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Thursday, Jan. 29, 2004 02:20 pm

Happy rails

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Passengers boarding Amtrak in Springfield last month
Photo by Job Conger

More people are riding the rails in Illinois and across the country, a sign that things are looking up for the government's money-losing passenger rail service.

"We've had several months of record ridership, dating back to September," Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari tells Illinois Times. He credits an improving economy and better service and marketing for the striking growth.

"Statewide, for the Thanksgiving holidays, we carried about 595,000 people. That's a record for us," Magliari says. "And the November traffic for the system nationwide set an all-time record since Amtrak began operating in 1971."

In Springfield, where Amtrak has a downtown station about five blocks from the Capitol, ridership for the October-December period was 26,162, an increase of 5,724, or 28 percent, compared with the same period in 2002. That growth's been mirrored throughout the system: Ridership during the quarter for the Texas Eagle (Chicago to San Antonio) was 57,200, up 38.5 percent. Shorter-route ridership on The Statehouse (Chicago to St. Louis) and Ann Rutledge (Chicago to Kansas City) was 51,418, up 19.9 percent.

Only two years ago, Illinois politicians worried that Amtrak's fiscal woes would end key routes serving the state. Then, routes on the chopping block included the famed Empire Builder, a two-day trek between Chicago and the Pacific Northwest. The Empire Builder now is among the many Amtrak lines showing passenger growth.

Rail's newfound popularity is due, in part, to congestion at the nation's airports where security-related delays make train travel attractive. Competitive fares also help.

One-way fares to Chicago range from $16 to $45. The trains arrive at Union Station, just two blocks from a hotel, and close to the Sears Tower, "if you want to do some sightseeing," Magliari says. One-way fares to St. Louis, where the Amtrak station is located in a temporary downtown facility near the Savvis Center, range from $11 to $32.

The low fares also are due to help from the state: the Illinois Department of Transportation contributes $12 million to help defray operating expenses on the Chicago to Quincy, Chicago to St. Louis, Chicago to Carbondale and Chicago to Milwaukee lines, says Matt Vanover, IDOT spokesman. Vanover says it's unclear whether subsidies will be included in next year's state budget.

There appears to be light at the end of the tunnel. Congress last week approved a budget that includes a $1.225 billion subsidy, a 20 percent increase, to keep the rail service running this year. "The federal government cannot ignore Amtrak any longer," says U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, a long-time rail advocate who pushed for Amtrak funding. "An effective passenger rail system reduces congestion on our nation's highways and decreases air pollution."

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