Amtrak Looking To Add Routes Through Champaign
Amtrak ridership in Illinois has risen in recent years - up almost 85 percent from 2006 through last year. That trend developed after the rail service added routes. Now the train service could grow more in the future.
In 2006, lines branching out from Chicago that went to Carbondale, Quincy and St. Louis added trips. Then there's the ongoing construction on tracks, that's supposed to make way for so-called "high speed rail" on line that runs through Bloomington and Springfield, and into Missouri.
There's a potential for more expansion going forward.
At the request of U.S. Senator Dick Durbin and Gov. Pat Quinn, spokesman Marc Magliari said Amtrak will begin looking into adding onto the service that runs through the eastern part of the state to southern Illinois.
"There are days the train sells out," he said. "There are days you can walk into the Illinois Terminal station (in Champaign), and see the waiting room overflowing. So there certainly is a lot of demand. The existing single-level trains are selling out on all three of these downstate routes, and the state has on order, to be built in Illinois, double-decker equipment which will have higher capacity."
The letter from Durbin and Quinn said a formal study is necessary for future expansion. It cites a huge increase in the number of passengers taking Amtrak.
While ridership in Illinois overall went up almost 85 percent between 2006 and last year, the Chicago to Carbondale line saw ridership rise 117 percent.
Illinois has reached a deal with Amtrak to keep its trains running in the state, which prevents a threatened shutdown of service next week.
Danville-area officials say they will consider creating quiet zones where train whistles could not be blown.
Amtrak’s Hoosier State line has long been a popular way for college students at places like Purdue University in Lafayette, Indiana to travel to Chicago for concerts, sporting events and to shop, especially on weekends.
An Amtrak passenger train reached a speed of 111 mph for the first time on Friday in Illinois.
The head of the Amtrak Board of Directors says the transportation service has benefited from stable funding over the last few years.
A center dedicated to railroad education and research is being set up on the University of Illinois' Urbana-Champaign campus thanks to a $3.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation.
The NURail Center will be under the director of U of I Professor Chris Barkan. He said a lot of the work that will take place will focus on improving the safety and reliability of rail transportation. Barkan explained that will include coming up with better ways to transport hazardous materials, and addressing challenges in using rail corridors for both higher-speed passenger trains and freight trains.
"As we want to operate at higher speeds, there's a continuous quest among both the industry and government to further improve safety," Barkan said. "If you look at the data on railroad safety; they've done nothing but get better and better over the last couple of decades. And the idea is that we want to continue that trend."
The U of I is leading a consortium of other universities involved in the project, including the University of Illinois-Chicago, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Michigan Technological University, University of Kentucky, University of Tennessee and Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology.
"Illinois has the nation's best programs in rail engineering and transit system development and operation, and these UTC's (Urban Transportation Centers) will help the nation and region prepare for future freight and passenger rail needs," said U of I President Michael Hogan
There are several rail projects are underway in Illinois, including upgrading a Chicago-St. Louis rail corridor for 110 mph service.
The Illinois Department of Transportation is getting $186 million for its high-speed rail project.
U.S. Transportation Secretary LaHood awarded the money to IDOT on Wednesday. LaHood's office says the cash will be used to extend construction of the rail corridor to Joliet. That'll allow for 110-mph service along nearly 70 percent of the route.
Construction is already under way on the Chicago-St. Louis rail corridor. Work on the extension to Joliet will begin this spring.
LaHood says the Department of Transportation has invested more than $1 billion to create high-speed rail service in the Great Lakes-Midwest region. He says the project will ultimately reduce travel times and congestion while creating jobs and increasing business opportunities.
The Champaign County Board has gone on record backing high-speed rail in the Midwest.
The board supported the non-binding resolution on a 15-to-8 vote Thursday night. Republicans Jonathan Schroder and Brad Jones joined all the board's Democrats in supporting the concept. Most Republicans argued that the U.S. is hardly in a financial position to pay for the rail system, saying what funds we do have should be used to keep up current infrastructure.
Aaron Esry said the state and the U.S. don't have any money for such a project, and won't for some time.
"I don't see how we can sit here and ask potentially more taxpayer money to be spent on another program at this point and time," he said. "Get our fiscal houses -- both the state and federal -- in shape, and we can look at this. At this point and time, I'm not going to vote for it."
But Democrat Tom Betz said this country should take the lead seen in places overseas, where high-speed rail networks present a real economic advantage.
"I personally don't expect to see it happen in my lifetime in this country, and in this area," he said. "I think there are places on the East Coast where it might be more effective. But the idea of abandoning this idea strikes me as not a very open, progressive thing to do."
Meanwhile, Democrat Michael Richards cited a feasibility study underway at the University of Illinois, and the ability for private investors to help support high-speed rail. The U of I is heading up the $1.2 million study to study financing options. The results are expected by the end of 2012.
The Champaign County Board's vote came a few hours after the executive director of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association spoke in Champaign, discussing the potential for a high-speed line to Chicago. Rick Harnish said the 220-mile an hour trains would mean reaching downtown in 45 minutes, and O'Hare International Airport in just over an hour, connecting the University of Illinois to the international world.
"It becomes easier to attract the kind of staff that really keeps the U of I on the map," he said in an afternoon press conference. "It becomes easier to keep the young people that are coming here to the university - to keep them here, so that when they come up with a great idea at U of I, they can stay here and develop that."
Harnish's group calls for the 'bullet' trains, along with modernized 90-mile an hour Amtrak trains linking areas in the Midwest.
A Republican congressman who sits on a caucus of Midwest high-speed rail advocates says now is not the time to find federal money for such a project.
U.S. Representative Aaron Schock of Peoria said if high-speed rail lines become a reality in Illinois, there is a place for such a line connecting Chicago with Champaign-Urbana. But Schock said the political reality is that federal funding won't be easy to get.
"We're running a $1.6 trillion deficit," he said. "We have a highway bill that's been expired for two years. We aren't building roads and bridges and infrastructure because the motor fuel tax is down. So I think we need to take care of the infrastructure, the roads, the bridges, the airports that we have now."
Schock has supported funding for infrastructure on high-speed rail in the past. But he said neither side of the aisle in Congress has funded the idea - the only money has come from President Obama's last stimulus bill.
Schock made his comments at a political fundraiser in Champaign on Wednesday, one day before Champaign County board members scheduled to vote on a statement of support for high-speed rail.
(AP Photo/Seth Perlman, File)