Posts Tagged ‘Illinois Department of Transportation’

Illinois Funding to Help Amtrak Services

June 13, 2019

Amtrak travelers in Illinois will benefit from a recently enacted capital spending program approved by the Illinois General Assembly and Gov. J. B. Pritzker, but it will be years before those benefits can be seen.

There remains much work to be done on engineering studies and land acquisition. Some of those efforts have been on hold since 2015.

In some cases, negotiations have yet to begin between the Illinois Department of Transportation and a host railroad.

That includes a project to improve on-time performance and reliability of Amtrak service using Canadian National tracks between Chicago and Carbondale, Illinois.

An IDOT spokesman told Trains magazine that his agency needs to agree on the details with CN, but the project is expected to include some sidings, universal crossovers and other unspecified improvements.

The capital project has earmarked $100 million to improve service on the route used by the City of New Orleans and the state-funded Saluki and Illini.

Amtrak sued CN in 2012 over poor on-time performances of its trains in the Chicago-Carbondale corridor, but that litigation has become bogged down in the courts.

Trains reported that IDOT and CN have already held talks about how to alleviate some sources of delay to Amtrak trains.

IDOT and Union Pacific also need to agree on the nuts and bolts of what it will take to implement a long-discussed plan to reroute Amtrak and UP freight trains onto a grade-separated double-track line in Springfield.

Amtrak’s Lincoln Service and Texas Eagle trains now use a former Gulf Mobile & Ohio route that runs parallel to Third Street and which has numerous grade crossings.

The Illinois capital program has set aside $122 million to move Amtrak and its Springfield station to a corridor along 10th Street that will also be used by Norfolk Southern.

One downside of the move is that the Amtrak station would be further from the heart of downtown Springfield and the statehouse complex.

The capital funding program is expected to give a boost to two proposed new Amtrak routes.

One involves service between Chicago and Rockford using Metra’s Milwaukee West District to Big Timber Road west of downtown Elgin and thence over a UP line via Belvedere to Rockford.

A connection needs to be built at Big Timber to connect the Metra and UP routes.

The IDOT spokesman told Trains that there is no federal funding or service frequency plan for the service.

“The new infusion of funding will require us to re-engage with UP, Amtrak, and the local communities on scope, budget, and schedule after the hiatus,” the spokesman said, making reference to a decision by former Gov. Bruce Rauner to revoke funding approved earlier for development of the route.

Another new Amtrak route would link Chicago and the Quad Cities region of Illinois and Iowa.

The City of Moline, Illinois, has created a station for the service, but engineering and property acquisition needs to be done on a connection near Wyanet, Illinois.

The plan is to use the BNSF route now used by Amtrak’s Illinois Zephyr, Carl Sandburg and California Zephyr, to Wyanet and then switch to the Iowa Interstate for the remainder of the trip into Moline.

“Negotiations with the railroad will proceed on the construction, operating, and maintenance agreements,” the IDOT spokesman said, noting that IDOT and Iowa Interstate have yet to discuss “scope, budget, and timelines” that must precede an environmental assessment and preliminary engineering.
The capital funding program allocated $225 million to match a route-specific federal stimulus grant that is set to expire on June 30, 2019,

However, IDOT is talking with the FRA about extending the deadline for the grant.

IDOT had not given a timeline for when the service to Rockford or Moline would begin.

Rockford was once served by Amtrak’s Chicago-Dubuque, Iowa, Black Hawk, before it was discontinued on Oct. 1, 1981.

Although Amtrak has never served Moline, the former Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific offered intercity rail passenger service between Chicago and nearby Rock Island, Illinois, until Jan. 1, 1979.

Agencies Still Seeking Additional Hiawatha Service

May 21, 2019

Officials of the departments of transportation of Illinois and Wisconsin are still pursuing an expansion of Amtrak’s Hiawatha Service.

Both made that point in the wake of the decision by the Illinois Department of Transportation not to support construction of new tracks in the north Chicago suburbs that an earlier study said was an key component to making the expansion feasible.

A 3-mile siding has been proposed to be built in Lake Forest and a 2-mile holding track would be built in Glenview and Lake Forest.

The tracks would enable Canadian Pacific freight trains to get out of the way of Amtrak and Metra trains as the CP trains awaited permission to enter a Union Pacific line used by CP to reach its yard in Bensonville.

The siding had been opposed by residents of the two suburban communities.

Arun Rao, passenger rail program manager of the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, said his agency met with their Illinois counterparts who reiterated their commitment to expanding service in the Chicago-Milwaukee corridor.

“We need a few more conversations with the railroads to see what direction we’re going and have a better idea of an [implementation] timetable,” he said.

IDOT spokesman Guy Tridgell said his agency will continue to work with WisDOT in its efforts to seek federal infrastructure grants for the expansion and added that IDOT “is a strong supporter of service on this line.”

Hiawatha ridership rose 11 percent in April and is poised to carry 900,000 passengers in fiscal year 2019. The route saw a record  858,000 passengers in FY 2018.

The expansion proposal would increase Hiawatha service from seven to 10 daily roundtrips.

Rao said the equipment needed for the expansion will include a six car trainset for Hiawatha service that will come from an 88-car order for new cars placed with Siemens by the Midwest states that fund Amtrak corridor service.

WisDOT is seeking a federal grant to be used to pay for two other consists.

Rao said there weren’t any details yet on what an alternative plan for the expansion might involved.

He said there is no timeline for the project and there is no danger of losing out on federal money or losing federal approvals.

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers included $45 million in bonding authority for the Hiawatha expansion project as part of its 2019-2021 budget plan,

Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said the growing ridership of the Hiawathas means the current service level cannot sufficiently meet current demand.

IDOT Drops Support of Controversial Siding Plan

May 18, 2019

The Illinois Department of Transportation said it will no longer push for construction of a 2-mile long siding in the Chicago suburbs that is part of a proposal to expand Hiawatha Service.

The announcement was a victory for north suburban Chicago residents, particularly in Glenview and Lake Forest, who have fought the proposed siding.

The siding was intended to be a holding track for Canadian Pacific freight trains waiting for permission to enter a Union Pacific line that enabled CP trains to take a shorter route to the CP yard in Bensonville, Illinois.

In a letter to those communities from acting IDOT Secretary Omer Osman, the agency said it would not agree to the freight holding tracks in either Glenview or Lake Forest, and you have my commitment that IDOT will not be moving forward seeking federal support for this project.”

The Hiawatha expansion plan, which was announced in 2016, would increase the daily frequency of Chicago-Milwaukee trains from seven to 10.

The expansion was a joint project or IDOT and the Wisconsin Department of Transportation. Both agencies currently fund Hiawatha Service.

Many of the opponents of the siding own homes next to the tracks used by Amtrak, CP and Metra and said idling freight trains would create noise and air pollution that would depress the value of the property as well as hinder the quality of their lives.

IDOT spokesman Guy Tridgell said he agency is seeking other options that would allow the expansion of Hiawatha Service.

“The department is a strong supporter of passenger rail service on this line and will be working with the lead agency on the project, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, on other possible solutions to improve service,” Tidgell said in an emailed statement sent by Tridgell.

He also said IDOT will not oppose any federal grant applications that WisDOT submits related to the Hiawatha expansion.

Arun Rao, passenger rail manager at WisDOT, said the agency is aware of IDOT’s concerns about the proposed siding.

“We are continuing to proceed with plans to increase frequencies with the Hiawatha service and are working with IDOT and the railroads to continue to do that,” he said.

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers has proposed $45 million in bonding to move Hiawatha expansion ahead.

Those funds would be used as matching funds for federal grants that would cover the remaining project costs.

Glenview Ups Ante in Hiawatha Expansion Fight

April 10, 2019

Officials in Glenview, Illinois, will spend more money in their campaign to thwart construction of a passing siding that would allow for increased Amtrak Hiawatha Service.

The village board recently voted to spend another $36,000, which would bring to more than $541,000 that the north Chicago suburb has spent for lobbying at the state and local levels.

Most of the new money approved will be spent on lobbying state officials.

The Illinois Department of Transportation in part underwrites the Chicago-Milwaukee Hiawatha Service with the Wisconsin Department of Transportation also contributing funding.

The proposal would increase Hiawatha Service from seven to 10 daily roundtrips.

An environmental assessment released earlier said the 10,000-foot siding is necessary to allow operating flexibility on a route used by Canadian Pacific freight trains and Metra commuter trains.

Amtrak Not Close to Playing in Peoria

April 5, 2019

The last time a passenger train halted in Peoria, Illinois, it was New Year’s Eve 1978 and a snowstorm had shut down Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport.

Two years late, intercity rail passenger service returned to the Peoria area, but lasted just over a year.

Peoria officials would like to see rail return and have looked with longing eyes at the development of the Chicago-St. Louis corridor serving Bloomington-Normal and Springfield.

Although there has been talk about restoring service to Peoria, officials say that nothing has happened in the past five years.

An Amtrak Thruway bus links Peoria with the Amtrak stations in Normal, which is served by Lincoln Service trains and the Texas Eagle; and Galesburg, which is served by the Southwest Chief, California Zephyr, Illinois Zephyr and Carl Sandburg.

Various proposals to return passenger service to Peoria have been made over the years, but cost has been a major stumbling block.

The Illinois Department of Transportation studied launching a rail connection to the Chicago-St. Louis corridor at Normal and found it would cost $100 million.

The study concluded that providing a bus connection would be more economical.

Eric Miller, executive director of the Tri-County Regional Planning Commission, said his agency sought a federal grant to fund rail service during the Obama administration.

But the bid was turned down and Miller said things have been quiet ever since.

“There hasn’t been a lot of activity on the (Peoria train service) issue in the last five years,” he said.

It hasn’t helped that the service Peoria did have during the first decade of Amtrak operations left much to be desired and was plagued by low ridership.

At the dawn of Amtrak in 1971, Peoria was served by the Peoria Rocket of the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific.

The Rock Island didn’t join Amtrak because the $4.7 million buy-in fee exceeded the carrier’s annual passenger losses of $1 million.

The Rocket continued to operate, although it did receive some funding from the State of Illinois.

The Peoria Rocket had a slow route and deteriorating equipment. Efforts to convey the train to Amtrak and find a new route failed and the Rocket left Chicago for the final time on Dec. 31, 1978.

Even as the Rocket was blasting off for the final time, Amtrak and IDOT were working on a plan to resume service to Peoria.

That involved using the Toledo, Peoria & Western between East Peoria and Chenoa, Illinois, where the TP&W crossed the Illinois Central Gulf, which at the time owned the Chicago-St. Louis line used by Amtrak.

The Prairie Marksman began service on Aug. 10, 1980, for a 14-month trial.

A year later a state financial crisis prompted budget cuts that included state support for Amtrak service.

The Prairie Marksman left Chicago for the final time on Oct. 3, 1981.

Peoria Mayor Jim Ardis supports restoring passenger rail to his city. “There are a lot of people in and around Peoria who would utilize passenger rail,” he said. “Passenger rail through Peoria should be part of any state and federal capital/transportation bills going forward.”

He recognizes, though, that it would take financial support from the Illinois General Assembly, perhaps under the Illinois Fast Track Initiative.

“So if it takes five years or more to fund it and build it, let’s get started,” said Ardis.

What route a Peoria-Chicago train would take remains an open question. The tracks used by the Peoria Rocket are still in place, now owned by Iowa Interstate.

But the top speed on the line leading north from Peoria is 35 mph. Contrast that to the top speed of 90 mph achieved by the Peoria Rocket in its heyday.

Rick Harnish, the executive director of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association suggested asking Iowa Interstate how much it would cost to rebuild the line for a top speed of 85 mph.

“Would it take $500 million? Microsoft is spending $220 million out west on design work for rail service out of Seattle. If Caterpillar, for example, got involved, it might go forward,” he said.

Miller of the Tri-County Planning Commission has a more practical take.

“Our transportation system is now underfunded while we’re facing other infrastructure issues,” he said.

Just the idea of starting some news, such as passenger train service out of Peoria is an obstacle.

Another is the Illinois River. The Prairie Marksman never served Peoria proper because of the expense and added time that would be incurred to cross the river.

Miller said the railroad bridge over the river is already heavily used by freight trains.

Glenview Discount Hiawatha Ridership Increase

March 29, 2019

Officials in Glenview, Illinois, are seeking to downplay the announcement by Amtrak that its Chicago-Milwaukee trains saw a ridership increase in 2018.

Don Owen, the village’s deputy manager, acknowledged the increased but countered that the existing service is still operating at less than 40 percent of capacity.

Amtrak said recently the Hiawathas, which stop in Glenview in north suburban Chicago, carried a record-setting more than 858,000 passengers last year, an increase of 3.6 percent over 2017.

Glenview and other nearby communities have been embroiled in a fight over the past couple of years over a proposal by the departments of transportation of Wisconsin and Illinois, to expand Hiawatha Service from seven to 10 daily roundtrips.

Owen said rather than add additional trains, Amtrak should add another coach to peak travel demand trains to alleviate standing room conditions.

He did not say what source he used to conclude that the Hiawatha are operating under capacity other than to describe it as “the data we have seen.”

The resistance to the Hiawatha expansion has been triggered by a plan to add a holding siding for Canadian Pacific freight trains that is a component of the expansion project.

Homeowners in subdivisions adjacent to the track has expressed fears that CP trains will sit for hours in the siding, causing noise and pollution issues.

They’ve noted that plans are to build a retaining wall as part of track construction. That would eliminate some green space between their homes and the tracks, which are also used by Chicago commuter rail agency Metra.

An environmental impact statement has said the siding would be built between Glenview and Northbrook.

Wisconsin transportation officials have contended that the Hiawatha trains are near capacity and over capacity at peak travel times.

They’ve described the additional trains as a way to provide passengers more train time options and address “inadequate service reliability” because of conflicts with freight and other passenger traffic in the corridor.

Glenview officials have long disagreed with an Amtrak statement that Hiawatha ridership has more than doubled since 2003.

Amtrak figures show that between 2014 and 2015 Hiawatha ridership fell from from 804,900 to 796,300.

But Amtrak has said ridership has increased from 815,200 to 858,300 between 2016 and 2018.

Glenview has approved spending more than $500,000 on its campaign to oppose the Hiawatha expansion project.

That has included hiring consultants to create an alternative to the proposed siding.

Amtrak Still Willing to Serve Rockford

January 19, 2019

An Amtrak spokesman recently told an audience in Rockford, Illinois, that the carrier wants to return to their city, but there are no firms plans to do that at this time.

Marc Magliari, who is based in Chicago, said the State of Illinois needs to decide what type of rail service it wants in Rockford, whether it be Amtrak or commuter rail.

“This is an area that’s unserved. We’d like to connect this part of the network to the rest of the network,” Magliari at a meeting of T.R.A.I.N. Illinois, a passenger advocacy group.

Amtrak service to Rockford ended in 1981 when the state ended its funding of the Chicago-Dubuque, Iowa, Black Hawk.

In recent years the Illinois Department of Transportation has studied reinstating intercity rail service to Rockford, but those efforts slowed during the administration of Gov. Bruce Rauner, who was defeated in November in his re-election bid.

Magliari said Illinois transportation policy makers will meet next month to discuss the future of passenger rail in the state.

The Illinois Department of Transportation funds corridor service from Chicago to Milwaukee, St. Louis, Quincy and Carbondale.

As for returning service to Rockford, Magliari said, “The route hasn’t been chosen, there’s been discussion about various routes, there’s been discussion about extending commuter rail service here but in the end if this many people get together to say they want service, we’ll come out and talk and that’s what we’re doing tonight.”

It’s The Turboliner Era All Over Again

January 16, 2019

I posted earlier this month about how the promised “high speeds” on the Chicago-St. Louis corridor have yet to materialize despite $1.95 million having been spent to rebuild the route to allow for 110-mile per hour operation.

Instead, the top speed for Lincoln Service trains and the Texas Eagle is 79 mph, which means that Chicago-St. Louis trains go no faster than, say, Chicago-Carbondale trains.

Trains in the Chicago-St. Louis corridor did travel 110 mph for a time in what Amtrak spokesman Marc Magilari later described as a demonstration project.

So when are higher speeds finally going to become routine for Lincoln Service trains?

The latest word from the Illinois Department of Transportation is that we might see 90 mph speeds this year.

But 110 mph? IDOT won’t go there anymore in predicting when that will happen.

The explanation being given for the delay is the positive train control system that will make higher speeds possible is still being tested.

There is probably a lot of truth to that given that PTC is a relatively new form of technology.

But even when the PTC is ready to go, it will hardly make the Chicago-St. Louis corridor a high-speed operation.

IDOT has said 90 mph speeds will shave 15 minutes off the travel time from the Windy City to the Gateway City.

That doesn’t like seem like much given how much money has been spent on this project.

But then again this was never intended to result in a high-speed rail project even if it might have been framed that way.

The term high-speed rail gets thrown out a lot in this country and when it does many people think of super trains such as the Japanese Shinkansen, the German ICE or maybe even Amtrak’s Acela Express.

Some of those overseas trains have taken on mythical stature in American minds and when I give presentations on transportation history I’m often asked when the United States will have such trains outside the Northeast Corridor.

My standard answer is not in your lifetime because there is too much political opposition and not enough money to make it happen.

Even in Europe where transportation policy makers look more favorable on intercity rail transportation it can take at least a decade to develop a new rail line.

It is hardly news that even in a best-case scenario the efforts to develop the Chicago-St. Louis were never going to result in a high-speed rail line the length of the corridor.

At best it could result in a corridor with high-speed rail in some places but many other places where even 79 mph would be a dramatic improvement.

There is slower going in the Chicago and St. Louis terminals, but also in en route cities such as Springfield where city officials have been talking about putting all of the rail lines into a single corridor for as long as I can remember.

Every so often I run across a news story reporting some progress in those efforts, but it has been incremental.

No one has come up with a viable plan to boost speeds in metropolitan Chicago and St. Louis, only through the corn and soybean fields of the hinterlands.

All of this reminds me of when Amtrak introduced French-built Turboliners to the Chicago-St. Louis corridor in October 1973.

They were capable of traveling 125 mph but couldn’t go any faster than – you guessed it – 79 mph on track then owned by the Illinois Central Gulf.

Super fast running, though, was not the point of introducing the Turboliners an Amtrak official confided to the late David P. Morgan, the editor of Trains magazine.

The purpose of the Turboliners was to show Amtrak was doing something to improve intercity rail passenger service other than making cosmetic changes to equipment that had been built before, during or shortly after World War II.

Come to think of it, the same could be said about the money spent to rebuild the Chicago-St. Louis corridor.

It is a way of showing that something is being done to improve intercity rail service between two cities that if they were located in Europe or Asia would already have had frequent high-speed rail service.

Presumably, Amtrak and host railroad Union Pacific will get the kinks worked out and someday trains will cruise at 90 mph and, maybe, 110 mph.

The Turboliners would have been right at home there. But they were removed from service more than two decades ago and are now just a footnote in the history of a corridor still looking to become something better than what it has been since Amtrak started 47 years ago.

Higher Speeds Continue to Elude Chicago-St. Louis Line

January 4, 2019

Although some $1.95 million has been spent to rebuild the Chicago-St. Louis corridor for speeds of 110 miles per hour operation, the route still has a top speed of 79 mph.

The Illinois Department of Transportation, which oversaw the rebuilding, had said 90 mph top speeds would be allowed in 2018, but that didn’t happen.

The agency is no longer willing to say when 110 mph running will be possible.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch recently reported that higher speeds have been kept at bay due to delays in installing and testing new GPS-related safety technology.

IDOT now says that a top speed of 90 mph will go into effect between Alton and Springfield next summer with those speeds being implemented on the rest of the route by the end of 2019.

A top speed of 90 mph would cut the 5.5 hour Chicago-St. Louis travel time by about 15 minutes.

Although IDOT had predicted at one point that the corridor would see 110 mph speeds by 2019, an agency spokesperson said host railroad Union Pacific is still working with the state to test and place into service a positive train control system that will allow those speeds.

UP owns 25 miles of the 285-mile Chicago-St. Louis route. Amtrak is also working with other carriers that own segments of the corridor to achieve higher speeds.

The spokesperson said it was difficult at the present time to estimate when 110-mph speeds will be permitted because further work is needed on the PTC systems.

The spokesperson also said Amtrak continues to upgrade software on its locomotives to communicate with the PTC system and IDOT is committed to working toward 110 mph speeds as soon as possible.

She said it also hinges on such other factors as how soon a second track is built in a national prairie area south of Joliet.

UP spokeswoman Hannah Bolte said her railroad is “100 percent committed” to doing what’s necessary to achieve 110 mph on the route, but added that the Federal Railroad Administration must approve the PTC systems.

Rick Harnish, executive director of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association, called the delays “incredibly frustrating,” but acknowledged that PTC testing will take time because the technology is new.

Even when the PTC systems are up and running the higher speeds on the route will be limited to rural areas outside the St. Louis and Chicago metro areas.

IDOT Survey to Ask About Amtrak Service

December 13, 2018

The Illinois Department of Transportation is conducting an online survey that will seek public views on various topics, including Amtrak service in the state.

IDOT funds Amtrak corridor trains linking Chicago with Milwaukee, St. Louis and the Illinois cities of Quincy and Carbondale.

Responses to the Illinois Traveler Opinion Survey are being accepted through Dec. 31 at http://www.idot.illinois.gov.

The survey is being conducted in a partnership with the University of Illinois Springfield and covered such other areas as road conditions, ice-and-snow removal, commuting habits and driving behaviors.

The survey has been conducted annually since 2001. A copy of the 2017 survey and results, along with data collected from past years, can be viewed at bit.ly/2Uu4DnF.