All aboard. More Amtrak trains would be terrific for Chicago and the entire Midwest
Money from President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan could link Chicago by rail to many more cities.
President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan is an opportunity to get more Amtrak service rolling. Illinois and the entire Midwest would be smart to get behind the push.
Amtrak, the national passenger train service, has long been seen by some as an operation that works well on the East Coast, but not in parts of the country with less population density.
But a 2035 Vision Plan that Amtrak laid out recently shows how Chicago and other parts of the country could get an economic jump-start from Biden’s infrastructure legislation, titled the American Jobs Plan. Chicagoans before long could be riding trains to Duluth, Green Bay, Iowa City, Louisville and other cities, as well as enjoying more frequent train service to Carbondale, Champaign-Urbana, Milwaukee and St. Louis.
For many Americans, train trips would be more convenient and comfortable than short airplane flights, which require a drive to an airport and showing up a couple of hours early to get through security. And Amtrak makes stops along the way that airplanes don’t.
Amtrak would use much of the money from Biden’s proposed infrastructure plan to beef up its busy East Coast service. But it also hopes to add 30 new Amtrak routes and add trains to 20. As one of Amtrak’s major national hubs, Chicago would be linked to many more cities.
Amtrak does a better job of funding its operations through passenger fares than metro commuter rail services do. Yet Congress and many state officials have mercilessly squeezed its budget over the years. The result has been pared-back service and a lurching from funding crisis to funding crisis. Even in Illinois, which should know better as the historic heart of America’s railroads, former Gov. Bruce Rauner trimmed funding for Amtrak, delaying a decades-long goal of 110-m.p.h. trains linking Chicago and St. Louis. But the 2019 capital bill in Illinois did include $500 million to establish new routes from Chicago to Rockford and the Quad Cities and improving service to Carbondale.
The states are required to partner with Amtrak, and if they won’t cover operating costs for routes of under 750 miles, Amtrak discontinues service. But Amtrak hopes Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure plan, which includes $80 billion to upgrade and expand the nation’s passenger and freight rail network, would allow it to cover the heavy costs of the first few years of adding service. After that, the states still would have to step up to pay operating costs, but the costs could be comparatively low.
“My big fear about policy is we will get a major infusion [of federal money] without the needed buy-in from state and local governments,” Joseph P. Schwieterman, director of DePaul University’s Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development, told us.
Expanding rail service — and maintaining it — is not easy.
- Amtrak’s new service would run on existing freight lines, but this would require new holding tracks so that freight trains could move over to allow passenger trains to pass. That could run into community opposition. When Amtrak proposed a service upgrade between Chicago and Milwaukee a few years ago, residents of several North Shore communities fought to prohibit a holding track next to their Metra line, partly because it would eliminate a buffer of vegetation along the rails. Wisconsin is drawing up an alternative plan.
- Freight train companies, which own most of the nation’s trackage, sometimes resist hosting less-profitable passenger service, even though Amtrak has the legal right to use the tracks. Amtrak is still trying to resume service on tracks washed out by 2005’s Hurricane Katrina. Amtrak recently filed a petition before the U.S. Surface Transportation Board to gain authority to do so.
- States might decide they don’t want to shoulder their share of the costs. When the U.S. Department of Transportation gave Ohio $400 million in 2010 to connect Cincinnati, Dayton, Columbus and Cleveland, the state sent the money back.
- The high cost of implementing Congress-mandated Positive Train Control, which helps keep trains from running into each other, shifts money from other priorities.
None of these hurdles should stop Amtrak in its tracks. The need for more service is clear. Amtrak trains stop in Houston, Atlanta and Cincinnati only once a day or less, sometimes in the middle of the night. Amtrak does not service major cities like Las Vegas, Nashville, Columbus and Phoenix at all.
Train advocates say Amtrak’s expansion plan represents the bare minimum of what needs to be done. For Chicago, additional investment — beyond Amtrak’s initial plan — could bring high-speed service to Milwaukee and other regional cities and a high-speed link between Union Station and O’Hare Airport’s terminals. Trains could zip between Chicago and Milwaukee in 60 minutes.
Historically when it comes to Amtrak, there has been a flood of funding from time to time, followed by years of going nowhere because of fights over cutting costs. That’s no way to run a railroad.
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