12.5.08

LATE TRAINS GET LATER. Rockford Register-Star editor Chuck Sweeney takes stock of regional and inter-city developments along the Dairy Route.

Now we discover that the trains are still three to five years away. We are making progress, nonetheless, thanks to federal planning grants secured by Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Rep. Don Manzullo, R-Egan. Last week, consultants released their route and ridership study that picked the Union Pacific line from Rockford through Belvidere, Huntley and Marengo to Elgin as the preferred route for commuter trains.

A lot of people are confused about where Amtrak fits into this picture. It doesn’t. Durbin proposed the reinstatement of Amtrak service from Chicago to Dubuque, Iowa, along the Canadian National line through Elmhurst, Genoa, Rockford, Freeport and Galena.

That’s the former route of Amtrak’s “Black Hawk,” a train promised by the late Bob McGaw when he ran for mayor of Rockford in 1973. McGaw delivered the train in just 10 months. McGaw, a Democrat, was a mayor who had clout in Springfield and knew how to use it.

The “Black Hawk” operated from February 1974 through McGaw’s two terms, but it ended in late summer 1981. The train was nifty in concept, but it was operated by a freight railroad (Illinois Central) that saw it as a nuisance and wasn’t particularly interested in running it on time. I know because I often took that train to Chicago.

Commuter trains and Amtrak trains do different things. The former make many station stops, the latter do not. While we need both, Amtrak service is the quickest to begin, because Amtrak owns the trains and the tracks on the CN line are in good shape. An Amtrak study of 2007 said the CN line would need $31.6 million worth of upgrades from Chicago to Iowa.

That would take state funding. Commuter service on the UP line hasn’t seen passenger trains since about 1950 and the tracks west of Belvidere will need a major, multimillion dollar overhaul. The commuter service also will require voters to approve a tax, most likely a quarter-cent sales tax. Capital cost, according to the TranSystems study released last week, is $247 million.

The guardians of the public purse, however, would rather waive the federal gas tax for the summer, ensuring that the roads will suffer even more from deferred maintenance and corporate welfare for truckers, while Congress will look less fiscally responsible than it does when it masks deficits in other accounts with surpluses in the highway trust fund.

As far as the train service is concerned, CNR, the operator in due course of Illinois Central, are not particularly passenger train friendly, and Union Pacific are likely to demand that the line between Gilberts and Rockford be doubled in order to accommodate the commuter train.

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