AMTRAK UPDATE: As state lawmakers over a budget, funding for Rockford's Amtrak service hangs in the balance ... if a capital plan isn't approved soon, service won't start until well into 2009. Meanwhile, rail advocates hope more can be spent on upgrading tracks so the travel time decreases.

Amtrak trains between Chicago and Rockford are already delayed — in Springfield.


 


The longer it takes lawmakers to pass a budget, the longer it will take them to tackle a capital construction plan that would pay for fixing the tracks on the old Black Hawk line. That could push the service’s start date into 2010 or later.



“I hate to say it, but it’s one of those ‘I’ll believe it when I see it’ deals,” said Brad Englin, president of the Greater Rockford Transportation Coalition. “If Springfield gets off their shorts, we’re good. I don’t think we’re at the panic stage yet.”


 


A capital plan could give the Illinois Department of Transportation the $32 million it needs to upgrade the tracks. The Legislature hasn’t passed a capital plan since Gov. George Ryan left office in January 2003.


 


“We’ve got people from all chambers that are talking now about a capital program. It’s not been talked about much until now,” said state Sen. Brad Burzynski, R-Clare. “There will be some sort of capital bill that will have something, I think, in it for Amtrak.”


 


Meanwhile, local rail advocates are concerned that the proposed Amtrak service won’t be as fast as it should be. The latest Amtrak schedule estimates have it taking two hours and 17 minutes to get from Chicago to Rockford and two hours and 34 minutes from Rockford to Chicago.


 


Englin said it shouldn’t take longer than two and a half hours and should take less for the service to work. One of the criticisms of the old Black Hawk service, which ended in 1981, was that it wasn’t fast enough.


 


“It’s got to be equivalent to a drive to make it feasible,” Englin said.


 



With a total running time from Chicago to Dubuque, Iowa, of 5:10, the proposed Black Hawk line would be the slowest in Illinois. The route from Chicago to Springfield goes about the same distance in two hours less.


 


Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said that’s partly because the Black Hawk route has more hills and curves than other routes. But another factor is that, under the plan, Black Hawk trains could only go as fast as freight trains.


 


To increase speeds, the state would need to spend even more money to upgrade railroad crossings to be ready to handle the faster trains.


 


That would increase ridership, Magliari said, but even with the projected travel times, Amtrak expects a healthy 74,500 passengers a year to start.


 


He said it will take two construction seasons to get the service up and running. If budget talks drag on much longer, there might not be any time to do work this year. If a capital plan isn’t passed until next year, Amtrak service could be delayed even more.


 


Under a preliminary schedule, trains would leave Dubuque at 5 a.m. every day, reach downtown Rockford at 7:36 a.m. and reach Chicago’s Union Station at 10:10 a.m. The return trip would leave Chicago at 6:15 p.m., reach downtown Rockford at 8:32 p.m. and reach Dubuque at 11:25 p.m.


 


While stations haven’t been set, the latest proposal also includes stops at West Elgin, Genoa, the Alpine Road area of Rockford, Freeport and Galena.


 


Representatives of the Illinois Department of Transportation and the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget declined to comment on the ongoing budget talks.


 


Staff writer Aaron Chambers contributed to this report.


Staff writer Thomas V. Bona may be contacted at 815-987-1343 or tbona@rrstar.com.