Illini

The Illini operated to Decatur for two years in the early 1980s, but fell victim to an economic recession that depressed travel demand. But the future seemed bright on July 2, 1981, when the Illini began its maiden run to Chicago. The former Wabash station is shown at right. (Photograph by David Tiffany)
The Illini operated to Decatur for two years in the early 1980s, but fell victim to an economic recession that depressed travel demand from hard hit Decatur. But the future seemed bright on July 2, 1981, when the Illini began its maiden run to Chicago. The former Wabash station is shown at left. (Photograph by David Tiffany)

Illini

Endpoints: Chicago-Carbondale, Illinois

Numbers: 392, 393

Intermediate Stations: Homewood, Kankakee, Gilman, Rantoul, Champaign, Mattoon, Effingham, Centralia, Du Quoin

Amtrak Operated: December 19, 1973-Present

Host Railroad: Canadian National (former Illinois Central)

Named for: The Indian tribe from which the state of Illinois derived its name. Fighting Illini is the nickname for athletic teams at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign.

Pre-Amtrak History: The Illini is not a direct descendant of any pre-Amtrak train. However, the Illinois Central operated a Chicago-Carbondale train named the Illini until the coming of Amtrak on May 1, 1971. The IC had another train named Illini that operated between Chicago and Carbondale until January 22, 1951.

Amtrak History: In early November 1971, Amtrak introduced a pair of weekend-only trains between Chicago and Champaign in an effort to tap the considerable college student traffic between the two points. The Illini (Nos. 390, 393) operated on Fridays, departing Chicago Central Station at 12:15 p.m. and Champaign at 3:30 p.m. The Friday and Sunday Campus operated on a later schedule.

The Illini and Campus were discontinued in March 1972 when Amtrak ceased using Central Station. Amtrak claimed that adding a half-hour to the schedule to compensate for the circuitous routing into Union Station would discourage patronage. The Illini made its last trips on March 3.

In the meantime, the Illinois General Assembly was considering legislation to fund expanded Amtrak service in Illinois, including between Chicago and Decatur via Champaign. Governor Daniel Walker signed the legislation in late July 1973. The law provided $1.5 million for six intercity rail routes, including two operated by the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific, which had stayed out of Amtrak.

The Illini (Nos. 381, 382) began December 19, 1973, between Chicago and Champaign, using three former Northern Pacific Budd rail diesel cars. The plans to operate the train to Decatur were thwarted because of a dispute over who would pay to rehabilitate a connection track at Tolono between Illinois Central Gulf and Norfolk & Western (former Wabash).

Another sticking point was Amtrak’s insistence that one operating crew handle the train between Chicago and Decatur. The unions insisted, though, that a separate crew operate the train between Tolono and Decatur, which was in line with the practice of the time of changing crews when a train switched railroads.

The Illini operated in close proximity to the Chicago-New Orleans Panama Limited in both directions. The northbound Illini initially departed Champaign 90 minutes after the Panama Limited was scheduled to depart. Scheduled is the operative word because in the
middle 1970s the Panama Limited was notorious for operating late. Effective May 19, 1974, the Illini began departing Champaign 30 minutes behind the Panama Limited and on April 25, 1976, it began running 30 minutes earlier than the train from New Orleans.

The southbound Illini departed Chicago two hours ahead of the Panama Limited at 4:20 p.m. Effective January 8, 1978, the Illini and Panama Limited traded departure slots.

The stalemate that had prevented the Illini from serving Decatur was finally broken in 1981 when the unions representing N&W and ICG operating employees agreed to operate the train with one crew. N&W crews handled the train 77 days a year.

Under terms of the Amtrak Reorganization Act of 1979, Amtrak and the Illinois Department of Transportation evenly split the cost of operating the Illini between Chicago and Champaign, while IDOT paid 20 percent of the cost to operate the train between Champaign and Decatur.

The Illini began service at Decatur on July 2, 1981, using the former Wabash passenger station. Initially, the train had to back onto the ICG at Tolono until a connecting track was rebuilt to allow a more direct transfer from one railroad to another. Decatur had been without passenger train service since the N&W’s City of Decatur (Chicago-Decatur), and Wabash Cannon Ball (Detroit-St. Louis) made their final trips on April 30, 1971, on the eve of Amtrak’s inauguration.

Ridership at Decatur was disappointing and IDOT ceased funding the Champaign-Decatur section after two years, saying that a recession had depressed travel demand. The Illini left Decatur for the last time on July 10, 1983.

A budget shortfall in 1986 prompted Amtrak to discontinue the Chicago-Carbondale Shawnee. IDOT agreed to fund a replacement train. Effective January 12, the Illini began operating between Chicago and Carbondale, following the schedule of the previous southbound Illini and the previous northbound Shawnee. Both had operated in late afternoon, so this operation required two equipment sets. The Illini also took the Shawnee’s operating numbers (Nos. 391, 392).

During a 1995 fiscal crisis, Amtrak said it would cut the frequency of operation of the Illini from daily to four days a week, not running on Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday). This was averted when IDOT agreed to increase its funding. Eventually, the state and Amtrak reached a new contract that capped the state’s costs and set performance incentives. Before the 1995 funding crisis occurred, IDOT was paying about $100,000 yearly for the Illini, the lowest of the state-funded Amtrak trains.

The Illini assumed its current numbers on October 30, 2006, when the Chicago-Carbondale Saluki began service. The Illini and Saluki share equipment. The southbound Saluki turns at Carbondale to become the northbound Illini. The southbound Illini turns at Carbondale to become the northbound Saluki the next day.  During summer 2008, Amtrak agreed to operate the Illini an hour later southbound and an hour, 10 minutes later northbound to accommodate CN track work. Although the southbound train later resumed its normal schedule, effective October 27, 2008, the northbound train permanently began operating an hour later, now departing Carbondale at 5:15 p.m. and arriving in Chicago at 10:45 p.m.

Much of the patronage of the Illini is town and gown travel, most of it going to and from the campuses of the University of Illinois and Southern Illinois, which are served directly by the route and Eastern Illinois University, located 10 miles east of the station at Mattoon. The typical consist is three Horizon coaches and an Amfleet food service car with business class service. Locomotive power is one P42. The Illini usually does not operate in push-pull mode.

In its early years, the Illini has a menagerie of equipment assignments including a Turboliner, an array of conventional steam-heated cars and former Chicago & North Western bi-level coaches. The Illini received Amfleet equipment on March 18, 1976. It was one of a number of Midwest corridor trains to help break in new Superliner coaches in 1979 before they were assigned to long-distance service. The ex-C&NW bilevel cars returned to the Illini when it began operating to Decatur.

Like all Amtrak trains using the former Illinois Central, the Illini backs in and out of Chicago Union Station. Trains back out to the BNSF line to Aurora and then take the St. Charles Air Line to reach the former IC mainline just north of McCormick Place or else back out to 21st Street where they get onto the former IC Iowa Division. Trains take this to Metra’s 16th Street Tower (the crossing with the former Rock Island) where Amtrak trains get onto the St. Charles Air Line. Another option is to pull straight out of Union Station to the wye used to turn Amtrak trains and then back onto BNSF to reach the St. Charles Air Line.

The city of Chicago has long sought to see the St. Charles Air Line removed so that the land it occupies can be used for development. One proposal is to build a connection between the Norfolk Southern route used by Amtrak’s Chicago-East Coast and Michigan trains and the former IC at Grand Crossing. But funding for this project has yet to materialize.

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