Endpoints: Chicago-East Peoria, Illinois
Numbers: 311/312; 314 (Sundays only northbound)
Intermediate Stations: Joliet, Eureka, Illinois
Host Railroads: Illinois Central Gulf (former Gulf, Mobile & Ohio) [Chicago-Chenoa]; Toledo, Peoria & Western [Chenoa-East Peoria]
Amtrak Operated: August 10, 1980-October 4, 1981
Named for: The TP&W once had a business car named Prairie Marksman and had proclaimed itself “the road of the Prairie Marksman.”
Pre-Amtrak History: None
Amtrak History: When Amtrak began operations in 1971, the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific elected not to join and continued to operate a Chicago-Peoria daily train, the Peoria Rocket, with the help of state funding. The financially struggling Rock Island was unable to maintain its tracks and its passenger equipment was old and shabby. Chronic lateness and rough riding depressed patronage and the Peoria Rocket made its last trips on December 31, 1978.
Nearly a month before the Peoria Rocket ended, the State of Illinois in cooperation with Amtrak announced on December 6 an agreement to begin Amtrak service to Peoria. The state had studied numerous options to preserve service to Peoria in previous years and favored a route that involved using Santa Fe tracks between Chicago and Chillicothe and then the Rock Island into Peoria. The Santa Fe portion of this route already hosted Amtrak’s Chicago-Los Angeles and Chicago-Houston trains.
But Santa Fe management opposed hosting the Peoria train and no one wanted to pony up the money needed to build a new connection at Chillicothe between the Rock Island and Santa Fe. The existing connection was in the wrong quadrant for Chicago-Peoria operation. The state suggested operating the train in push-pull mode, but Amtrak reportedly was not interested in doing that.
Another proposal was to use a Santa Fe branch line between Streator on the Chicago-Kansas City mainline and Eureka, where the train would join the Toledo, Peoria & Western for the rest of the way into Peoria. But that would require too much capital spending for track rehabilitation.
Amtrak and the Illinois Department of Transportation settled on a route that would use the Illinois Central Gulf (ex-Gulf, Mobile & Ohio) between Chicago and Chenoa, and thence the TP&W to East Peoria. The ICG portion of the route already hosted Amtrak’s Chicago-St. Louis trains.
Although the TP&W segment in question had not hosted passenger service since mixed train service was discontinued in February 1952, the TP&W-ICG routing would require the least capital spending of any of the proposed routes. The TP&W also was willing to have the train.
A major downside to the ICG-TP&W route was that the terminus would not be in Peoria but on the edge of a TP&W freight yard in East Peoria. The TP&W bridge over the Illinois River that linked Peoria with East Peoria was out of service after being struck by a barge. Due to a circuitous routing and freight congestion, an alternative route via the Peoria & Pekin Union would have taken an estimated 40 minutes to reach downtown Peoria once the train left TP&W tracks. The P&PU bridge over the river is located south of downtown Peoria.
The state wanted the Prairie Marksman to begin in mid-1979, but Amtrak delayed the inauguration because it was preoccupied with the massive route restructuring that took place that year. Another issue was labor negotiations. Amtrak did not want the train to change operating crews when switching from one railroad to another. The unions eventually agreed to a pact whereby TP&W crews handled the train between East Peoria and Chicago on one of every three trips.
The connection between the TP&W and ICG at Chenoa was not remote controlled. The train had to stop while a crewmember got out to throw the switches. The northbound Marksman was scheduled to run 10 minutes ahead of the St. Louis to Chicago Statehouse. The southbound Prairie Marksman had to receive train orders at Chenoa because the TP&W was a “dark” railroad. The top speed on the TP&W initially was 50 mph.
The Prairie Marksman began on August 10, 1980. The first northward revenue trip had 123 passengers and was pulled by F40PH No. 312, the train’s road number. The consist included three coaches and an Amcafe. The first train arrived at Chenoa 14 minutes early, but four minutes late in Chicago due to signal problems on the ICG.
Many who rode a publicity special from Chicago to East Peoria two days before service began openly predicted that the Prairie Marksman would fail. The train’s remote Peoria station was cited by many. The 19-seat East Peoria station was a prefabricated building that lacked restrooms or much of anything else. Some media reports erroneously described it as being located in the middle of a railroad freight yard. The taxi fare from downtown Peoria to the Amtrak station was $7.
As if that wasn’t enough, the state had given the Prairie Marksman only 14 months to prove itself. Revenue had to cover at least 49 percent of the cost of operating the train by the end of its trial period. The state paid Amtrak $975,000 to operate the Prairie Marksman, which was 20 percent of the expected first year deficit.
Like other Illinois-funded trains of its era, the Prairie Marksman was oriented toward Chicago day trips, leaving East Peoria at 6:15 a.m. and arriving in Chicago at 9:55 a.m. The return trips departed Chicago at 6 p.m. and reached East Peoria at 9:32 p.m.
The only intermediate stop was at Joliet, although service began at Eureka, Illinois, on July 25, 1981. The initial northbound running time of 3 hours, 40 minutes was reduced by 15 minutes on February 1, 1981. The southbound running time was cut by 17 minutes to 3 hours, 24 minutes. Effective April 26, 1981, the northbound Prairie Marksman began operating an hour and a half later on Sundays and ran as No. 314.
The consist of the Prairie Marksman typically was an F40PH locomotive, two Amfleet coaches and a food service car. Periodically, a high-density Heritage coach would substitute for one of the Amfleet coaches.
To meet its financial goals, the Prairie Marksman would have needed to average 150 passengers a day. In the first week of service, patronage averaged nearly 60 passengers per day, which was below the projected average of 75. Ridership did grow, peaking at 85 per day. But on many days the train averaged 30 or fewer passengers.
A survey sponsored by the state found that many Peoria area residents were aware of the train and the location of its station, but did not find it to be a practical means of travel to Chicago. Only a fifth of those who rode the Prairie Marksman were bound for downtown Chicago. Most travelers between Chicago and Peoria were destined for the suburbs.
Some critics cited high Amtrak fares, noting that the bus was cheaper and offered more frequencies. The Prairie Marksman had begun with introductory fares of $16 one way and a $21 roundtrip. The excursion fare soon rose to $28 while the regular roundtrip fare was $51.50. By contrast, the roundtrip bus fare when the Prairie Marksman began was $18.85.
Critics also noted that Amtrak did not conduct extensive marketing in support of the Prairie Marksman. Peoria-based Caterpillar Tractor Company did suggest that its employees use the train when traveling to Chicago on business. The Illinois Department of Transportation had plans for a marketing campaign, but the state Bureau of the Budget refused for austerity reasons to approve the funding.
“The people who ride the train say they like it. Our problem is getting people on the train for the first time,” Scott Nadler, head of the IDOT railroad program, told the Chicago Tribune.
Unlike many Amtrak trains, the Prairie Marksman seldom had problems with on-time performance. In its early months of operation, the train was often 15 to 30 minutes early. In its last days of operation, it posted a 100 percent on-time performance on the TP&W.
Some thought that the state’s “use it or lose it” message regarding the Prairie Marksman also was counterproductive. Whatever the case, not enough passengers rode the train and the state pulled the plug on its funding. The Prairie Marksman operated southward for the final time on October 3, 1981, returning to Chicago the next day.