Coming or Going
Reinventing Illinois passenger rail
An essay of lament (plus a fair bit of reporting) about the lost glories of Illinois’s long-gone passenger trains and a plea that Congress, as the published subtitle put it, quit arguing about Amtrak and start thinking about trains fits for a modern nation. Sharp-eyed readers wil note that I repeated the substance of a joke I used in a Reader piece about Amtrak in 1991. I am deeply, deeply sorry.
A traveler’s mind can drift when she’s sitting on the siding outside Dwight, waiting for a freight train to pass while the meeting she was supposed to attend in Chicago begins without her. She might daydream of the Amtrak board of directors, trapped aboard the Ann Rutledge because of “signal problems,” pummeling each other over the last three chicken salad sandwiches in the Amcafe. But more often, she dreams of a comfortable and reliable passenger train that runs often and on time.
Such trains used to run in Illinois, by the hundreds, and they might again, if Congress ever quits arguing about Amtrak and starts thinking about trains.
Illinois still has more miles of track than any other state, but what survives is a fraction of the system 25,000 miles in 1935—that made a rail map of Illinois look like a cracked table platter. The railroads could run in all weather, across terrain that stymied other land vehicles. They were faster than canals, more comfortable than stagecoaches and went more places than steamboats. Until well into the 1920s, when Illinoisans went anywhere much beyond the county seat, they went on a train. Cross-country main lines made some local stops. Branch lines spread into the countryside.
Chicago, meanwhile, was railroads, blacked by their smoke, strangled by their tracks, deafened by their noise and made rich by the commerce they carried. Once, 33 main interstate lines ran into Chicago. Merely noting the names of the great passenger trains that ran in and out of that city—the Santa Fe’s Super Chief the New York Central’s 20th Century Limited, the Pennsylvania’s Broadway Limited—makes a rail buff go misty. Trains from across the continent met and exchanged passengers at no fewer than six depots downtown, each a fabled waystation in millions of journeys.
Downstate, trains are remembered fondly by most people who used them, less because of the trains than because of their association with the things they carried people to: funerals, that first exciting trip to Chicago, the child’s visit to grandma with her name pinned to her dress, going away to college. That elegiac note is sounded sweetly in Cary Clive Burford’s “The Twilight of the Local Passenger Train in Illinois,” which appears in Robert Sutton’s The Prairie State. A Documentary History of Illinois. Burford recalled that in Farmer City a hundred gathered each day to meet the 4:38. The small town may have made going anywhere else in the United States desirable, but it was the railroads that made it possible.
Of course, when better ways of doing that were on offer, travelers turned their backs on trains. As David Young reminds us in his new book, The Iron Horse and the Windy City. How Railroads Shaped Chicago, intercity passenger rail was sickly as early as World War I, having been choked for years by state and federal regulators and starved by its own managers. It was further weakened by the short-lived but hurtful competition from interurbans on rural routes and, later, by the downturn in business travel caused by the Depression.
Most accounts of the demise of intercity rail insist that by the time the automobile and the airplane came along, rail was in no shape to fight them off But intercity passenger rail did not just die. It was killed. As late as the 1930s, automobile travel had eroded the railroads’ market only slightly. The car offered undeniable advantages—privacy and the flexibility to go places where and when trains did not. But, while cars made many trips possible, they were still far from convenient, thanks to Illinois’ famously bad roads. When Illinois finally fixed its roads, beginning in the l920s, it loosened the spikes on its passenger rails.
It was not, in other words, the car that killed the passenger train, but the highway. The new roads, specifically the early ‘‘superhighways’’ that evolved into the Interstate Highway System, made intercity car travel fast enough and pleasant enough to be a viable alternative to trains. Just as important from an economic point of view, the interstates opened up the nation to the long-distance freight-hauling truck, which took a revenue stream that had subsidized the railroads’ passenger operations.
So it is useful to recall, while staring out the train window at cars on 1-55 as they outpace rail travelers headed to Chicago, that cars today are easy and cheap to use because government has spent billions to make them so, and trains are not convenient to use because government has not spent billions to make them so.
This is not the case in much of Europe and Asia. The Chicago-to-Springfield Amtrak ambles along at an average speed of 56 mph; a traveler can ride from Madrid to Cordoba at an average speed of 120 mph. The French TGV zips along at nearly 140 mph, and Japan’s bullet trains, which run at more than 160 mph, would put Chicago’s Loop less than two hours from St. Louis.
The sensibleness of such a rail web in our part of the Midwest is manifest. Several of the country’s biggest cities stand within 500 miles or so of Chicago. These distances are too long to drive conveniently, and not quite long enough to justify the hassle of flying. Intercity trips of such length are admirably served by high-speed trains. Many of those trips are now being made by air. A trip to Cleveland from Chicago takes only 50 minutes in the air but requires two hours of hassle at each end, not counting the time it takes to get lost on the way to the airports; a “supertrain” could cover that distance with time to spare, and deliver riders downtown to boot. The Japanese bullet train that links Sapporo and Hakodate covers 200 miles in three hours and stole the market for air service between the two cities. When France opened its first TGV line between Paris and Lyon in the early 1980s, the nation’s domestic airline had to cut back on its service because the TGV was faster than flying. Eurostar, operator of the “chunnel” trains, carries some two-thirds of the people who travel back and forth between London and Paris.
For a time in the 1990s, it looked as if Illinois rail passengers might catch up with their counterparts abroad. The St. Louis-Chicago corridor was designated by the feds as one of several high-speed rail corridors that would make up a nine-state Chicago-based regional network of such trains. The Springfield to Joliet segment has been undergoing extensive track rehabilitation. Its owner, the Union Pacific Railroad, has been resurfacing worn, made-in-l957 rails so that riding a train on them won’t feel like riding a skateboard down a gravel road. That section also is getting upgraded signal and crossing systems, including an experimental technology that uses Global Positioning System satellites and computers to prevent collisions.
These are welcome improvements, and long overdue. But they will not carry Illinois passengers quite into the 21st century. Instead of state-of-the-art trains, they will deliver State-of-Illinois trains. What the Illinois Department of Transportation is calling “high speed” rail passenger service between Chicago and St. Louis is really just higher speed service. When upgrades and testing now under way are finished, the St. Louis-to-Dwight leg will be able to run at a peak speed of 110 miles per hour. The Economist has noted that, while this may be “enough to wow the mid-west,” even the top speed on the fastest part of the line will be as much as 75 mph slower than French or Japanese trains. And, for much of the line, the trains won’t even run that fast. North of Dwight, trains will not exceed the present maximum operating speed of 79 mph. As a result, travel time from St. Louis to Chicago will be reduced by a modest 90 minutes, down from five-and-a-half hours. The state transportation department calls shaving 90 minutes off today’s travel time “a realistic goal,” which in Illinois means, “We can’t afford to do better.”
Why is Illinois’ high-speed rail network running slow even before it is built? For one thing, it can be argued, it is unwise. Building European-style trains in a state that cannot match Europe’s population density or land use would be like building skyscrapers in Taylorville. It also can be argued that trains running faster than 110 mph are unneeded. If ridership forecasts are to be believed—and they tend to be as optimistic as Amtrak timetables—even a 90-minute improvement in travel time between St. Louis and Chicago will see the number of riders on St. Louis-Chicago trains increase nearly fivefold. The proof is Amtrak’s Hiawathas that run between Chicago and Milwaukee. This service is cost-competitive and time-competitive. The 90-mile trip takes roughly 90 minutes. It is convenient, with the trains going from downtown to downtown with a new stop at Milwaukee’s General Mitchell International Airport. It is pleasant; first-class seating offers a riding experience more akin to the automobile than to a bus. And it is reliable, with the best on-time performance of any Amtrak route in the nation. No wonder that in May that line’s monthly ridership of nearly 44,000 was 18 percent higher than the same month a year before and marked the sixth month in a row the line set a record.
Ask any regular Amtrak rider, and he will tell you that average speeds of even 75 mph will do just fine, thank you—if everything else works. Certainly, Amtrak riders in other states think so. Amtrak’s Cascade Corridor trains that link Eugene, Ore., and Vancouver, British Columbia, with stops in Portland, Tacoma and Seattle, last year carried more than 600,000 riders. These are no bullet trains—the allowable top speed is 79 mph—but they do offer everything else the traveler wants. The line features new, made-in-Spain trainsets, spiffed-up stations and reliable on-time performance, the last made possible by a capable and committed freight railroad host. The result is that one in five business travelers between Portland and Seattle use the trains, though there are only three departures per day.
There are good public interest reasons to move Illinoisans to and fro on steel wheels rather than rubber ones. Trains are safer, less polluting and use less energy and land—but such benefits will be a happy side effect of a switch to them, not the reason for it. Convenience and cost are what people look for. Trains are popular in areas of the United States where the car isn’t. Amtrak ridership in Illinois has been setting records of late, in no small part because of higher gasoline prices. In fact, demand for trains in Illinois would match that in California, in the crowded I-S corridor in the Pacific Northwest and in the Northeast Corridor from Boston to the District of Columbia, if our interstates were as congested as theirs, and if our gasoline prices were as high as Europe’s. But they are not, and demand does not. Thus the choice to fund incremental improvements to the existing rail system rather than replacement.
When it comes to Amtrak, the nation can’t afford not to do better. The jerry-rigged system that was set up in 1971 has not worked for many reasons, including the antiquated rolling stock, the bloated costs and the absurd deal that gave passenger trains a right to be run on track owned by freight lines only by allowing freight to take precedence over riders.
There are plenty of observers who have concluded that if America rides into its future on trains, those trains will not be run by Amtrak. But what ought to replace it?
President George W. Bush’s administration has been clear about what it does not want: Amtrak and its national route system. The administration is not clear about what it does want. At different times, administration spokesmen have said that Amtrak should sell off its assets outside the Northeast and let private firms pick up whatever pieces offer profit potential. This is broadly consistent with the recommendations of the Amtrak reform council, which urged that the Northeast corridor service be split off as a separate company, and a second son-of-Amtrak be set up to run trains elsewhere under more or less present arrangements. The latter entity would be free to achieve such operating economies as outsourcing food and beverage and other services and renegotiating Amtrak’s cripplingly expensive union agreements, which it inherited along with equally outdated trains from the freight railroads.
Others in the Bush Administration argue that the nation’s long-distance services should be replaced with short-distance services whose operating costs are subsidized by the states, not by the feds. They have offered as a model for their reinvented Amtrak the quasi-socialist, state-owned Alaska Railroad—a system that pays no state or local taxes and has its capital costs covered by federal grants, with underwriting from the cruise ship industry.
People who have thought more deeply see neither a fully privatized rail system nor a fully socialized one, but a complex collection of public-private partnerships of varying kinds, devised to meet the varying transportation needs and resources of different parts of the country. The “private” part of such setups are not likely to be new companies, as dreamed of by the more imaginative free-market critics, but the nation’s existing freight railroads. Observers with memories that reach back further than the administration of President Ronald Reagan will recall that Amtrak exists only because private railroads wanted nothing to do with intercity rail. They remain involved only because they were obliged to let Amtrak run its trains on their tracks in most parts of the country, including Illinois.
Such arrangements do not, however, get at what is really amiss about Amtrak. Better rail infrastructure is the key to improving train service. Amtrak’s trains are where Illinois’ automobiles were before the l920s push to pave the roads. Under Amtrak, the infrastructure—the track system—is privately owned while the carrier is public. While government is singularly well-suited to provide national transportation infrastructure, it is singularly ill-suited to running a lean and nimble service business.
Among Illinois’ engineered transportation systems, highways, of course, are public ways. Private motor vehicles of all types are allowed to use them, subject to modest fees in the form of gas taxes, license fees and so on. Rebuilding passenger rail according to the highway model would require a shift of federal funding away from running a transportation company and toward building a transportation infrastructure. The resulting publicly owned “interstate” of rails would be open to private train operators who bid for the right to serve specific routes in return for a fee.
Under most Amtrak reform scenarios, the role of the states in providing passenger rail will change. They could end up contracting for, if not actually running, trains rather than merely helping to pay for them. They could acquire and manage new rail infrastructure. They could regulate private carriers.
But how to pay for it? Ticket sales will never cover it—they never did, as passenger train service in the old days was always subsidized by the freight revenues of the parent railroads. Setting up a passenger rail trust fund similar to the aviation fund supplied by airline ticket fees or the highway trust fund supplied by federal gasoline taxes sounds good, but such a fund would have to be supplied by a passenger rail industry that does not yet exist.
In 2001, Congress proposed a High Speed Rail Investment Act that called for paying for such work by bonds, to be dispersed according to an 80-20 federal/state formula—the same split, basically, that pays for building interstate highways. Bush’s transportation department has said it would back a SO-SO federal fund match for state investments in passenger stations, trains and tracks, but has proposed no new funding source.
Even a comprehensive intrastate passenger service is unaffordable and, except on a few routes, unneeded, considering that rural Illinois has so many more roads and so many fewer people than it once did. As noted, trains are today most fit for trips that are too long to make by car and not long enough to be worth the trouble of taking a plane. In the case of a high-speed train, that means trips of 300 to 500 miles; in the case of less speedy but still zippy trains, 200 to 400 miles. There is plenty of potential for rail links of that distance in a big state such as Illinois. A quality rail link to tie the state’s top research university in Urbana and its biggest city would seem a good place to start.
In days past, the private sector chose where to run trains, according to the prospects for profit. In a government-controlled train system, routes would be chosen according to the prospects of— what? Trains are not about economic development, or jobs, or civic pride, although one wouldn’t think that to read the debate about Amtrak. The system’s 46-state, 22,000-mile route system makes little sense in transportation terms, but is very efficient in political terms, as its tracks cross the districts of half the members of the U.S. House.
In general, new trains should go where the people are, and that means northeastern Illinois. All of the Illinois transportation department’s current trains terminate there. Metra, the commuter rail part of metropolitan Chicago’s troika of public transit systems, does a fine job, and as it extends its reach ever farther into the exurbs, it functions increasingly as a true intercity system. Metra lines already run to Antioch on the Wisconsin line, to Harvard, with plans to go past that town to Huntley and eventually Belvidere, in the Rockford suburbs. Metra tracks soon will reach beyond Orland Park to Manhattan south of Joliet and past Geneva to Elburn, among other extensions on the drawing boards. This is pretty much how Illinois’ first passenger rail system evolved, one segment at a time, in response to local needs. A new one is likely to consist of existing commuter lines extending farther into the hinterlands and a few “high-er” speed corridors connecting downstate metropoli.
Building a stable fiscal infrastructure for passenger rail in Illinois will be the real challenge. Federal help for infrastructure investments is likely to be forthcoming, but under almost all of the Amtrak reform scenarios, the states will have to get out and push if they want to see passenger trains running within their borders.
Illinois got aboard that train a long time ago. The 10 regional and transcontinental Amtrak routes that emanate from Chicago are joined by 18 trains serving three in-state corridors that are operated by Amtrak but largely paid for by the state, which also markets the product and contributes to the cost of infrastructure improvements. The state also chips in a modest part of the operating costs for Amtrak’s Hiawathas between Chicago and Milwaukee, most of which is covered by the state of Wisconsin.
Even this modest level of service, however, has proven hard to pay for. And no wonder; noncommuter rail in all its forms made up 1.1 percent of the transportation department’s FY2004 budget. St. Louis-Chicago was expected to be the first semi-high-speed corridor in the United States outside the Northeast to become operational, but progress toward completion has been as halting as a Texas Eagle heading toward Chicago, due mainly to money shortages. It was expected to be finished in 2002, which by Amtrak standards isn’t late at all.
A dedicated state funding source for rail operations would be useful. California lawmakers in the I 990s engineered a deal by which pro-rail lawmakers swapped votes for a boost in the motor fuel tax in exchange for a cut of the new money. They also proposed a $10 billion high-speed rail bond referendum in 2002 that was scheduled to appear on the referendum ballot in 2004. A public vote is still planned, but it has been postponed until at least 2006, pending an improvement in that state’s economy.
The prospects of Illinois voters backing such a commitment seem slim. Illinoisans won’t vote to spend a lot more money to improve trains without seeing first-hand the benefits they might provide, and they won’t be persuaded of the benefits of good train service until the state spends more money.
Meanwhile, the rider on her way to Chicago, staring out a window at farm fields while she waits for Illinois’ trains to start moving again, in every sense, may find her thoughts turning naturally to chickens and eggs. More Illinoisans don’t ride trains because they aren’t good enough, and the trains aren’t good enough because not enough Illinoisans ride them. Maybe, she muses, if stupid state policies helped drive intercity passenger rail out of business in Illinois, intelligent ones can bring it back.
Sidebar: Illinois knows how to re-invent the passenger train
Some historians complain that railroad management is mostly to blame for the commercial demise of passenger rail. They failed to innovate in the face of competition from the car, it is said, or they innovated too late, or they innovated ineffectively.
Yet some did try, and several of those experiments in re-inventing the passenger train took place in Illinois. In fact, what is heralded as railroading’s future elsewhere is in some ways a throwback to Illinois’ past.
Illinois railroads always sold speed. Better track and more powerful locomotives gradually conquered Illinois’ distances. Transportation historian David Young notes that the first passenger trains run by the Illinois Central through eastern and southern Illinois from Chicago took more than 50 hours to get to New Orleans. By 1889, the Chicago & New Orleans Limited (later the Panama Limited) was making the trip in 23 hours.
By the 1 930s, even the fastest steam trains had come to seem a little stodgy compared to the newest automobiles and airplanes. Trains had excited that first generation of travelers because they were so sleek and fast compared to wagons and horse-drawn alternatives. The more open-eyed rail execs knew that the way to compete with automobiles and planes was to make trains sleek and fast again.
One 1930s version of the Japanese “bullet trains” was the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy’s Zephyr, which debuted in 1934. The streamlined stainless steel Zephyr was a jetliner of a train that moved on diesel and electric power, 33 percent more efficiently than did its steam-powered competitors. The train cut travel times on some routes almost in half, and for a time revived that road’s sagging intercity passenger business.
In 1939, the Milwaukee Road’s version of the Zephyr, the Hiawatha, offered the fastest regularly scheduled passenger train in the world; trains reached 100 mph and more along parts of its trips to and from the Twin Cities and Chicago. The Rock Island Rocket ran from Chicago to Peoria in only two hours and 45 minutes. Even commuter rail revved up. The interurban line that served Chicago’s North Shore in the 1920s ran its famous Electroliner cars on its Skokie Valley run, a bypass that paralleled today’s Edens Expressway. The Electroliners zipped along at speeds of up to 70mph in what was basically a souped-up trolleycar.
General Motors unveiled its prototype Aerotrain in 1955. The train locomotive looked like a Buick and its cars looked like buses. Because it used only 1.3 gallons of fuel per mile at top speed, the Aerotrain seemed to be a great deal for cash-short railroads. It turned out to be less of a bargain for riders; its passenger cars were basically modified GM buses, whose air suspension system could not protect riders from the jostling that results from running at high speed over a freight track.
All of these early high-speed passenger trains had traits in common: new power sources, streamlined bodies and lighter cam. Some, like the Aerotrain, didn’t work because they used immature technology, but they were on the right track, as it were, that later led to the European and Japanese supertrains. The promise of others was betrayed by lousy tracks. By the 1960s, the Rockets out of the Quad Cities and Peoria were almost always late because the drivers couldn’t safely use all their locomotives’ speed—the same problem that Amtrak has today on parts of the St. Louis-Chicago run. The GM train might have worked on a smooth welded track of the sort used today in other countries.
Illinois firms haven’t built any high-speed trains lately, but that hasn’t stopped Illinoisans from thinking about them. In the 1980s, engineers at the Argonne National Lab outside Chicago sketched the outlines of trains that would use magnets to lift them above the track, allowing them to zoom, frictionless, at speeds of up to 300 miles per hour. Such a magnetic levitation or “mag-lev” train would get from Chicago to St. Louis in one hour. Such wonders don’t come cheap, but a few have been built anyway. One mag-lev line in Shanghai using German technology hits speeds of 250 mph. A slow-speed mag-lev train operates in Japan, and others are being considered or have been planned in Britain and Germany.
Yet Illinois, despite its early promise, remains in the Third World when it comes to the newest high-speed train technology. ●