16 August 2010

Now for something no one will care about...

...and it may involve some background info. I live in what are called the "Quad Cities" (which are actually 5, or 6, cities, depending on who you ask) of Illinois and Iowa, roughly bisected by the Mississippi River and straight west of Chicago.

There's been something of a push to get Amtrak passenger rail service from Chicago to the Quad Cities, and (most likely and if they're smart) out to Iowa City, which is about 50 miles west of us and the home of the University of Iowa. The proposal wasn't budgeted for in the last big stimulus handout, but hope evidently springs eternal (or somebody knows something I don't) because the city of Moline is going to outlay 13.5 million (!) dollars for an Amtrak station. The problem is, of course, noted in the previous sentence. There's no money for this service to happen. And you should be able to buy one hell of a fancy station for 13.5 mill!

I've heard people around here say 'The government should not be in the transportation business'. I guess the federal and state highway systems and most of the country's airports just popped up after a rainstorm one day. A lot of the railroads, especially out west, were given land grants by the federal government and financially propped up with Federal funds. Government is ALWAYS involved in transportation. It aids commerce, communications, and logistics and few corporations can afford to support an infrastructure system of any size, at least at startup.

Others have said 'The railroads can't take people everywhere they want to go'. Neither can an airplane but plenty of people fly. One talk radio caller said 'If you take it to Chicago, then you have to get on the EL (mass transit) and if you miss your stop, you could end up in a rough part of town'. If you drive a car to Chicago and you make a wrong turn, you could end up in a rough part of town. My suggestion to the caller would have been to stay in his home and don't go outside because someone might say 'Boo!'

Amtrak, as a long distance carrier, suffers from the worst possible disease-inconsistency. Too many people have had, say, a great trip and an outstanding service staff going to a destination, and then have the trip from hell coming back-breakdowns, missed schedules, and a staff that's surly to bed and surly to rise. It makes it hard to justify using the rails for a long trip. Add in that the US is a big country and it's almost always faster to fly from place-to-place. (If any Australians are reading this, I suspect your rail passenger service is roughly similar-a big country with long-distance trains that lose money and shorter 'corridor' runs that are at least breaking even or marginally profitable). There's no way you can get from, say, Chicago to LA or Seattle faster on the ground than in the air. So Amtrak has to sell service and 'the experience', much like a cruise line must do with ships. If 'the experience' is bad, people won't likely come back. The airlines I think are an exception because they can always sell airspeed. They don't necessarily have to give you good service (and likely as not, they won't).

Where Amtrak can do and does reasonably well, are 'corridor', commuter-style runs. Amtrak is competitive in flying along the Northeast Corridor (Washington-Philadelphia-New York-Boston), Hiawatha Service (Chicago-Milwaukee), and probably in California service (LA-San Francisco), distances that can be covered in anywhere from 1-5 hours. Amtrak in Illinois has rail corridors from Chicago to Carbondale (student traffic to University of Illinois, Illinois State University, and Southern Ilinois University) and Chicago to St. Louis (general low-cost passenger service of all sorts).

Most of you know that I'm something of a railfan. Would I like to see Amtrak from here to Chicago? Yes. Let's say I could take the 7am train to Chicago to a Cubs or Bears game or just to see the sights. If you got there by 10:30 am (which is about how long it takes to drive to the Loop from here), you could catch the El to Wrigley and probably get there in time to get settled in, grab a hot dog, and watch batting practice. The game gets done around 4pm. Get back on the El to Union Station and catch the 6pm back to the QCs. Be home around 9:30pm. No fighting Wrigleyville traffic or sitting on the expressway-just grab a beverage and ride in and back in the comfy coach seat and watch the world go by. Nothing wrong with that.

Therein, however, lies something of the rub. A lot of the railroad structure is going to need major work. The main railroad out to the QCs was the Chicago, Rock Island, and Pacific Railroad (The Rock Island), famed pioneer railroad of song. It was the first railroad to reach the Mississippi River, back in the 1850s. The problem is that their line goes through most of the QCs at ground level-a lot of intersections, plus the bridge across the Mississippi is a swing-span right next to a lock-and-dam. In the summertime the span will be opening for barge traffic quite a bit, stopping rail traffic. It could be a slow slog coming through the QCs for a passenger train. Also, the track is a single main, which is slower since trains are usually trying to move both ways on it. That usually means a lot of pulling over at sidings. Add to this that the Rock Island, in its final years (in went bankrupt in 1980) was hurting for cash and 'deferred' track maintenance to the point where trains on their main lines couldn't go much faster then 20 mph. The Rock's successor, the Iowa Interstate, seems to be a well run operation and keeps their machinery and track up to par. They still have the single track, though, and a congested main line through an urban area. Making double-track here would be horrifically expensive to attempt.

If Amtrak can't make an Iowa City-Chicago run consistently on a 4.1/2-5 hour schedule (roughly equivalent to driving), they may as well not bother with starting service because they won't be able to compete with the interstates or United Airlines.

Could a Chicago-Iowa City corridor work anyway? Possibly, if scheduled and marketed right. The trains can't be leaving at 2am or getting here at 3am. I'd suggest a 6am departure from Iowa City (7am from the QCs), arriving in Chicago Union Station at 10:30-10:45am, with a departure from Chicago at 5:30-6pm, arriving in the QCs at 9-9:30pm and arriving in Iowa City at 10:30-11pm. That would seem to me to be reasonable. As for equipment and marketing-I'd start with basically an engine and a couple of coaches and see how the traffic responds. They wouldn't need 15 cars and full service for that short a run. If Amtrak could offer a one-way ticket from IC to Chicago for $25-35, I think they'd do well with student traffic (What college student isn't looking for a cheap way to get someplace?). If they can keep costs equivalent or slightly less than the cost of driving, then the run would be filled often as not. There are plenty of events in Chicago that people from out here go to (Cubs/Bears/Sox/Blackhawks games, shopping, sightseeing) and Iowa Hawkeye college football and basketball games that people might just take the train to see instead of driving to.

You'll notice I started a lot of sentences with 'If...'-too many for me to jump wholeheartedly into the Amtrak thing. I don't know what kind of studies have been done, and while I like the thought of a train trip, I don't want to pay tax dollars for a train with three coaches and as many riders, either. It seems to me that there is a lot more work and thought needing to be done before any of the city governments here start buying land for an Amtrak station.

The interesting part is the choice of land for the station, and I'm sure Moline is looking for the boost a train station might provide for its ghost downtown area. Now, the Illinois QCs did get funds to build a new maintenance center for our bus line. The existing center sits right next to the railroad (in fact, right next to the city of Rock Island's old CRI&P depot!). Put up the new bus maintenance in Moline, tear down the existing maintenance center in Rock Island, and put the Amtrak station on that site. There'd be plenty of room, access to the tracks, a fenced-in area to leave passengers' vehicles, and close to the main roads here. This would seem to make sense, ensure that both cities get some of the funding pie, and could be done for less than $13.5 million. Therefore the government wouldn't do it.

Will we get rail service? I don't know. I'd like to see it, because I think I could make a case for using it. Can it make money or break even? Not sure. I didn't major in transportation engineering. I only know what it's like to sit on the inbound Eisenhower in Chicago and watch the METRA train go whizzing past, not stuck in traffic like I am. Might have some promise, at that. We will see.

On that, I'll leave you with an appropriate tune by The Man In Black.

yankeedog out.


  1. You are spot on about rail, in the Australian election there is at least some recognition that in this big wide and largely sparshly populated land the government(sorry should that be govmint for any talk radio listeners) is proposing the infrastructure for very fast rail at least between the major capital cities.

    Still government transport policy is were civil servants to die. IN an episode 'The Bed of Nails ' of the British TV series Yes Minister

    Jim Hacker: "And after all, we do need a Transport Policy."
    Sir Humphrey: "If by 'we' you mean Britain that is perfectly true, but if by 'we' you mean me and you and this department, we need a Transport Policy like an aperture in the cranial cavity."

  2. When the Rock Island could (and did) run QC to Chicago in 3'10" and on to Des Moines, there were loads of college students from QC, Grinnell, IC and Des Moines. Surprisingly also many from Ames who somehow got to DM to catch the train. Schedules today would be slightly slower because lack of a signal system limits speed west of Wyanet to no higher than 59mph rather than the 80++ we used to run.


  3. I just wanted to point out that Illinois government did allocate some funds for the line and that, according to a study posted on IDOT's website, the Quad Cities service won't be using the old Rock Island Line tracks. Instead, it would use the BSNF tracks (the ones currently used by Carl Sandburg, Illinois Zephyr, Southwest Chief and California Zephyr) until it reached Princeton, at which point it would stitch to Iowa Interstate Railroad tracks.


  4. Barnesy-Amtrak is something of a political football here. It gets funded largely according to the friends it has in high places. Sounds like the state systems there are about the same.

    Ah! 'Yes Minister'. Watch that and politicianspeak will never confuse you again!

    OldeRIrail-If Amtrak could run QC-Chicago in 3hrs 10min to 3hrs 30 min, they'll compete. I'm not extremely familiar with the Rock, but I do know its last years here were lean times. My dad was Milwaukee Road-another outfit that sputtered along towards the end. Thanks for your insight and comment!

    strannik01-Thanks for the link and your comments. I do understand that the BNSF racetrack will be used partway, but I don't know the condition of the Wyanet/QC section for running high-speed passenger rail. I believe IAIS has fixed it up quite a bit, but to be honest I don't know.

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