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Damning Transportation

Illinois waits for the trains

Illinois Times

March 29, 1990

Probably the last piece I wrote extolling the virtues of intercity train travel before the dimming candle of my optimism made it too hard to write another one. I had been an advocate for years, and had to explain to my erstwhile colleagues in the guild that I was still for trains, I just wasn’t for Amtrak.


In truth, the circumstances were never going to favorable to such transportation systems in the rural Midwest. Illinois between Chicago and St. Louis ain’t exactly the Ruhr Valley in terms of population density, and Americans simply love cars too much.


The mag-lev technology I enthuse about here might not ever work, not that it matters; Illinois is as likely to install Star Trek transporters as it is to install a mag-lev train. And the third airport for Chicago that was going to be built near Lake Calumet is now supposed to be built near Peotone, but building either still looks like folly. Amtrak between Chicago and St. Louis continues to set ridership records, which testifies to the fact that some people still want to take trains and that more might want to take trains, if only someone would build and run them.


I must own up to the fact that I used the opening gag again, in a 1991 piece for the Reader about Amtrak titled How to Get Out of Town on a Rail. Don’t tell them. And I can't explain the titleone of mine, I'm afraid.


I had a vision once. I was standing on the apron of an Amoco station outside Chenoa, filling up on a drive from Chicago. Glancing toward the west, I saw a trainload of the damned, wailing and thrashing their arms as they were borne off to the Judgment Day through a fiery cloud. It was a shaken man who described the apparition to L. upon my arrival home. She reasoned from the time and location of the sighting that what I had seen was just Amtrak's southbound 3:15 out of Chicago, backlit by a setting sun, passing me at the precise moment that its passengers learned that the Amcafe was already out of chicken salad.


In days past I would have been on that train instead of driving. I prefer trains to cars, all things being equal. But things are not equal in the transportation market between Chicago and St. Louis. Amtrak is simply too slow by half for the price, with or without chicken salad. I am past forty and have too little time left to spend any of it parked on a siding outside Bloomington.


Ah, to be in Europe, now that TGV is here. Ten nations of the EEC embarked recently on a massive program to build new high-speed train lines to connect major cities 350 miles or less apart. Many of the passengers now making these short hauls travel by air, with constipating effects on the continent's airports. The new trains will provide an alternative nearly as speedy. They will use new French and German technologies (the Europeans disdain the Japanese “bullet train" as outmoded) that will move people at 186 miles per hour—three times the average speed Amtrak aims for on its Chicago-St. Louis runs.


Not even legislators driving back to Chicago on 1-55 make those kinds of speeds. The closest thing we have in the U.S. to such a system is Amtrak's Metro-liner link between Washington, D.C, and Boston. It is the only one of Amtrak's routes whose roadbed it owns, and the railroad had upgraded the line (mainly by replacing old track with welded rails) so that its trains can safely navigate it at peak speeds as high as 125 miles per hour. The Metroliner is one of Amtrak's success stories. Generally, its short-haul routes are losing money, but the Metroliner's fast, frequent service has attracted roughly as many passengers as fly between those seaboard cities on shuttle airlines.


Metroliner service is a revelation to anyone accustomed to the carnival thrill ride Amtrak is obliged to offer between Springfield and Chicago. A few years ago, I rode a Metroliner train from Baltimore to Washington, DC, and back. Recounting the day for friends, I later realized that I had no memories of the train trip at all. Those minutes—and it only took minutes—were a void. I clearly recall the stations at each end of the trips, but nothing of the journey itself, there being scant motion to signal my progress and no inconvenience to mark it.


These astonishing results were achieved, mind, not with German supertrains but by simple refinements of Amtrak's thirty-year-old technology. That technology may soon be as outdated a way to move trains as the old propeller engines are as a way to move airplanes. Engineers at the Argonne National Lab outside Chicago have sketched the outlines of a system of trains that would not move on wheels but would float, frictionless, using magnetic levitation. Traveling at speeds up to 300 miles per hour, a mag-lev train could get from Chicago to St. Louis in one hour and seven minutes, a trip that Amtrak now takes six hours to complete (if it runs on time); the Springfield to St. Louis leg would take twenty-two minutes.


A mag-lev system would connect airport to airport with the result that such trains could be expected to replace airplanes on flights of 600 miles or less. More than 60 percent of all the flights that now move into and out of Chicago's O'Hare are to cities 600 miles away or less; presumably that load would be reduced or eliminated by high-speed rail links connecting the same cities to Chicago. That would delay, perhaps even obviate the kind of airport expansion now being argued about in Chicago. Mayor Daley, for example, has proposed construction of a third major airport there, to be built in the Lake Calumet region on the south side. The project would cost millions of dollars and the loss of thousands of acres of unique wetlands and require relocating a river and a major highway as well as thousands of homes and businesses.


In the U.S., airlines' competitor over short-haul trips from feeder airports to their hubs is not trains, as in Europe, but cars. If Amtrak can't now compete with the car in time between Springfield and St. Louis, the airlines can't compete with it in cost. Because of the peculiarities of the market, it costs as much to fly from Springfield to Lambert Field in St. Louis as it does to fly from there to New York. A fast, sensibly priced train link between those two points thus would displace car trips rather than airplane flights, but it would be no less desirable for that. Imported oil dependency, traffic congestion, and big-city air pollution are problems at least as desperate for solutions as airport overcrowding, and trains ease all three. The sole argument against such a system is that it would, by reducing the flights in and out of O'Hare, make life more livable in DuPage County.


Essential to any expansion of our passenger rail system is a traveling public at least willing to consider trains as an alternative to planes and cars. Amtrak has, slowly, been building just such a consumer base. Ridership and earnings have been up even in the face of bad tracks and broken-down rolling stock. Yet George Bush—predictably, for a man whose views on most issues date from the late 1970s—has urged that Congress end Amtrak's remaining federal subsidy. This comes at a time when federal investment in intercity rail ought to be expanding—virtually guaranteeing that the U.S. will again be left standing in the station.  ●




John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

See Home Page/Learn/

Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago


The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.

Illinois Great Places

The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our  shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.

McLean County Museum

of History

A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.

Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois


Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."

Illinois Digital Archives


Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards,  posters, and videos.

The Illinois State Museum


The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and  history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.

Chronicling Illinois

“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.


I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered." 

Illinois Labor History Society

The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like. 

Illinois Migration History 1850-2017

The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories  (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly. 

History on the Fox

An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than

2,000 words.)




Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

author of Abraham 

Lincoln: A Life 

One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.

Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018

A lively and engaging study . . .  an enthralling narrative.

James Edstrom

The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

John Hoffman

Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

Harold Henderson 

Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

Greg Hall

Journal of the Illinois

State Historical Society

Click  here 

to read about

the book 

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to buy the book 


Southern Illinois University Press

SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.

University of

Illinois Press

The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog  (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more.  Of particular note are its Prairie State Books,  quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.

University of

Chicago Press

The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to

Vivian Maier.

Northern Illinois University Press

The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.


Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order

by book title. 


Illinois Center for the Book

Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.

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