Posts Tagged ‘Rock Island passenger 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.

Falling Ridership Doesn’t Deter Iowa Rail Advocates

November 26, 2018

Despite falling Amtrak ridership in the state, Iowa rail passenger advocates are pressing ahead with proposals for additional service.

The advocates have been pushing for intercity rail service to Iowa City and Des Moines, both cities that have never had rail passenger service in the Amtrak era.

The last trains to those cities were operated by the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific and had been discontinued before Amtrak began operations on May 1, 1971.

The last train to Des Moines was the May 31, 1970, trip of the Corn Belt Rocket between Chicago and Council Bluffs, Iowa. The Rock Island continued passenger trains through late 1978 between Chicago and Rock Island, Illinois.

The Iowa Association of Railroad Passengers wants to see new routes established between Chicago and Omaha via Des Moines and Iowa City; and a Minneapolis/St. Paul-Kansas City route via Des Moines.

Since 1981, Iowa’s only intercity passenger service has been to the southern third of the state where Amtrak stops at six stations.

Five of those stations are served by the Chicago-Emeryville California Zephyr while a sixth station, Fort Madison, is a stop for the Chicago-Los Angeles Southwest Chief.

Between 1974 and 1981, Amtrak’s Black Hawk originated and terminated in Dubuque, Iowa.

That service was largely paid for by the State of Illinois, which funded it to East Dubuque, Illinois.

But the lack of service facilities in East Dubuque resulted in the train crossing the Mississippi River to Dubuque.

Ridership figures provided by Amtrak show that 57,955 boarded its trains in Iowa during fiscal year 2018, which ended Sept. 20.

That’s a decline of more than 4 percent from FY 2017 and nearly 16 percent off Iowa’s record year for Amtrak ridership of 68,744 in 2010.

During FY 2018, Amtrak said ridership in Iowa by station was Burlington, 8,668; Mount Pleasant, 12,584; Ottumwa: 11,043; Osceola, 16,064; Creston, 3,745; and Fort Madison, 5,891.

Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari told the Des Moines Register  that problems with on-time performance and stable gasoline prices at less than $3 a gallon have probably hurt Amtrak ridership in Iowa.

“Our competition, for the most part, is driving, and as people buy newer cars that get better mileage, part of me wonders if people aren’t finding themselves driving because their cars are higher performing than they were 10 years ago,” Magliari said.

The Iowa Department of Transportation said traffic volume on the state’s highways has risen in recent years as use of public transportation has fallen.

Christopher Krebill, interim president of the Iowa Association of Railroad Passengers, argues that Amtrak also is to blame for falling ridership.

He said the passenger carrier has removed all of its ticket agents from Iowa.

“There are still people who come into the station wanting to buy a ticket and who maybe have never ridden Amtrak before,” Krebill said. “When there is no ticket agent, there is really no one there to answer questions and tell people how to get on a train and where to get on a train.”

Landing additional trains is likely to Iowa going to require state funding, which might be a hard sell.

Iowa policy makers have rebuffed previous proposals to fund service to the state from Chicago, including extending the Black Hawk west of Dubuque.

In the meantime, Illinois officials have resumed work toward creating new services that will come close to Iowa, including a Chicago-Quad Cities route and a resumption of service on the former Black Hawk route.

Krebill said there is interest in Iowa in passenger rail, especially in central Iowa, but that will require support from the state’s department of transportation and state legislators.

Rocketing Into Joliet

February 6, 2017
rock-june-25-1977-x

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.