Its been more than 40 years since travelers between Chicago, Des Moines and Omaha heard a conductor shout all aboard, but decades-long dreams of restoring that passenger rail route moved a bit closer toward becoming a reality on Monday.
The Federal Railroad Administration promised Iowa and Illinois $230 million to help cover costs of establishing passenger service between Chicago and Iowa City, a first step toward what eventually could become a rail corridor extending across Iowas midsection.
The Iowa Legislature has already appropriated $3.5 million for the project and must approve an additional $16.5 million for the Iowa portion to proceed, said Tamara Nicholson, director of the Iowa Department of Transportations rail office. In addition, Iowa lawmakers would need to provide an estimated $3 million annually in government operating subsidies.
Des Moines Mayor Frank Cownie was elated by the news.
Hopefully we will eventually have rail service all the way to Omaha, which will connect us to the West Coast, Cownie said. I think anything we can do to get passenger rail to Iowa is a step forward, and I am looking forward to high-speed passenger rail.
Tom Kane, executive director of the Des Moines Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, agreed, saying, Now that this is confirmed, it moves us closer to being able to make some plans and make some decisions.
Des Moines has not had regular passenger train service since May 31, 1970, when the Rock Island Lines Cornbelt Rocket made its last run between Chicago and Council Bluffs.
The 219-mile route between Chicago and Iowa City, using BNSF Railway and Iowa Interstate Railroad tracks, would be completed by 2015, initially providing twice daily round trip Amtrak service. Initially, trips would take less than five hours at an initial top speed of 79 mph. Supporters hope speeds could eventually hit 100 mph.
Each train would accommodate 230 passengers, offering coach seating and food service. First-year ridership is projected to be 246,800 passengers.
The train would likely attract University of Iowa students; fans of the Chicago Cubs, White Sox and Bears; travelers just looking for a weekend getaway and Iowans with family ties in Chicago,
We are ecstatic, said Iowa City Mayor Matt Hayek. This is very promising news.
In Iowa City, officials are interested in talking with the current owners of the towns historic railroad depot about using the building again as a passenger train station, the mayor added. The rail line is a few blocks south of downtown and passes through an area being considered for redevelopment, he said.
Gov. Chet Culver hailed the grant and said it was funded in tough competition with other passenger train projects in other states. He promised the plans will set a new national standard for reliable, cost-effective, fuel-efficient passenger rail service.
The money awarded Monday will support environmental studies, track construction and improvements, construction of a layover facility, acquisition of equipment and station improvements.
Nicholson, of the Iowa rail office, said the announcement makes it likely Chicago-to-Iowa City rail service will become a reality. The cost of the project is $310 million. Each state is required to provide a prorated share of a required match, based on the share of investment in each state.
Amtrak has been criticized by conservatives, who say it wastes federal money while providing second-rate train service. The system has never earned a profit since it was established in 1971, and most of its routes lose money. Amtraks on-time performance record is poor, and it only accounts for a fraction of travel in the United States.
Former Gov. Terry Branstads campaign spokesman Tim Albrecht declined to comment Monday when asked if Branstad would support the use of state money to establish Chicago-to-Iowa City passenger service. Iowa House Republican Leader Kraig Paulsen said he didnt know enough about the plans to express an opinion about providing state money, although he said, Sooner or later it will have to stand on its own two feet.
Richard Welch of Swisher, a member of the Iowa Association of Railroad Passengers, said Mondays announcement represents the culmination of years of efforts by train service supporters.
Its a super day, he said.
Iowa has two other Amtrak trains that operate daily through southern Iowa en route between Chicago and the West Coast. The Southwest Chief stops in Fort Madison, while the California Zephyr stops in Burlington, Mount Pleasant, Ottumwa, Osceola, and Creston. The trains are part of Amtraks national train system, so they dont require state subsidies.