Amtrak-Illinois DOT Feasibility Study Determines Most Direct Route Best for Service to Rockford, Northwestern Illinois and Dubuque, Iowa

CHICAGO – After a period of extensive public involvement, the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) has chosen the most direct route as the best choice of four options for restoring rail service to a section of the state which lost passenger rail service more than 25 years ago.

Following three community meetings and a web-based public comment period, IDOT has asked Amtrak to work with the CN railroad, which owns the tracks, to restore state-supported service when funding becomes available.

“It is clear from the series of public meetings we’ve held over the last few months and the extensive amount of input we have received from the community that there is strong public support for restoring passenger rail service between Chicago, Rockford and Dubuque,” said Milt Sees, Acting IDOT Secretary. “A reliable rail connection would reduce highway congestion and help give travelers an option to avoid high fuel prices.”

In July 2006, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin hosted a town meeting in Rockford to gauge support for Amtrak service in the region. Durbin was joined by Cong. Don Manzullo, Amtrak and IDOT representatives, labor officials and community leaders from Boone, Winnebago, Stephenson, Jo Daviess, DeKalb and Ogle Counties.

“Amtrak ridership has seen record increases over the past three years,” said Sen. Durbin (D-Ill.). “One thing that was clear from the public meetings we held in the past few months — Northern Illinois needs dependable passenger rail service. Today’s announcement brings us a step closer to that goal. I am proud to have helped the communities in Northern Illinois in this effort.”

“We are excited the State of Illinois has selected the route for Amtrak service and we can move forward to the next step,” said Cong. Don Manzullo (R-Egan). “This quick decision was made possible because our local officials put their personal preferences aside and did what was best for the region. As a result, we are closer than ever to restoring daily passenger rail service to northern Illinois.”

After the report was delivered by Amtrak to IDOT in March 2007, IDOT held a meeting so Amtrak could present the report to area officials and an open house-style public meeting was also held by IDOT. The report was posted for public comment on the IDOT website.

Since then, communities represented in the Rockford Area Transportation Study board endorsed IDOT’s process, preliminary meetings were held with railroad officials, further refinements have been made to the data and an additional route combination was considered beyond the original three options. The route suggested by Winnebago County Board Chairman Scott Christiansen (“Route D”), would require an at-grade track connection between Metra and Iowa, Chicago and Eastern (ICE) railroad tracks in Kane County and a new connection where the ICE passes under the CN railroad at Genoa, in DeKalb County.

With the exception of the Union Pacific route though Belvidere (“Route A” in the original study), all the routes assume a stop at or near Genoa, 15 minutes south of Belvidere, to tap ridership potential in Boone and DeKalb Counties.

Annual ridership estimates range from 77,500 for the all-CN route chosen by IDOT (“Route C” in the original study) to 46,000 for the Rockford Airport route (“Route B” in the original study). The annual operating cost to the state is estimated at up to $5 million, based upon a single daily round-trip frequency.

In the original feasibility report prepared by Amtrak at the direction of IDOT, the approximate cost of upgrading the railroad infrastructure was up to $62 million, dependant on the choice of routes. The latest estimated capital funding needs range from a low of $32 million for the all-CN route chosen by the state (and used for state-supported Black Hawk service until 1981), to a high of $55 million for a route via the airport. Not included in these capital figures are what are assumed to be the local costs of providing stations.

Chicago-Rockford travel times of nearly two hours and Chicago-Dubuque travel times of about five hours are possible and would be competitive with automobile driving. Amtrak estimates two-to-three construction seasons would be needed to make the infrastructure improvements necessary to achieve these travel times, depending on the timing of the completion of negotiations with CN.

“The numbers in our report were further developed through consultations with local officials, the public and the host railroads,” said Michael Franke, Amtrak Senior Director, Corridor Development. “The public nature of the process improved on our research and verified the original finding that the all-CN route is faster, less expensive to improve, less complicated to operate and therefore has the best ridership potential.”

Detailed negotiations with CN regarding schedules, staging construction projects and other issues remain. There is no funding in Illinois’ 2007-2008 budget for capital or operating costs of the service, but Amtrak will continue to work with IDOT and CN to bring the project to as close as possible to a ready-to-act status.

“The process directed by IDOT’s Bureau of Railroads can serve as a model as Amtrak does other route feasibility studies in Illinois and elsewhere,” said Franke.

IDOT has asked Amtrak to deliver two other feasibility reports, to study state-supported service to the Quad Cities (including Rock Island and Moline, Ill.,) and to Peoria. Both communities have never been served by Amtrak trains and both lost passenger rail service in 1978, when the Rock Island Railroad discontinued operations.