Officials preparing for Amtrak-use boost
More and more Americans are hopping on Amtrak trains. Ridership in July was 2.7 million, the most in a month in the railroad's 37-year history.
Amtrak ticket revenue in the 2007-08 fiscal year, which started Oct. 1, has reached $1.4 billion, a 14.1 percent increase over the same period in 2006-07.
High gas prices, an airline industry that's struggling and environmental issues could send even more travelers Amtrak's way. While that's good news for a railroad that was considered on its deathbed a few years ago, there are serious concerns about Amtrak's ability to meet the challenges it faces.
That's a major reason why U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., held a summit Wednesday with Amtrak, state and central Illinois officials in a conference room at the Bank of Illinois Building.
Among the attendees were Amtrak President and CEO Alex Kummant and Illinois Department of Transportation Secretary Milt Sees.
"It wasn't long ago that people were saying that Amtrak is doomed. That day is over," Durbin said.
"Americans are rediscovering Amtrak, but it's putting a stress on the system."
Kummant agrees. He said despite Amtrak's problems with aging equipment and trains that don't run on time, ridership could increase as much as 11 percent this fiscal year. Durbin is pushing for the passage of an Amtrak reauthorization bill that passed in the House of Representatives and Senate but faces a veto from President Bush.
The bill would provide $1.5 billion for Amtrak infrastructure improvements, such as those needed to upgrade Chicago/St. Louis service to 100 mph trains.
The Chicago/St. Louis route has one of the worst records for on-time service in the country. It was on time just 47 percent in 2007, and only 22 percent in July.
"That is unacceptable," Durbin said.
Durbin also has introduced legislation - the Train CARS Act - that would help pay to replace and rehabilitate Amtrak's aging fleet of passenger cars and revive the nation's almost non-existent train car industry.
"Most train cars are now made in places like Canada and Europe," Durbin said. "Amtrak has to go on a waiting list, sometimes for as long as one or two years."
The legislation would also transfer one-quarter-cent of the per-gallon federal gas tax to a trust fund for three years would raise about $400 million yearly for Amtrak equipment.
Illinois subsidizes Amtrak routes to the tune of $28 million annually. Sees, whose department has asked Amtrak to study the feasibility of rail service between Chicago and Peoria, views the subsidy as a good investment.
"We'd like to have a balanced transportation system in Illinois," he said. "I love my car like everyone else, but you get tired of congestion and it isn't a good idea to pave your way out of every traffic problem."
Ridership on Amtrak's Chicago/Milwaukee, Chicago/St. Louis, Chicago/Carbondale and Chicago/Quincy routes is up 19 percent this fiscal year compared to last fiscal year.
Amtrak has 58 daily trains in Illinois. There were 151,376 boardings and alightings in Bloomington-Normal in the last fiscal year, second in the state only to Chicago's 2.7 million.
Steve Stein can be reached at (309) 686-3041 email@example.com.