pass by.

We need to find a way to generate some investment in that route, whether from corporate dollars from the UP's treasury, Amtrak funds or public dollars from the federal or state government. That investment will result in passenger trains that are faster and more reliable than driving (and with a bit of work, flying), which will make everyone better off by lessening the horrible traffic congestion and airport congestion that mucks up our economy, as well as by strengthening our regional economy with increased mobility.

Here's the letter and congratulations to Senator Durbin for his leadership. I look forward to the UP's response as the UP and the other freight railroads are our partners in finding a way to develop modern passenger rail in the United States.

February 8, 2008

James R. Young

Chairman, President, and CEO

Union Pacific Corporation

1400 Douglas Street

19th Floor

Omaha, Nebraska 68179

Dear Mr. Young:

Thank you for meeting with me this week to discuss passenger rail in Illinois. As we discussed, passenger rail operated by Amtrak has broken ridership and revenue records in Illinois. In our meeting we agreed that we must address an important issue standing in the way of the continued success of Amtrak in Illinois: on-time performance.

Sustaining robust ridership numbers depends heavily on Amtrak trains arriving on time and avoiding unnecessary delays. Late trains cost Amtrak millions of dollars in operating costs and untold riders, who turn away from frustration with late arrivals.

The Lincoln Service along the Union Pacific track from Chicago to St. Louis was late 53 percent of the time during fiscal year 2007. Amazingly, during that same time, ridership increased an impressive 56 percent. Clearly, there is strong demand for passenger train service in Illinois. Even strong demand, though, will not withstand perpetual delays. Lackluster on-time performance leads to lackluster passenger demand. That is an experience we cannot afford.

To eliminate these delays, Union Pacific must make the necessary capital investments and management decisions that will serve both the railroad and Amtrak service.

First, UP must improve track conditions along the Lincoln Service route. Rusty track and sidings along this corridor interfere with electric currents that detect the presence of trains and activate road crossings lights and gates.

The poor track conditions create significant delays on this route. Without being able to detect other trains, trains operating in sidings must come to a complete stop at some crossings. When this happens, a conductor must disembark and literally flag the train across a crossing with a red flag.

Flagging is an antiquated response to a problem that could easily be solved with investments, such as Incremental Train Control System technology. Fixing the track and updating the railroad’s technologies would increase on-time performance significantly.

Second, the signal system along the UP track is well beyond its useful life. In many places between Joliet and Manzonia, wiring hangs from poles and touches the ground. This situation has left the railroad vulnerable to theft of copper wiring and adds to delays for Amtrak trains. Bringing this signaling system into a state of good repair is essential to improving Amtrak’s on-time performance.

Third, UP must improve its planning, training and oversight to create clear routes for passenger trains between St. Louis and Chicago. Amtrak’s operating agreement with UP does not permit slow order delays along the route. However, poor dispatching procedures and subsequent slow orders have caused meetings of freight and passenger trains, causing regular delays along the route.

Finally, it is time to determine UP’s role in the future of Amtrak service along the Chicago-St. Louis route. This portion of track is unique in the national system because it does not have heavy amounts of freight traffic like most other Amtrak routes. This situation makes the line ripe for a high speed rail demonstration project that would move passengers to and from Chicago and St. Louis at speeds significantly faster than car travel. Eliminating the delays along this route takes us closer to the day we can make that possibility a reality.

Passenger rail is on the brink of a renaissance that could take cars off the road, relieve congested highways, minimize emissions that are harmful to air quality, and lessen our dependence on foreign oil. Ushering passenger rail into that renaissance requires a serious commitment from the freight railroads that own and maintain the track where Amtrak trains operate.

I look forward to hearing from you about UP’s actions to increase the on-time performance of Amtrak trains in Illinois. Thank you again for meeting with me this week. I stand ready to assist you in ensuring that rail passengers in Illinois are given the most reliable, viable and quickest train service possible.


Richard J. Durbin

U.S. Senator

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

"We need to find a way to generate some investment in that route, whether from corporate dollars from the UP's treasury, Amtrak funds or public dollars from the federal or state government"

As a taxpayer I am against using tax dollars to fund repair of a private property. It is not taxpayer's responsibility to repair said tracks. Union Pacific or another private entity should invest in high-speed passenger rail.

10:41 AM  
Blogger Christopher Parker said...

Timothy, are you suggesting we shut down the highways and airports or nationalize the railroads?

The reason to use tax dollars is because that investment will bring a public benefit. The benefit happens no matter who owns the tracks.

Sure the Union Pacific will benifit from that investment too (though not as much as you probably think) - but that benifit is small compared to the private properties that benefit from government investment in interstates. I refer of course to trucking companies that do not pay the full cost of highway maintenance (let alone cost of capital).

If you truly believe what you say, then fine - privatize the highways and airports and let everyone stand on a level playing field. Only then would there be financial incentives for private investment in high speed rail without government support.

1:20 PM  
Blogger Dan Johnson said...

Christopher is right. Infrastructure is a good use of taxpayer dollars, whether a highway, a street or a railroad. Our history happens to be one of private companies raising capital to lay railroads before the government laid down concrete roads for cars. So now we have private companies owning and operating infrastructure that public agencies (Amtrak and commuter rail agencies) use as well. It isn't easy to figure out how to invest in that infrastructure, but ideological statements do not help to solve the problem.

Every private transportation company uses public dollars and public infrastructure.

3:47 PM  

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