Posts Tagged ‘Peoria Rocket’

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.

Rocketing Into Joliet

February 6, 2017
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The Peoria Rocket arrives at Joliet Union Station on June 25, 1977, as a handful of people watch.

There was a time when the Rocket name meant very good service on the Rock Island Railroad. But June 1977 was not one of those times.

It is an early Saturday evening in Joliet, Illinois, as the Peoria Rocket approaches Joliet Union Station.

The Rocket is funded in part by the State of Illinois, but that will not be enough to keep it going much longer.

I had boarded the Rocket in Peoria earlier in the day for a day trip to Chicago. I was appalled by the condition of the train and made a spur-of-the-moment decision to ride Amtrak’s Lone Star to Joliet to pick up the Rocket for my return leg to Peoria.

The ride aboard the Rocket was rough and there had been few passengers on the trip to Chicago earlier in the day. The equipment was worn out.

In retrospect I wished I had better appreciated the experience that I had, though. The Peoria Rocket was one of the last of its kind.

I also wish that I had better photography skills than I had when I made this image. Namely, that I had waited to snap the photograph until the nose of the locomotive was closer.

But I was young and had much to learn. Today this image reminds me of another time that is never going to come back around, but at least I did make the effort to experience it.

A Station Amtrak Never Saw

January 27, 2017

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For a few years in the late 1970s, the State of Illinois helped underwrite the financial losses of a pair of Rock Island Railroad intercity passenger trains.

The Rock had elected not to join Amtrak in 1971 because it figured it was cheaper that way. So it had to keep operating its Chicago-Rock Island and Chicago-Peoria trains.

They received spiffy names, the Quad Cities Rocket and the Peoria Rocket. Actually, there always had been a Peoria Rocket, more than one as a matter of fact.

I rode the Peoria Rocket to and from Chicago in June 1977. The train was as bare bones as the financially struggling Rock Island could make it. It had two coaches and a single E unit.

At the urging of the state, Amtrak agreed to study taking over the Rockets. But that never happened and the last trips of the Rockets occurred in late 1978.

The photograph above was made from aboard the Peoria Rocket during a station stop in Ottawa, Illinois.

It could have been an Amtrak station, but the price of Amtrak taking over the Peoria Rocket was just too high. Ottawa hasn’t seen intercity rail passenger service since.