Rock Island’s Rockets
Peoria Rocket/Quad City Rocket
Endpoints: Chicago-Rock Island, Illinois; Chicago-Peoria, Illinois
Numbers: 5/6 (Quad City Rocket), 11/12 (Peoria Rocket)
Intermediate Stations: Englewood, Blue Island, Joliet, Morris, Ottawa, LaSalle-Peru, Bureau (both trains); Henry and Chillicothe (Peoria Rocket); Sheffield and Geneseo (Quad City Rocket)
Host Railroad: Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific
Named for: The cities served by the trains. The Rock Island used “Rocket” in the names of many of its passenger trains because it suggested speed and modernity.
Pre-Amtrak Era History: The Peoria Rocket began September 19, 1937, as a streamliner between Chicago and Peoria using a four-car train set built by the Budd Company. The Peoria Rocket applied to two Chicago-Peoria roundtrips that made the 161-mile trip in 160 minutes.
Like most passenger trains, patronage of the Peoria Rockets declined in the 1960s. In 1968, the Rock Island ended the morning Rocket to Peoria and the afternoon Rocket to Chicago. A year later the railroad quietly renamed the surviving trains the Peorian.
Chicago-Rock Island Nos. 5-9/6-8 evolved from an amalgam of four trains whose routes had been shortened and the trains consolidated in 1967 to a Chicago-Rock Island operation. These included the Rocky Mountain Rocket (No. 8) Corn Belt Rocket (No. 9) and Des Moines Rocket (Nos. 5/6).
A December 1970 issue of the Official Guide of the Railways showed the Peorian and the Chicago-Rock Island trains had a club diner, parlor car and chair cars. These equipment assignments remained unchanged into the Amtrak era.
Amtrak Era: The Rock Island stayed out of Amtrak because its projected buy in fee of $4.7 million was higher than the expected $1 million deficit of the two pairs of intercity passenger trains that it still operated. The buy-in fee was calculated on 1969 passenger train losses of $9 million. By 1971 the Rock Island had four fewer passenger trains than it had in 1969. This decision meant that the Rock Island had to operate its trains through January 1, 1975. After that, it could seek regulatory approval to end them.In mid-1971, the State of Illinois agreed to makeup two-thirds of the deficit of the Peoria and Rock Island trains. By mid-1972, the Rock Island had restored the Peoria Rocket name to the Peoria trains and named the Rock Island trains the Quad City Rocket. Both were assigned coaches, parlor cars and dining cars. The equipment sounded better than it was. The cars were clean, but bedraggled with tattered seats and windows scratched or broken.
The biggest issue surrounding the Rockets was the poor condition of the tracks. The financially strapped Rock Island had made deferred maintenance a way of life. One estimate was that rebuilding the track over its 7,500-mile system to good condition would cost upwards of $700 million.
For years the Rock Island had hopes that a merger with the Union Pacific would be its salvation. The merger was proposed in 1962, but it took the Interstate Commerce Commission 10 years to approve it. By then the UP was no longer interested in a marriage with the Rock because its track was in such bad condition.
As the date approached for the Rock Island’s legal obligation to operate its intercity passenger trains to expire, management badly wanted to be rid of the Rockets. The state subsidy helped, but the losses had increased and patronage was sinking fast.
However, the trains had a high degree of political support. The state of Illinois has indicated that it would fight discontinuance and Rock Island management decided to continue to swallow the deficits. Management feared that the state might cut off its subsidy and a discontinuance fight could languish before the Illinois Commerce Commission and in the Illinois courts for a long time.
A number of developments occurred in 1975 starting with the Rock Island filing for bankruptcy protection on March 17. The Rock Island asked the court to direct other railroads to take over as the operator of its system and a controlled liquidation was to be conducted on March 30. But the liquidation was called off and the Rock Island would continue to operate as it had before.
Two months later, the Rock Island hired passenger train advocate Anthony Haswell to oversee its intercity and commuter rail passenger operations. Haswell, a founder of the National Association of Railroad Passengers, had long believed that many railroads had deliberately driven away passengers in order to make the case for discontinuing passenger service. But even Haswell soon realized the uphill struggle that the Rockets faced.
Haswell said that track rehabilitation that would result in faster and more reliable operation was the only hope for the Rockets, which he described as “a profligate waste of public funds.”
Although the top speed of the Rockets was 60 mph, slow orders covered much of their routes. In many places, particularly between Peoria and Bureau, the Rockets limped along at 10 miles per hour. Before each trip, locomotive engineers received six pages of slow orders.
An hour of running time was added to the schedules in September 1975, but it did little to alleviate the chronic lateness. The Rockets posted an on-time rate of 41 percent in 1975.
Not only was the ride slow, it was rough. Passengers deserted the Rockets in droves. Patronage fell from 51,500 in 1972 to 22,200 in 1975. On some days no one rode the Peoria Rocket. Ridership of the Quad City Rocket was slightly higher because it carried numerous railroad employees deadheading home or to another assignment.
In 1974, the Peoria Rocket averaged 91 passengers per day, while the Quad City Rocket averaged 143. Three years later, the average ridership had fallen to 26 on the Quad City Rocket and 13 on the Peoria Rocket. The running time if all went well – which it usually did not – was 4.5 hours between Chicago and Rock Island and 4.25 hours between Chicago and Peoria. At one time Rock Island passenger trains scampered between Chicago and Rock Island in just over three hours.Amtrak Involvement:
If the Illinois was going to insist that the Rock Island continue to operate the Rockets then the railroad wanted a new funding deal with the state that included more money. That led state officials to approach Amtrak in 1975 about taking over the Rockets.
One thing was a given. Amtrak was not about to operate the Rockets solely over Rock Island’s poor tracks. The parties proposed shifting the Quad City Rocket to the Chicago & North Western between Chicago and Agnew, and thence over Burlington Northern between Agnew and Rock Island. The Peoria Rocket would move to the Santa Fe between Chicago and Chillicothe, then back to Rock Island rails into Peoria.
In preparation for a possible takeover of the Rockets, Amtrak identified five E-series locomotives that would be equipped with Rock Island cab-signal devices and assigned to the Illinois Central Gulf’s Woodcrest shops in Chicago for maintenance.
At one point, state and Amtrak officials even discussed operating two Chicago-Peoria roundtrips that not only would serve downtown Peoria but be extended across the Illinois River to adjacent Pekin. Since 1967, Rock Island passenger trains had served Peoria from a small station the railroad built adjacent to it freight yard on the north side of town. The downtown Peoria station, which had been built in 1891, had been converted into a restaurant after the railroads abandoned it.
None of the railroads wanted to have anything to do with hosting the Rockets and the state didn’t want to antagonize the Santa Fe. Another stumbling block was which terminal to use in Chicago. The Rockets used LaSalle Street Station whereas Amtrak wanted the trains to use Union Station, where all of its Chicago trains terminated.
Neither Amtrak nor the state was willing to spend the money needed to rebuild the Rock Island’s track into Peoria. At one point the Rock Island demanded that the state pay to install centralized traffic control on this segment or pay for operators to be on duty 24 hours a day at Bureau.
By now trustee William Gibbon was running the Rock Island and he aggressively cut costs wherever possible. The previous November the Peoria Rocket had lost its dining car in favor of a sandwich service operating out of a coach after a cracked center sill sidelined the diner. The Quad City Rocket lost its diner in January 1976. The diners had only lasted as long as they did because the railroad was contractually obligated to pay a long period of severance to the dining car crews.
To give some idled dining car staff something to do the Rock Island had stationed a diner and club car on Track No. 1 at La Salle Street Station and on May 23, 1972, opened a restaurant in them that was named “Track One.” The cars once had been assigned to the Golden State Limited, which had arrived in Chicago for the last time on February 21, 1968. The Track One restaurant closed in May 1975.
The Rockets may have been wretched trains that seemingly cried out for a merciful death, but they also had a quirkiness about them that you would not have found on any Amtrak train. One night in 1976 when the commissary in Chicago failed to put enough food aboard, the conductor ordered the Quad City Rocket to hold for 10 minutes in Ottawa while someone ran over to a nearby restaurant to buy sandwiches for passengers and crew. That occurred despite the train already being more than an hour late.
Writing in Trains magazine in December 1981, Edward J. Brunner and Stu Eidson observed that it took at least three trips aboard one of the Rockets for their charm to reveal itself. Crews were friendly, but it was a curious sort of friendliness, they wrote. ” . . . they asked to be taken as your equal.”
The Peoria Rocket would stop to let you off closer to your home than the station and crewmembers tossed newspapers to trackside residents. One engineer was known for cooking pepper steak, ham and cheese casserole, or biscuits and gravy on the red-hot cover of the locomotive oil cooler.
The Protracted Endgame: The Rock Island was caught in a squeeze over the Rockets. The state refused to underwrite the full losses of the trains but insisted that they continue to operate despite plunging patronage, poor operating conditions and growing deficits. The Rock Island in July 1976 asked the Illinois Commerce Commission for permission to discontinue the trains. By now the Rockets were losing $1,700 a day. But the state regulatory body was not known for acting swiftly and the case would drag on for months. With the situation surrounding the Rockets becoming intolerable, the Rock Island suggested that the trains be replaced with buses that would connect with Amtrak trains. But the state rejected that as unacceptable.
In the meantime, Amtrak the Illinois Department of Transportation and the Rock Island continued to discuss an Amtrak takeover of the Rockets. The railroad had set aside $6 million to rebuild the mainline between Chicago and Rock Island. Presumably this would allow an Amtrak-operated Quad City Rocket to reliably cruise at 60 mph. As for the Peoria Rocket, IDOT pledged $2 million toward rebuild the Rock Island track between Peoria and Chillicothe, where the Rocket would get onto Santa Fe rails.
Although the three parties discussed this plan at a meeting on March 21, 1977, they did not reach an agreement to execute it. There remained the matter of constructing a new connection at Chillicothe, getting the Santa Fe to agree to accept an Amtrak-operated Peoria Rocket and the pending discontinuance of both Rockets that the Illinois Commerce Commission was considering.
In a 3-1 vote in August 1977, the Illinois Commerce Commission denied the Rock Island permission to end the Rockets. The majority wrote that the service should continue for another year to see if the track rehabilitation that had commenced that year would improve service enough to reverse the downward spiral the trains had been in for some time. The dissenting commissioner called this wishful thinking.
Later that month the Rock Island took its case for ending the Rockets to the federal Interstate Commerce Commission. As it would turn out, the federal ICC would not move any faster in ruling than had its Illinois counterpart. The ICC did hold hearings in January 1978, and an administrative law judge ruled in early May that the Rock Island could ground the Rockets, noting that they were losing $1.5 million a year.
The Rockets were set to end on May 29, but IDOT and three cities served by the trains appealed the decision and the Commission stayed its ruling and set a 180-day period to review the case.
By one report, the rebuilding of the Rock Island mainline west of Joliet in 1977 had left it capable of 70-mph speeds, although the authorized top speed for passenger trains was 60. A Rock Island auto parts train reportedly was permitted to operate at 70 mph and the Rockets sometimes did too when trying to make up lost time. There still remained several sections of slow track on the Rock Island, though.
The administrative law judge had recommended that the Rock Island be allowed to discontinue the Rockets, saying they had become an intolerable drain on the railroad’s finances. The Rockets collectively averaged 17 passengers a day. Their losses had ballooned to a projected $5 million. Yet the state still only paid $1 million annually toward making up the deficit.
The state continued to oppose the discontinuance. Amtrak continued to say it was interested in a Chicago-Peoria route but insisted that someone else pay for track rehabilitation on the Rock Island before it would consider taking over the service.
The ICC finally ruled on October 20 that the Rockets could end. The expected discontinuance date was November 18-19. But the day before the Rockets were to leave Chicago for the final time the ICC stayed its order at the request of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and the State of Illinois.
By now, though, few thought that Rockets would be around much longer. The state and Amtrak were about to finalize a plan to bring Amtrak to Peoria by using an Illinois Central Gulf route (former Gulf, Mobile & Ohio) between Chicago and Chenoa that was used by Amtrak’s Chicago-St. Louis trains. At Chenoa, the Amtrak Peoria train would turn westward onto the Toledo, Peoria & Western.
The TP&W had not carried passengers here since the early 1950s, but was willing to host the train provided that the state funded some track rehabilitation. An agreement to launch this Chicago-Peoria service, which actually would terminate in East Peoria, was announced on December 6. Service to Rock Island apparently was deemed expendable.
Although IDOT officials acknowledged that the new Peoria train likely would lose $60,000 a month, they were optimistic that it would fare better than had the Peoria Rocket, which had lost 54 percent of its ridership since 1976. Still, IDOT officials said the Chicago-Peoria market was somewhat unknown because the Rock Island service had been so bad.
Not long after announcing the plan to bring Amtrak to Peoria, the Interstate Commerce Commission again cleared the way for the Rockets to blast off into history. By now the state had given up as had just about everyone else who had fought over the past three years to keep the trains.
The Rockets departed Chicago for the last time on December 31, 1978. By coincidence a severe snowstorm struck Chicago that day and most flights at Chicago O’Hare International Airport were grounded. But the Rockets plowed right through and the Rock Island became the first non-Amtrak member railroad to end all intercity rail passenger service after having met its legal obligation to continue the service for at least three years after the inauguration of Amtrak.