Amtrak is coming off a record year for ridership. And it still hopes to re-establish service in northwest Illinois. That was supposed to happen near the end of this year. But supporters wonder if the project will get off the ground by then. Some also wonder if the new route will attract enough customers to sustain itself.
For the better part of a decade, elected officials in the region have dreamt about the day they could boast about
a particular attraction for their respective communities: passenger train service.
Since the mid-2000s, that dream has been inching closer to reality. Around that time, feasibility studies were launched to determine costs and potential ridership. A few years later, a route was approved linking Chicago and Dubuque, Iowa, with several stops in between. This would replace the old Blackhawk line that was discontinued in the early 1980s.
Freeport Mayor Jim Gitz says he still believes it will happen. But he admits the projected deadline of late 2014 might be too optimistic.
“There are some tricky little things that have to be worked out in order for this thing to come together,” Gitz said.
One of the big hang-ups right now is track improvement negotiations between the Illinois Department of Transportation and Canadian National Railway. In an e-mailed response, IDOT would only say that talks continue, and that a schedule for the start-up of service will be announced upon the completion of negotiations.
Still, communities like Freeport remain undeterred. Mayor Gitz says that, like other cities on the planned route, they are moving forward with plans to build a train station.
“Everyone from this end is heavily dedicated to the project because we know it can do great things for the region,” Gitz said.
Former 16th District Congressman Don Manzullo played an active role in securing support for the project. He says no matter when the route is launched, it’s fair to raise this question: Will enough people in the region use the trains?
“The schedules have to be conducive with a morning train coming to Chicago, and an evening train back towards Rockford. Otherwise, people won’t use it,” Manzullo said.
However, Manzullo says it’s still worth the effort.
“It’s been started. You just have to keep working on it,” Manzullo said. “Everybody wants to see this come to pass.”
Marc Magliari is a regional spokesman for Amtrak. He says it’s up to IDOT to decide who would operate the service. But he says Amtrak is still very interested in running the trains. And the department says it still plans to choose the commuter rail agency to operate things.
As for concerns about ridership, Magliari suggests there would be an enhanced effort this time around to sustain the route and not let problems get in the way of attracting customers. He says that was a factor in the state discontinuing the old service.
“The maintenance of the route -- and the viability of the route -- was very much subject to question,” Magliari said, “so the trains themselves were certainly not as reliable as needed to attract ridership.”
Magliari adds that while gas prices have stabilized, they probably won’t see a major decrease in the near future. He says that, coupled with schedule times that compete with driving, should make it a successful route. And IDOT says with ridership growth on other corridors, it’s confident that demand for this route is still sufficient to justify the effort.
Mayor Gitz in Freeport echoes those sentiments. He says there will be more awareness created for this venture. Gitz says there are a lot of good selling points, even if it takes a little longer to get those trains running:
“I prefer 2014,” Gitz said. “But I’ll accept 2015 or 2016, if that’s all that can be done.”
Stops on the planned route include Elgin, Genoa, Rockford, Galena, with Chicago and Dubuque serving as the bookends.