Tom's Mailbag Aug. 30, 2014

Tom's Mailbag Aug. 30, 2014

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Hear from Tom Wednesday at 7:40 a.m. on WDWS.

Switching it up a bit this week. The big topic is railroads, the industry that arrived in Champaign-Urbana in 1854, just 22 months after the first newspaper opened here. We’ll also get into politics, Ameren’s transmission line, the Champaign school district and Steven Salaita.

Bringing back a second track on the Main Line of Mid-America?

“There have been several stories, especially with school starting again, about the Amtrak service serving Champaign-Urbana.  I have heard a rumor that Canadian National is looking to double track the rail line again like it was when Illinois Central owned the railway and this should greatly improve the on-time Amtrak service times.”

It turns out that you may be onto something here, although the CN — which one critic said stands for “Cooperative Never” — didn’t get back to me at all for a comment on your question.

But Mike Schafer, the editor/art director of Passenger Train Journal and a knowledgeable source on Midwestern railroads, said he thinks we’ll see the return of twin tracks through Champaign-Urbana and all of Illinois. 

And that ought to help Amtrak’s dismal on-time record and possibly lead to the expansion of passenger service between Champaign-Urbana and Chicago, although that is also a political issue since the service is largely dependent on state funding. Pat Quinn’s a big supporter; Bruce Rauner’s position is unclear. When I asked him about last week, I was cut off by his campaign “spokesperson.”

But Schafer offered a thorough and persuasive argument for the return of the double track.

Here’s most of his response:

“Up until about 1971, the Illinois Central main line was four tracks wide from Chicago to about what is today University Park, about 40 miles south of Chicago. Below that, the IC was double track all the way down through the state and into Kentucky.

“Basically, from Chicago to Champaign, the legal passenger-train speed limit was 90 mph. From Champaign to Centralia, the legal passenger train speed limit was 100 mph. Below Centralia to Carbondale and points south I believe it was 79 mph. Freight train speed limits were about 65 mph. In short, the IC had a world-class passenger and freight main line between Chicago, Memphis, and New Orleans.

“But by 1972, IC was under new management and the railroad had become just one part of a holding company — a holding company that had no interest in railroading, an industry which back then was struggling to stay afloat, thanks to antiquated regulations (now since thankfully wiped out in 1980 with the Staggers Act).

“Thus in the early 1970s and following IC’s merger with the Gulf, Mobile & Ohio in late 1972 to form the Illinois Central Gulf, ICG began downgrading track to save money. The track was no longer good enough to support 90 to 100 mph speed limits for passenger trains, which since 1971 had been turned over to the new Amtrak. Instead, speed limits dropped to 79 mph. 

“Fast forward several years to when Hunter Harrison became president of the IC (the ICG merger having now been undone and the ‘Illinois Central’ name returned). To further reduce costs, he single-tracked most of the main line between University Park and Carbondale. Single-track mainline operation on any railroad requires the use of “passing sidings” about every seven miles or so so that opposing trains can get around one another (known as ‘meets’). This is done by a dispatcher setting up ‘meets’ with a signaling system.

“This is actually an efficient way to run a railroad with moderate freight and passenger traffic. But times have changed. Railroads are booming and handling more traffic than ever. Amtrak passenger traffic has doubled since the year 2000, so it’s not just a freight thing. Single-track main lines aren’t working very well these days with increased traffic, and railroads are beginning to double-track many of their single-track main lines.”

Schafer said he believes that with the opening of the second Panama Canal “and the subsequent shift in international shipping patterns, business on the IC — now owned by Canadian

National — between New Orleans and Chicago is going to see another boom. There has already been a significant increase in freight traffic on the CN through Champaign-Urbana, and it can be felt when riding Amtrak between Chicago, Champaign and Carbondale. Delays are on the increase as Amtrak trains are stuck in passing sidings waiting for freight. It does not help that CN has a dislike for having to host Amtrak trains on its tracks.

“So I predict that CN will inevitably have to re-double track its north-south main line through Illinois to accommodate the forthcoming growth. And that will help Amtrak Chicago-Champaign-Carbondale runs significantly.”

Schafer calls restoring the second track “an expensive proposition. But the BNSF Railway has already started double-tracking its Aurora-Savanna, Ill., main line to accommodate the boom in Bakken Oil traffic. It’s expensive, but it will pay off by being able to operate more trains with greater fluidity. CSX Corporation re-double-tracked its Chicago-Pittsburgh main line some 15 years ago when it saw it was going to get more traffic with the split-up of Conrail. BNSF is also in the final process of double-tracking its entire Chicago-Los Angeles main line.”

He thinks that if the line is double-tracked CN might try to get the feds to pay part of the cost.

“The government actually stays out of helping freight railroads (except Amtrak, but Amtrak subsidies from the government at this point are at an all-time low of about

13 percent) do double-tracking projects, preferring instead to subsidize the trucking industry through highway improvements,” he wrote. “Today’s American railroads are pretty well

off and can afford to take these projects on by itself because they know it will pay off in just a few years. However, it would not surprise me if CN were to call for government help in double-tracking simply because it knows that Amtrak will benefit from such a change, and I can assure you that CN does not want to spend one dime on anything that will help Amtrak.”

I’m still holding out hope that I’ll hear from our good friends at the CN to get their perspective.

Noisy town

“My wife and I relocated to Champaign in June from the Boston area, and I have a question for you: It is not unpleasant to hear the train horns from time to time — it’s  

a nice reminder of the founding of the town. But occasionally there seems to be a whole lot of them, sometimes lasting a couple hours or more.  Can you give a quick summary of when trains need to use their horns around town and why?”

Thanks for the question, welcome to East Central Illinois and thanks for recognizing that the railroad — as unaccommodating as it may be today — was here before just about anyone or anything else, including the University of Illinois.

According to Champaign City Attorney Fred Stavins, the regulation of train noise is almost entirely a federal issue.

The Federal Railroad Administration sets the rules for train horns.

Here’s the relevant information:

“Under the Train Horn Rule, locomotive engineers must begin to sound train horns at least 15 seconds, and no more than 20 seconds, in advance of all public grade crossings.

“If a train is traveling faster than 60 mph, engineers will not sound the horn until it is within one-fourth mile of the crossing, even if the advance warning is less than 15 seconds.

“There is a ‘good faith’ exception for locations where engineers can’t precisely estimate their arrival at a crossing and begin to sound the horn no more than 25 seconds before arriving at the crossing.

“Train horns must be sounded in a standardized pattern of 2 long, 1 short and 1 long blasts. The pattern must be repeated or prolonged until the lead locomotive or lead cab car occupies the grade crossing. The rule does not stipulate the durations of long and short blasts.”

Communities, however, can create what the FRA calls a “quiet zone.” There’s a 29-page document Called “Guidance on the Quiet Zone Creation Process” which I will confess I did not bother to read.

In a quiet zone, says the FRA, railroads have been directed to cease the routine sounding their horns when approaching public highway-rail grade crossings. 

There are 41 communities in Illinois with “quiet zones,” almost all of them in the Chicago area. But I found one in a place I had never heard of — Macedonia, Ill, in southern Illinois on the Evansville Western Railway, a 125-mile railroad operating in Illinois and Indiana.

Incidentally, there are 29 railroad “quiet zones” in Massachusetts.

Jim Capel, part II

“The late Jim Capel was my godfather, so I wanted to thank you for your recent billiards story.  A friend and mentor to many, he was one wise bird.  And you are right, we miss him still today.” — Steve Katsinas

Thanks for writing, Steve. But I need to make it clear that was not my writing. That story came from his former law colleague, Traci Nally, who now works at The News-Gazette. 

This might be a good time to review some mailbag “ground rules.” The comments/questions from readers are italicized. My answers/responses are in regular type. Hope that clears up any misunderstanding by other readers.

Transmission line

“What is the endgame for all of the transmission line work along Neil/Dunlap in Savoy? Are they increasing capacity, replacing old lines or what?”

We got this response from Marcelyn Love of Ameren Illinois: “The work is related to the 138 KV Bondville to Southwest Campus transmission project that is underway by Ameren Illinois. In terms of the ‘endgame,’ this work will greatly enhance reliability for residents and businesses in Champaign and Savoy. As a result of these upgrades, both Southwest Campus substation (on the southwest side of the University of Illinois campus) and the Windsor substation (off Curtis Road near Carle Clinic) will have second power supplies, which they did not have before. In the event of a large-scale outage, we will be able to get power back on to customers more quickly. The improvements will also help harden the system decreasing the likelihood of a transmission outage. For instance, the company will utilize steel pole construction as opposed to wood pole construction. These improvements reflect Ameren Illinois’ commitment to deliver safe, reliable electricity to our customers.”

Bambenek complaint

“At a recent school board meeting, John Bambanek unloaded on the MTD showing that he neither understands public transportation or basic math. Is there a group he hasn’t alienated in his short time on the board with his constant tirades? Is there any hope a reasonable Republican will run to replace him in April?

I’m sure there are groups he hasn’t alienated yet, although he is a White Sox fan, which alienates him from me. But no matter what you think of Bambenek at least he’s paying attention, reading materials, showing up at meetings and asking questions. There are plenty of elected/appointed officials who don’t do that.

As for finding a “reasonable Republican” to replace him in April, that’s not a Republican Party function. The school board is nonpartisan. But I’m pretty sure there will be plenty of school board candidates in Champaign next spring.

Champaign County’s early retirement incentive

“Last week there was a bunch of media coverage of (Democratic state treasurer Mike) Frerichs’ time as county auditor and the early retirement incentive he helped usher in. Cross’ camp accuses him of blowing $3 million, Frerichs says it only cost $350,000. Doesn’t it seem like the agree he screwed up but are only fighting about the pricetag?”

Here’s what’s interesting about that 2003 early retirement deal. According to a July 25, 2003, News-Gazette story, it was passed by the county board on a 13-10 roll call. And it was eight Republican board members who provided the bulk of the votes for the plan, even though the GOP was the minority on the board. Five Democrats voted for it.

Frerichs, who as county auditor was the county Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund agent at the time, appeared to play only a small role in the discussion. In one story he was quoted as saying that about 60 of the county’s 800 employees were eligible for early retirement.

County Administrator Deb Busey told WDWS’ Tim Ditman earlier this month that the early retirement plan was not Frerichs’ idea.

“As stated previously, Mike Frerichs played no role in pushing for the early retirement program in Champaign County. Champaign County Administrator Deb Busey, who was also the administrator at the time the ERI program was proposed, and at least two County Board members — one Republican and one Democrat — have confirmed that Busey first proposed the idea and then brought it to the board for passage,” Frerichs campaign manager Zach Koutsky said. “Mike’s only role was to provide an analysis on the proposal, in which he warned of possible benefits and downsides if the program was implemented.”

Gerard’s academic career

“There was a dust up on Twitter over the weekend about (Champaign Mayor Don) Gerard and whether he actually graduated from the University of Illinois. He admitted to attending but not graduating. Then people called into question if he actually attended the University of Illinois. Is there a way to put it to rest and confirm one way or the other?  Not graduating isn’t a big deal but if he lied about attending that seems to be a bit more serious because he’s said over and over he attended here.”

The mayor responds: “I was registered as a student and attended classes for seven semesters between 1983 and 1987. I also took a class — Introduction to Human Physiology (earned a “B”) — in 2009. I keep my old student ID and transcript in a shoe box with my birth certificate.” 

Callis’ net worth

“You Wednesday article slammed Callis for being wealthy. This is par for the course for The News-Gazette’s misogynistic coverage of the race and rallying to the cause of the white guy. It’s clear you want to keep women down. I just want to know who are you going to support in the 103rd where two women are running. Probably the privileged white girl.”

First, it didn’t slam her for being wealthy. It just pointed out that she is wealthy, which certainly isn’t common knowledge. 

There’s a reason members of Congress and candidates for Congress have to file financial disclosure statements — it’s so voters have some idea how well-off candidates are and, most importantly, what their sources of income are and where they may have potential conflicts of interest. If we didn’t make note of these financial disclosure reports, and campaign disclosure reports, we’d be criticized for covering them up. 

Second, I don’t see how our coverage of the 13th District race has been misogynistic or has rallied to the cause of Rodney Davis. I’ll cite the July 16 column which pointed out that Davis received an inordinate amount of second-quarter campaign contributions from political action committees, including groups that appear before his congressional committees. I also reported that he was still struggling to raise money in Champaign-Urbana, a part of his district he still hadn’t won in an election. In a May 11 column I noted that Davis’ voting record was almost identical to U.S. Rep. John Shimkus (his old boss), and that they had differed on only three of 93 key votes to that point.

Third, I’m supporting neither Democrat Carol Ammons nor Republican Kristin Williamson in the 103rd House race, and I don’t think you could call either of them “privileged.” But don’t let facts get in the way of your accusations.

Ammons and Madigan

“Carol Ammons was not supported by Illinois House Speaker Micheal Madigan during the primary. She seems to be getting many contributions from special interest PACs. Are those controlled by Madigan?  Does she intend to vote for Madigan to retain his job as Speaker?”

Both Ammons and Kristin Williamson are getting campaign contributions from “special interest PACs.” Williamson has received itemized “special interest” contributions from Realtors. manufacturers, an energy company and an insurance company. Her biggest PAC contribution so far is $5,000 from the Champaign County chamber of commerce’s Business Empowered PAC.

Ammons has received campaign contributions almost exclusively from labor unions such as the Chicago Teachers Union, AFSCME, SEIU and the Champaign County AFL-CIO, and pro-choice groups, including Planned Parenthood and PersonalPAC. Her biggest contributor is $10,000 from the Illinois Laborers Legislative Committee. None of those groups is “controlled” by Madigan.

But Ammons said even before the primary election that she would Madigan, if he ran again for Speaker.

“I will not antagonize Speaker Madigan by supporting a futile attempt to unseat him because that would not be helpful to the people of this district,” she said.

Steven Salaita fallout

From readers:

“To the best of my knowledge, Chancellor Wise followed all the rules of the university about appointments, including her responsibility to deny an appointment if facts warranted it in her view.

“It seems to me that members of the UIUC faculty and community need to read the university’s rules and by-laws first before demanding resignations.”


“I guess the university liberals want another hate-America Bill Ayers to be happy. I think the university made the right decision, we don’t need these people teaching our students. I don’t want my tax dollars paying for his kind of hatred!”


“I understand the need for freedom of speech and academic freedom, but at the same time students must feel comfortable in their learning environment, the university is here to serve the student body, not the other way around. From what I understand about Dr. Salaita’s statements, made publicly, if I were an Israeli student, I would not feel comfortable taking classes with him, knowing that he holds such aggression toward my home country and in part the people there. It’s the same as if there were a professor who said the same about the U.S., I really don’t think such a professor could hope to effectively teach American students.  There is such a thing as academic freedom, but then there are also professional standards and sometimes the latter supersedes the former.”


"What if a professor made racist statements? Is that protected speech under the banner of academic freedom as well?  No, they’re both statements of hostility.”


“During the last few years, the University of Illinois system did the right thing not to appoint professor William Ayers as an emeritus professor, and this time, to cancel the appointment of Dr. Salaita.

“Is Steven Salaita’s scholarship and publication record consistent with what UI would require to grant someone tenure? If not, one issue with the controversial tweets is that he’d be extremely visible. UI’s certainly turned down faculty for tenure before, and they probably will again in the future. Seems like it could be awkward if UI ended up in the position of turning down someone else who seemed to have a stronger record than Salaita.”

Coincidentally, 50 years ago the UI had tenured professor of classics on its faculty, Revilo P. Oliver (I am not making this up), who wrote that President John Kennedy had been assassinated because he had fallen behind in a communist timetable for taking over the United States.

The UI Alumni Association asked Oliver to resign from the University faculty (he didn’t).  

But rightly, the faculty of the UI College of Law came to Oliver’s defense, saying that it was “strongly opposed” to referring his case to the Senate Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure. “If the encouragement of expression of ideas and individual views is to remain a meaningful principle, such expressions must not be subject to review and judgment by any university body nor cause for any disciplinary action,” said the law professors. 

Good for them, and good for those who are defending Salaita. I remember when I was an undergraduate, before the Industrial Revolution, and I wrote a column in the student newspaper that was critical of President Nixon. A political science professor called me out in class, essentially questioning my opinion and forcing me to defend it. It was a terrific learning experience, and prompted a good discussion in class.

Students shouldn’t need to fear being challenged in their beliefs and opinions, nor sheltered from differing viewpoints. 

Salaita’s tweets certainly weren’t thoughtful, civil or professorial. But apparently he was a good instructor/professor. He had survived the tenure process at another school. Several people here apparently thought he was worthy of the UI faculty. 

I suspect there’s a lot more to this story that may or may not come out over time. But I wouldn’t be so quick to criticize faculty members who defend Salaita and his opinions, no matter how misguided you think they are.

Toning down the mailbag nastiness

“Two questions:

1. Who was the last Democratic nominee for president that The News-Gazette endorsed?

2. It seems like this column is getting pretty nasty and mean spirited. Do you think that by not allowing people to post anonymously you may able to remove some of the vitriol?”

I can’t say for certain, but I don’t think The News-Gazette has ever endorsed a Democrat for president. It’s certainly unlikely, given the fact that East Central Illinois has been a Republican stronghold since the 1860s and that the newspaper’s ownership, at least as far as I’ve been able to determine, has been Republican for at least the last 100 years. 

As for removing the political vitriol, it’s getting to the point where I’ll either not respond to the more outrageous questions, or I’ll call out the writer in my own response. 

I don’t mind giving people with legitimate questions anonymity, but when they use that protection to drop unsubstantiated rumors into questions or to make outrageous political attacks, I don’t like it. 

I’m under no obligation to answer every question that is sent to the mailbag — although I have tried to — so I now will be more selective in the political questions I address. 

Thanks again for the questions. We welcome new ones, but tone down the political stuff. Serious inquiries only. Enjoy what I hope for most is a three-day weekend. Keep the rain away, please.

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JRR wrote on August 29, 2014 at 6:08 pm

Regarding "Bringing back a second track on the Main Line of Mid-America?", the University of Illinois has a world-class railroad engineering program here at the Urbana-Champaign campus, with faculty and graduate students having extensive knowledge of many facets of railroading.

Why not inquire right here about this subject?