Posts Tagged ‘Midwest High Speed Rail Association’

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.

Huntley Wants to be Stop on Rockford Route

January 29, 2019

Officials in Huntley, Illinois, are pushing to be made a station stop for a proposed Amtrak route between Chicago and Rockford, Illinois.

They spoke at a Jan. 15 meeting in Rockford sponsored by the Rail Alliance Initiative for Northern Illinois that was attended by two Amtrak officials.

One of the potential routes that would be used for the service involves Union Pacific-owned tracks that pass through Huntley.

The other route passes to the south on tracks owned by Canadian National that were used by Amtrak’s Chicago-Dubuque, Iowa, Black Hawk, when it operated between 1974 and 1981.

That train stopped in Rockford.

Derrick James, senior manager of governmental affairs in Amtrak’s Chicago office, said Amtrak hopes to be able to make the trip between Chicago and Rockford in less than 90 minutes.

“One of the challenges I’ve had working with legislators is distinguishing between commuter rail and intercity passenger rail,” James said. “Amtrak’s charter is to run intercity trains . . . and our experience is that passenger service works between towns of good size. The train needs to get you as quickly as possible from Rockford to Chicago.”

There have been proposals in past years to link Huntley with Chicago by commuter rail agency Metra.

But Metra has been reluctant to build a connection at its Big Timber station in Elgin to the UP line that passes through Huntley.

The Midwest High Speed Rail Association has projected that it would cost $233 million to extend service beyond Elgin to Marengo, Huntley, Belvidere and Rockford by rebuilding the Union Pacific tracks and connecting them with the Metra Milwaukee West tracks at Big Timber Road.

James said having one stop between Chicago and Rockford would make the most sense for Amtrak and if that is the case it would likely be in Belvidere.

The push to revive Amtrak service to Rockford has been several years in the making.

In 2007 Amtrak conducted a feasibility that estimated the cost of reinstating the Black Hawk at $32 million to $55 million.

Minnesota Rail Study Halted

January 9, 2018

Two Minnesota lawmakers have effectively ended an environmental study of the feasibility of high-speed passenger rail service between the Twin Cities and Milwaukee.

Rep. Paul Torkelson and Senator Scott Newman, both Republicans, and chairmen of the transportation committees in their respective chambers, objected to the Minnesota Department of Transportation accepting federal grant money for the study.

Calling it a waste of taxpayer money, the legislators said that the State of Wisconsin opposes high-speed rail.

“Minnesota should not be squandering precious tax dollars — whether local, state or federal — on a wasteful project actively opposed by other states whose support is necessary to proceed,” the legislators wrote in a letter to the commissioner of the Department of Management and Budget.

Dan Krom, director of MnDOT’s Passenger Rail Office confirmed that the study has been halted even though $1 million in state and federal funding has already been spent on it.

The Minnesota lawmakers were objecting to MnDOT spending another $181,682 being provided by the Federal Railroad Administration.

Krom said the study would have created a “framework for the environmental process moving forward and start looking at some general issues. We didn’t get to any detail; this was just the initial money to get the project started.”

More detailed studies were expected to be conducted at a later date.

Funding for the study originated in 2009 during a economic stimulus program started by the Obama Administration.

Wisconsin was to have received $810 million for a Madison-to-Milwaukee service. However, Republican Scott Walker refused the money after being elected in 2010, saying the service would be too expensive to build and maintain.

Governors in Ohio and Florida also refused rail project stimulus money and the funds were re-directed to other states.

Although Wisconsin continues to fund conventional Amtrak service between Milwaukee and Chicago, Walker continues to oppose high-speed rail service.

“It would be rather inappropriate for us to spend federal funds when there’s no chance of it going forward,” Torkelson said.

Richard Harnish, executive director of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association said it was shortsighted for Minnesota to end its study, which he called “a basic assessment” to understand what’s needed.

“It’s really just fixing the existing track so you can run things faster and more frequently,” he said.

Janice Rettman, a Ramsey County commissioner who is chair of the Minnesota High Speed Rail Commission, called ending the study regrettable.

Senator Scott Dibble, a member of the Transportation Finance and Policy Committee, called the decision unfortunate.

“Do they only want people to have cars and drive? They have a complete disregard for other modes of transportation,” he said.

Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari  said that although faster and more-frequent trains help build ridership, reliability is the most-important attribute in luring more passengers.

MnDOT has been eying a second daily round-trip passenger train to supplement the existing Amtrak service between the Twin Cities and Chicago via Milwaukee. With funding and political support, that service could begin operation in 2022.

Torkelson contended that he does not oppose “anything that is economically viable. You need to use resources in a fashion with projects that actually have a chance of getting done.”

Amtrak’s Chicago-Seattle/Portland Empire Builder is the only rail service between Milwaukee and the Twin Cities.

Canceled Car Contract Not Good News for Rochelle

November 16, 2017

The news that Nippon Sharyo has lost the contract to build new passenger cars for Midwest and California corridor trains operated by Amtrak is not good news for  Rochelle, Illinois.

Nippon Sharyo established a factory in the northern Illinois city that does not see any scheduled passenger trains to build the bi-level cars.

But a prototype car built at the plant failed to pass safety tests and many employees at the Rochelle plant had already been laid off before the California Department of Transportation announced that Siemens will instead complete the cars at a factory in Sacramento, California.

The contract with Nippon Sharyo had been announced in November 2012 by former Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn and was valued at $550 million.

The Illinois Department of Transportation had banded together with its California counterpart to oversee the car orders, which also involves the states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Missouri.

The original contract had called for 130 passenger rail cars of which California agreed to buy 42. The remaining 88 cars were earmarked for Amtrak’s Midwest corridor routes.

Some saw the new cars as a first-step toward creating 125-mph passenger service in the Midwest.

With more than $10 million in state and local financial incentives, Nippon Sharyo opened a new U.S. headquarters and the $35 million passenger rail car facility in Rochelle in July 2012.

As recently as 2015, the Rochelle plant employed 694. Last month employment there was 54.

Illinois officials had said when announcing the contract to build cars in Rochelle that Nippon Sharyo had agreed to create 250 jobs and retain 15 at its office in Arlington Heights. A report in the Chicago Tribune said it is unclear if this agreement has changed.

Nippon Sharyo said it “will continue its business operations going forward with a reduced number of employees to meet the needs of existing customers and contractual responsibilities.”

Caltrans recently said it has awarded a $352 million contract to Sumitomo Corporation of Americas and Siemens to complete the car order that Nippon Sharyo once had.

The new contract calls for 137 single-level rail cars of which 88 will be used in the Midwest.

The Midwest High Speed Rail Association says that single-level cars are safer and better able to protect passengers in the event of a crash.

MHSRA Seeks Phased Network Approach

September 12, 2017

The Midwest High Speed Rail Association is calling for a “phased network approach” to implementing high-speed rail service in the United States, including the Midwest.

In a 50-page white paper, the group said a combination of high-speed trunk lines and upgraded feeder rail routes coupled with dedicated bus services can increase mobility.

Rather than focusing on a point-to-point fast train systems between major cities, the MHSRA plan would provide a blueprint for systems that serve multiple markets and as many constituencies as possible.

The report cited such existing networks in France, Germany and Japan that provide multiple connections from their main stems.

One example would be Chicago-Cincinnati corridor. The report said a combination of upgraded Metra Electric tracks from O’Hare International Airport through Chicago, a high-speed trunk connecting the Windy City with Indianapolis, and conventional feeders to other communities could reduce Chicago-Indianapolis rail travel times from five hours, ten minutes to 90 minutes.

Upgrading existing track to Cincinnati once used by New York Central’s James Whitcomb Riley could result in a three-hour Chicago-Cincinnati overall travel times.

The running time of the current Amtrak Cardinal is eight hours, thirty minutes.

“The core point is that rather than only trying to keep projects affordable, we should be figuring out how to put more people on trains,” said MHSRA Executive Director Rick Harnish. “We need a new ridership and revenue model that combines commuter, feeder, and intercity trips in a way suited to the geography and demographics to the Midwest.”

Midwest Rail Group has New Website, Logo

July 20, 2017

The Midwest High Speed Rail Association has a new website and new logo.

The organization said that the new look brings a modern feel to the association, and the new website’s layout is sharp and streamlined.

The group has long sought to promote the creation of fast, frequent, and reliable trains to the region The site can be found at https://www.midwesthsr.org/

Illinois Passenger Advocates Still Optimistic About Amtrak Expansion to Peoria, Quad Cities Region

April 10, 2016

Midwest rail passenger advocates remain optimistic that Amtrak will eventually reach Peoria, Illinois, and the Quad Cities region of Illinois and Iowa.

Speaking at a meeting held in Chicago, Midwest High Speed Rail Association Executive Director Rick Harnish said he is satisfied that the State of Illinois continues to discuss expansion.

“We’re going to expand Amtrak and we need to do it sooner, rather than later,” Harnish said.

The meeting came a year after Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner proposed cutting state funding for Amtrak service by 40 percent.

That came amid a budget crisis that still continues. However, the Illinois Department of Transportation in February announced an agreement with Amtrak to maintain service at its present levels until this summer.

Harnish said he has received a commitment from the Rauner administration to provide 110-mile-an-hour service on Amtrak’s Chicago-St. Louis corridor in 2017.

He said the widely-held belief that passenger rail is a Democratic issue and opposed by Republicans is a misconception. “It isn’t really that clear-cut,” he said.

Harnish said Republican governors, including Rauner, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker have all supported passenger rail expansion programs.

Walker is known for having opposed an expansion of Amtrak service between Milwaukee and Madison, Wisconsin, shortly after he was elected in 2010. His administration has been supportive of the current Hiawatha Service between Chicago and Milwaukee.

During the meeting, Amtrak officials said the passenger carrier plans to transform Chicago Union Station into a multi-level shopping arcade while moving its ticketing and passenger lounge to the station’s Great Hall in an attempt to eliminate crowding at Amtrak and Metra gates.

Groups Want Double Track Chicago-Detroit Route

December 4, 2015

Two passenger rail advocacy groups are calling for the installation of a second track to the Chicago-Detroit route used by Amtrak.

The Midwest Association of Railroad Passengers and the Midwest High Speed Rail Association said double-tracking the line would help Amtrak offer more service that operates more reliably and at higher speeds on the 300-mile route.

The Michigan Department of Transportation said it is in the process of studying the route with the purpose of making improvements that will allow for faster and more frequent service.

Bu MDOT said it is not considering double-tracking the entire route, which is used by six daily Amtrak Wolverine Service trains.

Once MDOT finishes its study and route changes are made, the Chicago-Detroit corridor will have about 160 miles of single track.

“We think the state should be planning for a lot of growth on the corridor,” said Rick Harnish, executive director of Midwest High Speed Rail Association. “That means you have to have two tracks, an east track and a west track, the whole way.”

MDOT officials said they considered double-tracking the Chicago-Detroit route in Michigan but decided against it.

“A capacity analysis concluded that double-tracking the entire corridor in Michigan was not necessary to accommodate full build-out service,” said MDOT spokesman Michael Frezell.

Full build-out refers to the goal of having 10 daily Chicago-Detroit roundtrips with trains traveling at an average speed of 58 miles per hour.

MDOT’s objective is to reduce the Chicago-Pontiac travel time to 5 hours, 16 minutes compared with today’s 6 hours, 40 minutes.

Frezell said such things as cab signals, GPS and other technological improvements would be able to reduce the running time without the need for continuous double track.

“MDOT is being fiscally responsible by not double-tracking the entire railroad now,” Frezell said. “If conditions change in the future there is always the opportunity to expand capacity in the existing right of way because the railroad was once double-tracked and the rail bed remains.”

Amtrak spokesman Marc Magilara said that in fiscal year 2014 the Wolverines carried 477,157 passengers.

However, ridership in FY 2015 fell to 465,627. The fiscal year runs from October to September.

Bills Introduced for EIS for Illinois High-Speed Rail

March 29, 2015

Some Illinois lawmakers are continuing to push for high-speed rail in the state even in the face of threatened cuts to the existing state-funded Amtrak service.

Senate Majority Leader Clayborne, D-Belleville, and Representative Ammons, D-Champaign, introduced identical bills seeking $15 million for a Tier I environmental impact statement for a Chicago-East St. Louis/Indianapolis high-speed line.

The Midwest High Speed Rail Association has pushed for the over the past few years and says that a Tier I EIS is a critical piece of planning work needed to design a route.

The proposed route would connect O’Hare Airport, Chicago Union Station, McCormick Place, Champaign, Decatur, Springfield and East St. Louis. It would also feature a branch to Indianapolis from Champaign.