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Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2007 02:32 pm

On the right track

The Washington power shift begins to pay off for Amtrak, but the railroad still has far to go

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Untitled Document Tuesday, 9:18 a.m.: The train arrives at the Alton station on time, and a mother, cradling her baby, boards. Once seated, she pounds on the window. The clamor interrupts an elderly couple’s card game and wakes the man across the aisle. On the platform below, Grandma waves goodbye. Welcome aboard the northbound Texas Eagle, one of five Amtrak passenger trains that now offer daily service between St. Louis and Chicago. Since departing St. Louis 45 minutes earlier, the Eagle has lumbered by rusty steel mills and oil refineries that parallel the Mississippi River. From here, the train gathers speed across the Illinois prairie, flashing by furrowed farm fields, grain elevators, and orchards on its way to Springfield. In an hour, it arrives in the capital city. The sound of the baby crying is free. The cost of the trip: $12. More than 3 million travelers bought Amtrak tickets to or from Illinois destinations last year, according to the Illinois Department of Transportation. The agency estimates that monthly ridership on state-sponsored trains on the Chicago-St. Louis runs grew by nearly 50 percent between November 2005 and November 2006. That increase is due to the $24 million appropriated by the Illinois Legislature, which doubled the state’s allocation last year. The added money funded two more daily trains on the route. It also increased service on other downstate routes by adding one train between Chicago and Quincy and another between Chicago and Carbondale. Under a bipartisan proposal put forward last week in the U.S. Senate, Illinois passenger rail service may continue to surge. Legislation sponsored by U.S. Sens. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., and Trent Lott, R-Miss., would allocate $3.2 billion annually to support Amtrak over the next six years. Approximately $300 million a year would be earmarked to provide federal matching funds to encourage states to invest in Amtrak. In its last session, the Senate passed a similar bill, 93-6, but it died in the House of Representatives. The bill’s chance of passage has been greatly enhanced now that Democrats control both houses of Congress. If passed, the federal matching funds would allow Illinois to upgrade tracks and make other infrastructure improvements necessary for more efficient passenger rail service. U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, a co-sponsor of the bill, last week talked to Amtrak president and CEO Alex Kummant to press for future federal funding of Illinois passenger routes, including proposals to extend service to Rock Island, Peoria, and the Quad Cities. “Amtrak provides quick, cost-effective, and reliable public ground transportation to 30 [Illinois] communities,” Durbin says. “We need to add the communities in northwest and north-central Illinois to that list.”
Durbin is a member of the Senate Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee and a longtime supporter of passenger rail service. More important, he’s now the No. 2 leader in the Democratic-controlled Senate. But a favorable political climate isn’t the only thing helping Amtrak along. High fuel prices are making passenger rail service popular again.  “[Amtrak] gives people another option to get around other than pay gasoline prices, which could ricochet from $2 to $3.50 [a gallon] in the course of a year,” says Marc Magliari, an Amtrak spokesman. Richard Harnish, executive director of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association, in Chicago, is tickled by the sudden change in Amtrak’s fortunes.
“It’s very exciting that the senators have chosen to make this such a priority,” he says. Harnish estimates that the extra federal funding would permit improvements that could shave almost two hours off Amtrak’s current Chicago-St. Louis schedule, cutting the elapsed time for the 282-mile trip down to three hours and forty-five minutes. But those figures still pale compared with the efficiency of government-subsidized passenger rail service elsewhere in the world. High-speed electric trains in Europe, for instance, have traveled at averages of 120 mph and more for decades. A French train set the world record of 321 mph in 1990. By contrast, IDOT rules mandate that Amtrak trains between Chicago and St. Louis not exceed 110 mph. With the exception of an improved section from Springfield to Mazonia in Grundy County, however, track conditions prevent the maintenance of that speed. North of Dwight, Ill., the speed limit is set at 79 mph. The trains are also required to travel at much lower speeds in the Chicago and St. Louis metropolitan areas.  “There are a lot of people all over the country that recognize that we have to have high-quality passenger trains in order for us to be competitive,” Harnish says. “We’re going to hurt because we’re not doing this in this country. It’s going to hurt very soon.”
The chief drawback to achieving a high-speed rail system in the United States has nothing to do with technology, Harnish says. “It has to do with a lack of commitment to make it happen. It’s all about getting our political leaders to make a commitment to do what’s necessary to keep our country competitive.  “We had trains radiating out from Chicago that went faster than 100 mph in all directions . . . in 1936.”
C ongress created the National Railroad Passenger Corp., otherwise known as Amtrak, in 1970 to take over the unprofitable passenger services that private freight railroads were then obligated to offer. By the 1960s, ridership had plummeted as a result of competition from the auto and aviation fields, which both benefited from hefty federal subsidies of one sort or another. In the beginning, Amtrak acted as a makeshift life-support system for an anemic mode of public transportation. To stem the hemorrhage of dollars, it immediately slashed more than half of the existing passenger routes that had previously been maintained by the freight railroads. By default, the federal government had become the owner of a hobbled national passenger rail service — but the government didn’t own the tracks on which its trains operated. Under the new arrangement, Amtrak paid the privately held railroads for access to their rights of way. The same system remains in place today. In fiscal 2005, for example, Amtrak paid six participating private freight carriers $92 million for the use of their tracks. That figure represents only a tad of the annual combined revenues of the participating freight lines. After being relieved of their debt-ridden passenger services, the railroads felt no responsibility to give them the green light over their profitable freight operations. Amtrak’s concerns were literally and metaphorically sidetracked. Timetables became wish lists. Over the long haul, passenger service lurched along from one congressional appropriation to the next. Outside the heavily traveled Northeastern corridor, the upgrading of tracks to passenger standards was more an exception than a rule. But there is another reason for the slow travel times between Chicago and St. Louis, and it predates Amtrak’s inception by more than a century. Much of the route, now owned by Union Pacific, follows a right of way created in the middle of the 19th century. Originally chartered in 1847 as the Alton & Sangamon Railroad, its builders never envisioned their railway serving St. Louis. Instead, the line linked the fledgling Illinois capital of Springfield with the then-prosperous Mississippi River port of Alton. After the railroad was extended northward, the owners changed its name to the Chicago & Alton Railroad. As a result, Chicago-St. Louis passenger trains in the 21st century still creep to and from Alton on a maze of intersecting tracks that serve freight yards on the east side of the Mississippi. Efforts to improve the antiquated system have been stopped dead on the tracks for years. In 1992, the U.S. Department of Transportation officially designated the Chicago-St. Louis route a high-speed-rail corridor. Through Durbin’s efforts, Congress allocated $500,000 to study the project. The next year, the Clinton administration backed the high-speed-rail corridor. Durbin then said that the plan could make rail travel twice as fast as driving a car between the two cities and half as expensive as taking a plane. If the proposal received funding and moved forward without any hitches, Durbin said, the system could be operational as early as 1997. It’s been 10 years, and passengers are still waiting at the station for high-speed train travel to arrive in Illinois. First, President Bill Clinton reversed his position, choosing to derail the high-speed-rail plan in favor of balancing the budget. Then the project suffered further delays after the Republicans took control of Congress. Nonetheless, Durbin remained supportive of the idea. Illinois allocated state money to help maintain existing service while using its limited federal funds to make track improvement, study grade-crossing safety, and prepare an environmental-impact statement. By 2003, it appeared that the state’s efforts were for naught. That’s when the Bush administration began pushing a proposal to dismantle the entire national passenger rail system by cutting off all federal funding. The Bush plan would have eliminated Amtrak’s long-distance routes and shifted much of the remaining financial burden to the states. But even the then-Republican-led Congress couldn’t agree on such a drastic move, and the House voted down the measure on a voice vote in 2005. As it stands, federal funding has not been adequate to support the level of service deemed necessary by some states. At last count, 14 states, including Illinois, pay for a portion of Amtrak’s operating expenses within their borders. “If the state wasn’t paying us to operate these trains, they wouldn’t operate,” says Magliari, the Amtrak spokesman. “All you would have is two trains between Chicago and St. Louis, not five. You’d have no service to Quincy. You’d have one train between Chicago and Carbondale.”
Illinois is second only to California in its allocations. The state government is hoping that its investments will soon be matched by the grants that are part of the Amtrak bill introduced in the Senate last week. “We’ve been doing this for at least 20 years,” says Matt Vanover, an IDOT spokesman. “It’s something you will see more states move toward, but as they [Congress] begin to debate this we would certainly hope that they would take into account those previous investments taken by states that have [already] partnered with Amtrak.”

T uesday, 6:10 p.m.: The southbound Texas Eagle is about a half-hour out of Springfield. In the dining car, a passenger from San Antonio strikes up a conversation with a stranger who shares her table. Her counterpart is a pro boxer turned trainer. He’s heading for Killeen, Texas, to prepare two up-and-coming fighters for bouts in Miami that will air on cable TV in March. These two passengers appear to have nothing in common but the time of their dinner reservations and the way in which they have chosen to travel. The two swap Amtrak horror stories. They complain about the food. She grouses about the surly disposition of a crew member. But it’s clear from their appetites and their presence that they appreciate the cuisine and the train’s accommodations more than they let on. He reminisces about his glory days. She tells a tale about the commercial airline pilot in the sleeping compartment across from hers who keeps asking dumb questions because he’s never been on train before. They share a laugh at the aviator’s expense. Outside, the lights of Carlinville flicker by. The engineer sounds his horn in the inky darkness of a winter evening. Next station stop, Alton. Alton, Illinois.
C.D. Stelzer is a St. Louis-based freelance writer and frequent contributor to Illinois Times.
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