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Help bring passenger rail back to Peoria

As you may have read in today’s Journal Star, I’ve started a grassroots organization for the purpose of advocating for passenger rail service between Peoria and Chicago. It’s called the Peoria Passenger Rail Coalition, and it’s free to join.

I talk to a lot of people who would like to have train service in Peoria, but there doesn’t seem to be any kind of organized effort to quantify the demand. That’s a problem, because if our elected officials think there isn’t much demand, they won’t appropriate the money for renewed rail service. So, the purpose of the organization is to raise public awareness of the benefits of passenger rail service to the Peoria region, gain public support for passenger rail service, and successfully persuade state and federal lawmakers to appropriate the necessary funds to make passenger rail service to Peoria a reality.

Here’s some more information from an article I wrote last year for InterBusiness Issues:

Why Bring Amtrak to Peoria?
Amtrak ridership is up nationwide, and Illinois is no exception to that trend. Amtrak reports that ridership on trains between Chicago and St. Louis “was up 16.5 percent in Fiscal 2008 over 2007. Ridership increased 18.5 percent on the Chicago-Carbondale route, was up 19.8 percent on the Chicago-Quincy route, and grew 25.9 percent on the Hiawathas.” This trend continues in 2009. In January, ridership between Chicago and St. Louis was up 12 percent over the same period in 2008, according to figures released by IDOT. [Update: The trend continues even in 2010, with monthly ridership levels 11 to 20 percent higher than 2009.]

More people are choosing to travel by train, and more communities are requesting passenger rail access. Amtrak recently completed studies on adding train service to Rockford and the Quad Cities. Peoria, with the third-largest metropolitan statistical area in the state—over 370,000 residents—would be a natural addition as well.

Restoring passenger rail service to Peoria would connect our population to the national rail transportation system. Travelers from Peoria could go anywhere in the U.S. that Amtrak serves—and just as importantly, travelers from all over the U.S. could come to Peoria. Peorians traveling to Chicago by train would benefit from low fares (significantly cheaper than the cost of driving to and parking in Chicago) and no traffic congestion. By leaving the “driving” to Amtrak, transit time can be used for work or leisure. Likewise, college students, businessmen and women, and tourists will find Amtrak to be a convenient way to travel to Peoria and enjoy our community. Bringing Amtrak and its ridership into the community will have a positive economic impact on the region.

There are also environmental benefits to passenger rail service. The U.S. Department of Energy found that Amtrak is more energy-efficient than either automobile or commercial air travel. “Amtrak energy intensity was 2,935 British Thermal Units (BTUs) per passenger-mile and commercial airlines were 3,587. Commuter rail was 2,751 and automobiles were 3,549 BTUs,” according to the DOE’s Transportation Energy Data Book. By taking the train, we can lower the carbon footprint of our trips. It is simply more energy-efficient to take the train directly from Peoria than to drive to Chicago, or even Normal or Galesburg, to catch the train there.

Nationally, a greater emphasis is being placed on sustainable transportation networks—with less dependence on the automobile, and thus, less oil consumption and dependence on imported oil—and passenger rail is part of that national strategy. Last October, Congress passed and the president signed the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008, which authorized $13.1 billion for Amtrak over the next five years. The recent stimulus bill included $1.3 billion in additional Amtrak funding, as well as $8 billion for high-speed rail. Locally, Senator Durbin has been supportive of adding new service to Illinois cities and improving existing service, and the Tri-County Regional Planning Commission’s long-range transportation plan lists as a top priority: “connect with Amtrak.”

Finally, consider that transportation is an essential service, imperative for the safety and mobility of Illinois citizens. Improving our transportation options improves our overall infrastructure, and our economy benefits from the jobs brought by infrastructure improvement. The economy is also helped by making our city more attractive to potential employers and employees, who are increasingly looking for greener cities in which to live and work.

I’m hopeful that we can convince community leaders to settle for nothing less than reestablishing direct rail service between Peoria and Chicago. Unfortunately, the trend lately has been toward a lesser goal: connecting Peoria with Normal. It seems the community leaders are now seriously considering train service that would simply go from Peoria to the Normal Amtrak station, at which point passengers will have to disembark and wait for a connecting train to complete their trip. That’s a recipe for failure.

There are many benefits of taking a train to Chicago: it’s cheaper than parking and avoids a lot of traffic congestion, just to name a couple. But what benefits are there of taking a train to Normal? Parking is free and there’s no congestion between our two towns. Instead of saving time, it would actually add time to the trip. That alone will depress ridership. But ridership would also be low because there’s not much population on the Norfolk Southern line that runs between Peoria and Bloomington. A train from Peoria to Chicago could hit many underserved communities, picking up much needed ridership.

The fact is, people don’t want to take a train to Normal. They want to take a train to Chicago. You wouldn’t want to take a flight to Bloomington’s airport and switch planes to continue on to Chicago, but that’s exactly the kind of service that’s being considered for passenger rail. I hope this disastrous plan for new rail service is abandoned, and direct rail service to Chicago is once again pursued.

If you feel the same way, I would encourage you to add your voice to the coalition.

57 comments to Help bring passenger rail back to Peoria

  • David P. Jordan

    Jim wrote: For those people that argue that a high speed rail line (200 mph) from Peoria to Chicago is not necessary, then why is high speed rail necessary for Bloomington/Normal.

    There are few who believe that, but let’s be realistic – it’s Chicago-St. Louis which is slated for HSR (more realistically “Higher Speed Rail,” or HrSR). Bloomington-Normal merely benefits from being a primary stop.

    Danville–>Champaign–>Bloomington/Normal–>Peoria–>Galesburg–>Quincy (with stops in-between)

    There isn’t enough population nor sufficient leisure or business travel in this ocrridor to justify such service. The track between Danville and Urbana was taken out in late 1996. And running Peoria-Quincy via Galesburg would be a bit circuitous.

    What bothers me most about driving the interstate to Chicago is that I have to travel many miles southeast on I-74 through Normal and away from Chicago before I could take I-55 north towards Chicago.

    Keep in mind that Chicago isn’t north but northeast of Bloomington-Normal so taking I-74 southeast then I-55 isn’t as out of the way as it might appear on a map. Check out this map showing I-74/I-55 in red and also a straight line between Peoria and Chicago.

    http://peoriastation.blogpeori.....-Copy1.jpg

    I favor the incremental approach: Peoria-Chicago should be done correctly using existing lines, some of which will require upgrades and other facilities. if ridership is significant and frequencies are added, I can see Peoria-St. Louis as a possibility. A possibility

  • Garth Madison

    Who uses 74 to get to 55 if they know the area? The state roads, despite having occasional stops, are a much shorter, more direct and more scenic route to link up to 55 and get north to Chicago.

    I agree that the Peoria-Chicago route should be the priority. I do not see an east-west route being feasible, as any major destinations are much farther away.

    Garth-

  • Jim

    Go to Google Maps and get driving directions from Normal to Chenoa. Chenoa lies at the Intersection of route 24 and I-55. Note that it takes 24.4 miles to travel north before reaching that intersection.
    Driving directions from Peoria to Chenoa via Route 24 is 47.4 miles.
    Driving directions from Peoria down I-74 to Normal and then up to Chenoa via Route 24 is 59.0 miles.
    59.0 miles – 47.4 miles = 11.6 miles. Therefore, I have to drive 11.6 miles out of my way.
    Simply skipping I-74 in favor of Route 24 would be o.k., but compared to I-74, it is not a good road to travel on at night or during a snowstorm.

    Taking a train from Peoria through Normal in order to get to Chicago would already be the first step in implementing an East-West train route. How hard would it be to extend an already-existing Peoria-Normal train route to Champaign?

    Most readers of this blog do not like the idea of having to stop in Normal and then wait minutes/hours for another train to run from Normal to Chicago. The town of Normal would *love* a long train delay in changing trains, as Peoria area residents would be encouraged to wander Uptown by foot to eat and shop. Would the train that runs from Peoria to Normal simply stop in Normal for 10-15 minutes and then continue north? If so, then that would be o.k.

    There is rarely ever debate about building new roads and highways, and no debate about building bike trails on old railroad tracks running tens of miles through cornfields, but somehow building a train route is controversial. I like to walk, and I like trails, but I don’t want to see trails built at the expense of passenger rail. A popular argument against building new high speed passenger rail lines is that the railroads would suffer from low ridership. I searched for all trails within 100 miles of Normal, IL at the website below. (Tip: search for all trails in Illinois within 100 miles of zip code 61790):

    http://www.traillink.com/trail.....&sp=N

    Bike trails are nice. They are intended for recreation and NOT for commuting to another part of the state to work, eat, or shop.

    Would someone please tell me how many people actually use the trails. Who is paying to build and maintain these routes. What is the return on investment for a trail. What is the “ridership” of bikers and walkers on the trails. Has anyone ever conducted an official pedestrian traffic count? How would the numbers compare to ridership on a high speed train? How many people actually use the endless miles of trails that run through unsafe neighborhoods or through cornfields?

  • David P. Jordan

    Jim wrote: How hard would it be to extend an already-existing Peoria-Normal train route to Champaign?

    Existing track between East Peoria and Bloomington is already in place. But the depot is a few miles north at Normal. Such an out of the way side trip isn’t feasible. Instead, you’d have to build a new depot in Bloomington. The track between Bloomington and Urbana is in no condition for passenger trains. In fact, Norfolk Southern sought and received permission to discontinue service on the now vegetation-choked Bloomington-Mansfield segment in 2004. Mansfield-Urbana is in service but limited to 25mph speeds at most. There simply isn’t going to be a sufficient market for rail passenger service between Peoria, Bloomington and Champaign to justify the expense of upgrading this line for passenger service, unless you close I-74 and Rt. 150.

    Would the train that runs from Peoria to Normal simply stop in Normal for 10-15 minutes and then continue north? If so, then that would be o.k.

    Yes.

    There is rarely ever debate about building new roads and highways, and no debate about building bike trails on old railroad tracks running tens of miles through cornfields, but somehow building a train route is controversial.

    That’s because most of those were built before 1980. In 2010? Check out the anti-336 signs in Western Illinois. Lack of opposition to building trails in the cornfields? Not true, because trails would use existing right-of-way and brand new rail lines would take someone’s property.

    A popular argument against building new high speed passenger rail lines is that the railroads would suffer from low ridership.

    Never heard that one before. Doesn’t make sense either. Check out dedicated TGV lines in France.

  • Garth Madison

    I tend to prefer 116 to Pontiac, actually – a 12.8 mile difference according to Google. Although I recognize your point that Bloomington is more east than south, the state routes save me both time and distance, and I find them a more pleasant drive. I do not mind traveling 24 or 116 by night or in bad weather, but I recognize that my tolerance is likely higher than most. It is not my fault that 55 was routed through Bloomington instead of Peoria.

    In terms of rail lines, however, an east west connector to the north/south line in Bloomington is entirely another matter. Although it is still only a 13 mile difference, it would be a connector to someone else’s line, not our own. You can’t just hook up with I-55 and keep going like you can when you’re driving. You have to wait for somebody else’s train. While this is great for Bloomington/Normal to maintain control of the transportation hub, the point of this exercise is to put Peoria back in the transportation network. Of course, if a Peoria/Chicago train ran on the same rails as the Bloomington/Chicago train, without stopping in Bloomington, the 13 miles would merely add 10 minutes of travel time. If that is an option, the main criticism of a Bloomington connection evaporates.

    I do not know if anyone has made a study to estimate the usage of the Kellar trail. I agree with Jim that, although the trail would be neat, the intent seems to be largely recreational, and linking the state bike trails likely only interests a minority of trek cyclists and hikers. I maintain that the focus should be on establishing bike routes throughout the city proper. Another interesting question would be how many of those people who do or would use the bike trail actually use a bike for their daily transportation. How many even use a car to transport their bike to a trail before they ride it? That’s kind of like using a tow truck to haul your car to the highway. We need to start recognizing bicycles as an unremarkable alternative to the car, not as a toy or a piece of sports equipment that draws skepticism when seen on city streets.

    I love the new paint job on the Hamilton construction, where the bike lane travels a third of the way up the hill and then just ends, a bike route to nowhere (except more battles with auto traffic). Of course, they’ve had Hamilton closed for 3 years, so I suppose the whole road goes nowhere now. The City’s map of bike routes is 25 years old and not one of the marked routes is currently used, and likely none remain viable. Remove a lane of auto traffic from Main if you want, but I would prefer some planning and the marking of some actually usable bike routes in the city. Walkable shopping is only good if you can get there easily. I assume the stores on Main want more than just the local residents to shop there, and I do not see the space for or the value of parking cars. Stop building isolated and remote bits and pieces like the Shoppes, connect the City neighborhoods with the shopping and everything else, and then you’ll be getting somewhere.

    Garth-

  • maubs

    Commuter rail from Peoria to Bloomington on weekdays could make the project much more viable, if you could easily get to the major employers in both cities. There are plenty of people traveling both ways every day.

  • Jim

    David P. Jordan, please allow me to repost my assertion and place your thoughts as a possible answer to it. The intent is not to quote you out of context. I want to use your quote to clarify my position.

    I do agree with you, as high speed rail in France and elsewhere around the world are excellent investments in transportation infrastructure. It would be ideal if such a development would significantly reduce traffic on I-74, especially with gas prices rumored to rise to $7 – $9 a gallon as a result of the oil spill. No interstate highway would ever close. The federal government would take care of the interstates even if no one were to use them. Recall that the interstate highways were originally built for military use.

    The current federal Department of Transportation director and longtime Peoria resident Ray LaHood and Representative Aaron Schock could work together to help Peoria out, no? Why not use Peoria as a test market for high speed rail? Allow this issue to transcend the greed, shortsightedness, and cronyism of the city of Peoria. Would it play in Peoria? Let’s find out!

    Jim wrote :A popular argument against building new high speed passenger rail lines is that the railroads would suffer from low ridership (No sufficient market).

    David P. Jordan wrote:

    Existing track between East Peoria and Bloomington is already in place. But the depot is a few miles north at Normal. Such an out of the way side trip isn’t feasible. Instead, you’d have to build a new depot in Bloomington. The track between Bloomington and Urbana is in no condition for passenger trains. In fact, Norfolk Southern sought and received permission to discontinue service on the now vegetation-choked Bloomington-Mansfield segment in 2004. Mansfield-Urbana is in service but limited to 25mph speeds at most. There simply isn’t going to be a sufficient market for rail passenger service between Peoria, Bloomington and Champaign to justify the expense of upgrading this line for passenger service, unless you close I-74 and Rt. 150.