Politicians seeking boost in Amtrak service for C-U

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Politicians seeking boost in Amtrak service for C-U

WASHINGTON — Citing a 117 percent increase in ridership on Amtrak's trains through Champaign over the last eight years, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin and Gov. Pat Quinn are asking for more rail service on the Chicago-to-Carbondale corridor.

"Amtrak ridership continues to grow. Between 2006 and 2013, ridership in Illinois grew almost 85 percent. In that same period, Chicago to Carbondale ridership grew even faster — 117 percent — to just under 400,000 passengers," Durbin and Quinn wrote Wednesday to Joseph Boardman, Amtrak's president and CEO, and Anthony Coscia, its board chairman.

Although he wasn't asked to sign the letter, U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Taylorville, also supports more service on the route.

"We're absolutely supportive of additional Amtrak service to Illinois, particularly the Chicago-Carbondale routes," said Andrew Flach, a spokesman for Davis. "We're going to keep pushing for this to happen. The ridership numbers are there."

In their letter to Boardman and Coscia, Durbin and Quinn ask for a feasibility study examining an increase in the frequency of service from the current three round-trip trains each day.

"To facilitate continued growth in passenger rail, we need to increase the number of opportunities available to riders," the two wrote. "This study is the first step to increase the frequency of trains along the Chicago-to-Carbondale route. We hope Amtrak will begin and complete a formal feasibility study to jump-start this process as soon as possible."

Company spokesman Marc Magliari said Amtrak will work with the Illinois Department of Transportation on a plan "to get this done and see how long it would take to get it done."

Most of the cost of the additional service would be borne by the state, he said.

"Right now, the way these trains are funded, the state pays about 85 percent of the cost," Magliari said. "Some of that, we absorb. But because of the costing formula we worked out with the states because of a 2008 law, most of that cost would be a state cost. We're not allowed, under that 2008 law, to use our federal operating grant to pay for routes as short as 750" miles.

The state is purchasing its own rail equipment, Magliari noted, which eventually will save on the cost of leasing equipment.

"As that equipment comes on line, the current equipment would become available for additional frequencies or redeployment," he said.

Magliari said he believes the request for more service is justified.

"If you go over to the Illinois Terminal building around our train times, you can see that the room is already overflowing with our passengers. Clearly, there's a lot of demand in Champaign and elsewhere on the route for service," he said. "But there are significant gaps in the day between frequencies."

Amtrak runs two northbound trains in the morning at 6:10 a.m. and 10:14 a.m., but only one more train the rest of the day, at 6:59 p.m.

"We find that adding frequencies is the single most important thing when running a reliable service to attract passengers," Magliari said.

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Sid Saltfork wrote on August 07, 2014 at 8:08 am

The rail corridor is owned by a railroad company.  It carries freight as well as Amtrack passenger trains.  C-U is not the only area where increased ridership is being requested.  It, also, is being requested for the Quad Cities.  The balance between freight, and passengers could become the issue. 

Sure; increased Amtrack service would be great for day trippers, students, and Cubs fans.  However, at what expense to the already "broke" State of Illinois which already pays 85% of the operational cost.

EdRyan wrote on August 07, 2014 at 8:08 am

A train that gets into Union Station early enough to conduct business or go to conferences by 8 or 9 in the morning would be great.  The earliest now is schedule for 9 AM and that means no business until late morning at best.  Probably won't happen though.

rsp wrote on August 07, 2014 at 10:08 am

I think there's a lot of people who would like to take it to go shop or to the museums but would like better times. I hope they can make this happen.

cea wrote on August 08, 2014 at 12:08 pm

Amtrak is right that increasing service frequency is generally the best single investment that can be made in improving the rate-of-return for passenger service. However, I predict this will be a non-starter simply due to the logistics of trying to accommodate more passenger trains on CN's single-track line. On-time performance already suffers due to conflicts with freight traffic, and freight traffic is growing. Barring something that would enable CN to make a major investment in capacity improvements (e.g., a substantial change in the model under which Amtrak compensates host railroads, or in the tax treatment of rail infrastructure), I don't see CN being able or willing to take on more passenger trains.