With its annual ridership down 47 percent, it may seem like an odd time to suggest improvements at Amtrak. But now is the time.
Fifty years ago this month, 20 rail carriers across the United States, including the Illinois Central Railroad through Champaign, were preparing to dump their money-losing passenger rail service on a new quasi-public corporation proposed by the Nixon administration. Few expected that the agency, then known as RailPax, would survive for long.
But nearly 50 years after its start on May 1, 1971, the agency now known as Amtrak is still chugging along, with perhaps its biggest individual champion now in the White House. And President Joe Biden, who famously rode Amtrak almost every day from Wilmington, Del., to Washington, D.C., is expected to eventually unveil an infrastructure bill — something promised by President Donald Trump but never delivered — that could include a welcome capital infusion for Amtrak.
Railfans and local officials all over the country are eagerly awaiting details of what could be in the infrastructure bill for their communities. Champaign-Urbana is no exception. Those responsible for promoting economic development have long pushed for a high-speed rail connection between Chicago and Champaign-Urbana, something that could mean a 45-minute commute to the Loop. That would mean trains traveling about three times the speed they reach today. It also would mean billions of dollars in public and private investment.
A more modest proposal, making use of existing right of way, could be a dedicated connection between Champaign and Chicago that would be more reliable and still faster, not subject to delays by slow freight trains.
The pandemic has been brutal to all transportation, including airlines and Amtrak. In the last two years, Amtrak ridership has dropped almost in half, from 32 million to 16.8 million. Its City of New Orleans from Chicago to New Orleans lost 42 percent of its passengers, while shorter, state-subsidized trains between Chicago and Carbondale and Champaign saw a 38 percent passenger decline.
But those numbers will rebound when the pandemic eases and the economy improves. Amtrak was on a growth trend before the pandemic, and there’s no reason to think that won’t resume in the coming years.
As Amtrak marks its 50th anniversary this year, its national leaders and local advocates should be ready to push for a fair share of investment in passenger rail improvements that are not only financially but environmentally effective.