'That's Amtrak time'
CHAMPAIGN — When Amy Van Rheeden travels with Amtrak, she always anticipates extra time to sit back, read a book and encounter train delays.
She's come to expect it as a frequent visitor to the Illinois Terminal in downtown Champaign.
"Earlier, I texted my aunt to tell her what time I would be arriving today," Van Rheeden said Thursday morning as she waited for the Chicago-bound train. "But I made sure to tell her: 'That's Amtrak time, so who knows?'"
It's been a tough two weeks for the railroad companies held responsible for the long delays and limited access local travelers have had to put up with:
— On Aug. 6, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Gov. Pat Quinn announced they'd co-signed a letter to Amtrak's top executives, asking for more rail service on the popular Chicago-Champaign-Carbondale corridor.
Over the past eight years, they noted, there has been a 117 percent increase in ridership on Amtrak's trains through Champaign. The current three round-trips a day are no longer enough, they said.
— Two weeks later, Durbin traveled to Champaign to voice his concerns about "unacceptable" train delays, only this time in person. Wednesday's meeting with national and local officials focused on freight train interference with passenger trains, which Durbin said are the reason the local Illini and Saluki lines had an on-time arrival rate of just 48.9 percent this fiscal year.
Durbin cast the blame on railway company Canadian National for not giving passenger trains preference on the tracks, as required by law.
"Late trains and unnecessary delays turn passengers away from Amtrak and can slow the incredible growth we have seen," Durbin said.
He didn't have to look far for a passenger to back his claim.
Carly Smith, an international graduate student at the University of Illinois, said she has taken the Amtrak train from Champaign to Chicago over 25 times the past six years. She has experienced plenty of delays but none lasting longer than an hour, she said.
Calling delays "definitely" normal, Smith said she always carves out at least half a day to travel to Chicago on Amtrak, just so she has some wiggle room if things go wrong.
"I mainly travel to Chicago for a doctor's appointment and I would never make the appointment for right when I needed to get (there)," she said.
Monticello's Dwaine Keller rides Amtrak to go to Cubs games and visit his daughter. He remains an Amtrak fan but has been frequently frustrated by the freight train issue.
"It's kind of comical: the delays where one has to wait for the freight trains are pretty predictable. They seem kind of built in," Keller said. "It's so predictable that I tell my wife to pick me up 15 minutes late."
Still, the long waits are enough to make him change his routine but not his preferred mode of travel.
As Van Rheeden put it, "Beats driving."