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Conjunction Junction: Stars (and Money) Could Be Aligning for Passenger-Rail Service to Chicago PDF Print E-mail
News/Features - Feature Stories
Wednesday, 07 February 2007 03:00

Reader issue #619 The history of passenger rail in the Quad Cities illustrates just how capricious - and divorced from rational decision-making - business and politics can be.

The Quad Cities lack rail service not necessarily because of a lack of demand, but because of a long-forgotten business decision.

When Amtrak was created in 1971, its purpose was to shift the obligation for passenger rail from freight carriers to this quasi-governmental company overseen by Congress. The idea was that the federal government would subsidize passenger rail, but that subsidy wouldn't be going to private, for-profit companies.

The Chicago, Rock Island, & Pacific Railroad - which operated passenger rail through the Quad Cities - didn't opt into the Amtrak system, and thus was required to continue its rail service. But with the company in bankruptcy in the late '70s, the company's two passenger-rail lines were terminated in 1978.

And for nearly three decades, the Quad Cities have been without passenger-rail service.

Marc Magliari, an Amtrak spokesperson, emphasized that the demise of passenger rail in this area had nothing to do with passenger rail. "Their financial issues were significantly larger than two passenger trains," he said.

The point might seem like ancient history, but it touches on several sensitive areas. First, that passenger rail hasn't failed in the Quad Cities in the past - and therefore might be possible in the future. This is particularly important in the context of the perennially struggling Amtrak; the company argues that passenger rail generally is still viable and important - even if it's unlikely that it will ever be profitable. The primary challenge for Amtrak historically has been that federal funding has been precarious, thus hindering its ability to plan, adapt, and grow.

After decades of aiming for - and never reaching - self-sufficiency, Amtrak is taking a different approach these days. It sees opportunities for growth and believes that it can come closer to self-sufficiency than ever before. And with the possibility of operational and capital funding set for a six-year cycle, Amtrak could be coming to the Quad Cities in the coming years.

"It's pretty much the opposite of the late '70s, early '80s," Magliari said. "We're in growth mode in Illinois. ... In California we can't add trains fast enough."

The premise is that Amtrak can lose less money per passenger than before by spreading its fixed costs over a greater number of passengers and trains. A more stable funding scenario could allow Amtrak to at least try the concept.

Amtrak will probably never break even or make a profit, Magliari emphasized, even though Congress has for many years tried to impose that standard on the service. "We exist because private industry was not making money doing this," he said. "Those who suggest it [Amtrak] should be privatized forget how we got here. ... There will always be a net loss after the fare box."

Amtrak's new goal is to increase the number of passengers it serves. At a meeting two weeks ago organized by U.S. Senator Dick Durbin, Amtrak representatives said the organization's target now is to double its ridership by 2020.

"All of this is doable," said Ray Lang, senior director of government affairs for Amtrak, at the meeting. "The way we do that is to develop new corridors."

And that's where the Quad Cities might fit into Amtrak's plans. The State of Illinois will now formally ask Amtrak to study the possibility of bringing passenger-rail service to the Quad Cities and perhaps beyond, creating a rail corridor between Chicago, this community, Iowa City, Des Moines, and Omaha, Nebraska.

Participants in Durbin's meeting sounded downright optimistic that the Quad Cities could have rail service to Chicago within two years. That's possible, but a lot of things need to happen beforehand.


Enough Money to Fail Slowly

The main challenge in evaluating the passenger-rail opportunity is figuring out whether Amtrak's current strategy will last - or even get out of the station.

Congress and presidential administrations have long been impatient with Amtrak's financial performance. As Amtrak noted in its April 2005 "Strategic Reforms Initiative" document: "The Bush Administration has signaled its own sense of urgency for reform at Amtrak and in U.S. intercity rail-passenger service generally by way of a proposed ‘zero' FY06 Amtrak operating budget, while making it clear through the Secretary of Transportation that it would support increased funding in conjunction with appropriate and comprehensive reform."

What Amtrak has lacked historically is stable funding; it was under regular threat of reduced funding (or elimination). Congress has "only given it [Amtrak] enough money to fail slowly over the years," said James P. RePass, president and CEO of the National Corridors Initiative.

"Amtrak needs a different federal [financial] framework," said Rick Harnish, executive director of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association.

The problem with Amtrak has never been demand for the service, RePass said. "When trains are provided, they get used," he said. The trouble has been that there's never been enough money for enough trains.

Harnish noted that most of Amtrak's equipment is decades old. "They're turning people away because they don't have enough sleepers," he said.

But the climate for passenger rail is changing. "The stars are aligning for the first time," RePass said. Last month, U.S. Senators Trent Lott and Frank Lautenberg introduced the Passenger Rail Investment & Improvement Act of 2007, which would authorize $19.2 billion for Amtrak over six years. A version of that bill passed the Senate 93 to six in 2005 but was never brought to a vote in the House.

Because of leadership changes in the House, RePass said, he expects the bill to pass both chambers this year, and he added that he doesn't think President George W. Bush will veto it. The president needs support for the war in Iraq, he said, and can't risk alienating legislators who want improved passenger-rail service in their states.

Harnish said he doesn't give odds but thought there is a decent chance the bill will pass either this year or next year.

The stable funding would allow Amtrak to plan, RePass added, and the federal government will match some state capital investments.

The legislation, RePass said, will be a "very critical" element of Amtrak reaching its 2020 ridership goal. "That bill will unleash a flood in capacity," he said.

But by itself the legislation wouldn't create rail service to the Quad Cities. That would require significant investment and long-term commitment from both Iowa and Illinois.

The first step is Illinois' impending request to Amtrak for a study of both the need for passenger-rail service and the cost.

Amtrak already has anecdotal information on demand. At Amtrak stations in Princeton and Galesburg, Illinois, Magliari said, "we know we are attracting a fair amount of business ... from the Quad Cities and Peoria."


Money and Priorities

The most sensible way to expand passenger-rail service would be to connect Chicago to Omaha, and not just create a corridor to the Quad Cities or Des Moines. An analysis prepared for the State of Iowa concluded: "The Segment Analysis shows that the only option that achieves a positive operating ratio is that of developing the entire corridor from Chicago to Omaha. Shortening the corridor to Des Moines or the Quad Cities results in lower financial operating returns." The Midwest Rail Initative also envisions passenger rail from Chicago to Omaha.

There are two main options for passenger-rail service to the Quad Cities from Chicago, but at this point there are no current estimates of the costs for either route. "We don't know at this time what the capital costs will be," he said.

A 2001 estimate put the cost of infrastructure improvements for one route at $65 million from Wyanet, Illinois, to Iowa City.

And beyond those direct costs of new rail service, there are critical infrastructure improvements needed in the Chicago area. Harnish said that rail service to the Quad Cities and points west is possible without those upgrades, but it won't be optimal. "The easy stuff is everything west of Chicago," he said.

Those Chicago improvements - known as the Chicago Region Environmental & Transportation Efficiency Program - will cost approximately $1.5 billion, and some of them are already undeway.

But Harnish didn't say that new rail service should wait for those Chicago infrastructure projects. "Sometimes it's better to get stakes in the ground and get moving," he said.

Illinois has a demonstrated commitment to passenger rail, having doubled its appropriation for Amtrak in the current fiscal year.

But Harnish sounded skeptical that Illinois would spend the money necessary to create the Chicago-Quad Cities corridor without pressure from constituents. "Transportation is not a priority in Springfield right now," he said.

Eventually, though, the state will need to create new revenue to pay for transportation projects such as highway expansion, and automobile alternatives such as passenger rail, bike paths, and mass transit will need to be part of the deal for political reasons. Constituents will demand a package of balanced transportation before they'll support expensive highway projects that won't directly benefit them, he predicted.

Iowa's interest in passenger rail is also uncertain. The state has contributed to the Midwest Rail Initiative but has not spent any money on rail-corridor construction. "We're waiting for some sort of state-federal participation program," said Peggy Baer, director of rail transportation for the Iowa Department of Transportation.

She also said that the creation of a federal matching funds for passenger rail wouldn't necessarily be a spark for passenger rail in her state. "It's might be," she said. "It's up to the legislature."

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