Endpoints: Chicago-Carbondale, Illinois
Numbers: 390, 391
Intermediate Stations: Homewood, Kankakee, Gilman, Rantoul, Champaign, Mattoon, Effingham, Centralia, Du Quoin
Host Railroad: Canadian National (former Illinois Central)
Amtrak Operated: October 30, 2006-Present
Named for: A type of Egyptian dog that is the nickname for athletic teams at Southern Illinois University. Little Egypt is a longtime moniker for southern Illinois
Pre-Amtrak History: None
Amtrak History: Years of lobbying the Illinois General Assembly for additional funding to increase Amtrak service paid off in May 2006 when the legislature approved increasing the state’s Amtrak funding from $12.1 million to $24 million for fiscal year 2007, which began July 1. The result was an additional Chicago-Carbondale roundtrip.
The new train was scheduled to depart Chicago at 9:15 a.m. and Carbondale at 7:30 a.m. The southbound train would roughly operate in the time slot of the former Shawnee before it ended in January 1986. The northbound train would operate on a schedule similar to that of the northbound Shawnee in its first six months of Amtrak operation in 1971. The northbound Saluki operates four hours later than the City of New Orleans.
Inauguration of the Saluki would not require additional equipment. The train sets used for the Illini were already laying over for more than 12 hours in Chicago and Carbondale. The equipment that came into Chicago at night on the northbound Illini would turn the next morning to become the southbound Saluki. That equipment set would turn at Carbondale to become the northbound Illini. The southbound Illini equipment set would turn at Carbondale the next morning to become the northbound Saluki, which then turned at Chicago to become the Illini again.
An inauguration special operated from Carbondale to Chicago on October 17, 2006. Carbondale mayor Brad Cole broke a bottle of southern Illinois wine across the rear of an Amtrak business to christen the train. Among the dignitaries on board were Amtrak President Alex Kummant.
The Saluki was to begin service October 30, but a last minute snafu almost derailed the train. About a week before the service was to begin Canadian National demanded last minute changes and threatened to now allow the Saluki to use its tracks. Amtrak and CN had reached in July an agreement regarding CN hosting the Saluki, but now the railroad claimed that the additional Amtrak service might interfere with its freight trains. CN wanted the right to revoke the operating right of the Saluki after one year.
Amtrak threatened to take legal action to enforce the July agreement with CN and Illinois Senator Dick Durbin also got involved in the dispute. Within days, CN, Amtrak and the state reached yet another agreement allowing the trains but calling for a study of whether the additional Amtrak service adversely affected CN’s freight operations and establish a capital-spending action plan to rectify any congestion issues if they arose. The Saluki began service as scheduled on October 30, 2006.
The new service did not occur without teething problems. In the first five months of operation, the Saluki and Illini reached their terminal points late 30 percent of the time. This came during a time when ridership on the Saluki and Illini combined totaled 73,000 in the first five months of Saluki service, a 55 percent increase over what the Illini alone had carried in the same period a year earlier.
An Amtrak official told a meeting of the Illini Rail Corridor Coalition held in Mattoon in early April 2007 that weather related problems and freight train interference had caused many trains to incur delays. The official predicted that the problems would be smoothed out as CN dispatcher became more used to handling the new trains in the mix of freight traffic.
During summer 2008, Amtrak agreed to operate the Saluki an hour earlier southbound to accommodate CN trackwork. The change was made permanent with the October 27, 2008 schedule change. During summer 2008, the northbound Saluki operated an hour earlier due to the track work.
The clientele aboard the Saluki mirrors that, generally, of the Illini. The train is heavily patronized by college students from Southern Illinois University, Eastern Illinois University (located 10 miles east of Mattoon in Charleston) and the University of Illinois. Although it is possible to take the Saluki to Chicago for a day trip, the schedule is not ideal if you plan to return on the Illini, which departs three hours after the Saluki arrives. Passengers have the option of going to or from Chicago on the City of New Orleans, but fares on the City tend to be significantly higher between the same city pairs than those of the Saluki and Illini.