NEWS

Amtrak’s Midwest ridership steams ahead

John R. Pulliam

If there is any good news about $4 per gallon gasoline, it is that ridership on Amtrak is booming.

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., is working with Amtrak’s CEO to set up a summit to discuss the future of the passenger rail service in the Midwest.

Eight Amtrak trains stop in Galesburg daily. Durbin wants to make sure the rail line has enough capacity to handle ridership on Illinois’ state-subsidized routes, including the Illinois Zephyr and The Carl Sandburg, which make four combined stops here each day while traveling between Chicago and Quincy.

During a meeting earlier this week, Durbin and Amtrak CEO Alex Kummant agreed to gather rail experts and advocates to discuss Amtrak’s future in Illinois. Durbin and Kummant also agreed a plan was needed to deal with what was termed “Amtrak’s severe shortage of passenger rail cars, known as rolling stock, in Illinois and around the country.”

Ridership on the Illinois Zephyr and Carl Sandburg routes was up 41.4 percent in fiscal 2007, compared to fiscal 2006. Ridership on Illinois state-subsidized routes increased another 180,823 passengers during the first two-thirds of fiscal year 2008, to a total of 670,605.

Durbin asked Kummant to bring five rail cars to Illinois to add capacity to those routes, as well as ones between Chicago and St. Louis and Chicago and Carbondale. Kummant has agreed to have five rail cars rehabilitated and ready for immediate use on the routes by the end of this year.

Amtrak is storing train cars that could be rehabilitated at its maintenance facilities in Delaware.

“I look forward to working with Mr. Kummant, the Board of Directors, and the State of Illinois to deal with the shortage of rail cars and to explore other resources that are necessary for Amtrak to keep up with a growing number of riders,” Durbin said in the news release.

Galesburg Mayor Gary Smith on Tuesday thanked Durbin.

“I’m obviously thrilled at any attempt and very appreciative of Sen. Durbin’s help in increasing the amount of trains, Amtrak especially, through the Galesburg route,” Smith said. “We in Galesburg have a proven commodity here. Like in any other business, you throw your money where your proven commodity is.”

Last week the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee approved $1 billion in new funding for Amtrak capital needs and $550 million for operating needs. Another $100 million was approved for capital assistance to states to promote new intercity passenger rail service and improve existing passenger rail corridors.

The upswing in Amtrak ridership may lead to changes here. Galesburg officials agree with Amtrak that the present depot on South Seminary Street is not large enough to handle the growing number of passengers. Also, baggage handling is not available at the station.

City Manager Dane Bragg said changes to the depot are being looked at as a two-stage project.

“The first stage would be to expand the waiting room area of the present depot, with the hope to actually have the Burlington Trailways bus pick-up there, as well,” Bragg said.

The second stage, which Bragg said has been discussed only in the most preliminary terms, would be a new depot not only to accommodate Amtrak but also to be used as a Galesburg Transit transfer point and the home of the Burlington Trailways regional bus service. Car rentals also would be available at what is envisioned as a central transportation station.

Bragg said city officials expect Amtrak ridership to remain healthy but are proceeding with caution.

“Part of it is we want to see how ridership goes,” he said. “We’ve only had a year or so of this solid ridership. ... Gas prices haven’t been high long enough to change behaviors on a permanent basis.”

Part of that change would be a shift in how area residents view traveling to Chicago, Bragg said. Chicagoans are used to riding Amtrak, as well as Metra and CTA commuter trains. Downstate residents still largely view cars as their first transportation option.

“I think it just takes a while for that change to become ingrained here,” Bragg said. “It’s (a new depot) definitely on our radar screen. It’s something we’re watching very closely.”

Galesburg Register-Mail