PI Original Mose Buchele Thursday July 31st, 2008, 11:01am

Amtrak Follow-Up: What's In It For Illinois?

Yesterday I wrote a post on
Dick Durbin's proposal to beef up Amtrak funding. With gas prices
frequently breaking record highs and air travel getting more expensive
and less convenient, Durbin is betting on a rail renaissance throughout
the country. Over at Crain's...

Yesterday I wrote a post on Dick Durbin's proposal to beef up Amtrak funding. With gas prices frequently breaking record highs and air travel getting more expensive and less convenient, Durbin is betting on a rail renaissance throughout the country. Over at Crain's, Greg Hinz takes up the Prairie State perspective and points out that ridership between Chicago and Springfield was up 67 percent last year and an additional 15 percent this year. He goes on to ask what a better Amtrak system would look like in Illinois. And the answer is enough to make a train geek's mouth water:

[T]he Illinois Department of Transportation says a good half-hour could be cut [between Chicago and Illinois], and service delays could be slashed, if about $10 million was spent on new signals, track sidings and the like.“That’s chump change,” says Rick Harnish, executive director of the Midwest High Speed Rail Assn., a citizens’ group. Indeed, $10 million maybe buys you a couple of extra exit ramps on the typical interstate highway.

For another $250 million, the magic sub-2½-hour service to Springfield is available, according to George Weber, acting chief of the rail bureau of the Illinois Department of Transportation. The bulk would go to build bridges over other rail tracks on the Southwest Side, something that would make neighbors quite happy. And another $125 million gets you St. Louis in four hours aboard trains moving 110 mph, Mr. Weber says.

Then there’s Mr. Durbin, who’s been pursuing everything from meeting with freight-rail operators to jawbone them into moving their trains out of Amtrak’s way to sponsoring a bill this week to provide more funds for new equipment.

For instance, remember those old double-decker Santa Fe cars that used to run from Chicago to Los Angeles? They’re still around, in storage, but they were built like tanks and can be restored. Mr. Durbin wants to appropriate $400 million a year by shifting money from a highway trust fund, as well as authorize Amtrak to issue $2.8 billion in bonds for a capital program requiring a 20% state match

Hinz also reminds us that one of the reasons for Amtrak's steady decline is the persistent underfunding by Republicans ideologically opposed to a federally subsidized transit network. Nowadays the economic boost alone makes a reliable and speedy alternative to air travel sound like a great idea. Add to that the environmental benefits of expanding rail travel and an Amtrak renaissance begins to seem like a no-brainer.

Image used under a Creative Commons license by Flickr user thomas.merton.

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