Champaign-Urbana Amtrak ridership continues to decline

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Wikipedia

The Illinois Terminal in Champaign, Illinois. The terminal provides Amtrak service, as well as public bus service (MTD) for Champaign-Urbana.

Champaign-Urbana Amtrak ridership has decreased from Illinois Terminal by 20 percent from 2013 to 2018, according to Champaign County Regional Planning Commission (CCRPC) data. 

The commission states on its website that it hopes to increase Illinois Terminal Amtrak ridership by 5 percent by 2020 to meet goals established in its 2040 Long Range Transportation Plan, though it states that “on-time performance is one of the barriers to increased Amtrak ridership in the region.”

“It looks very unlikely that the goal will be attained,” wrote commission Associate Transportation Engineer, Shuake Wuzhati, referring to the 5-percent goal by 2020. “At least part of the (ongoing ridership) decline can be attributed to consistent delays experienced by riders.”

The Illini and Saluki routes, stretching from Chicago to Carbondale, Ill., were on-time only 37 percent of the time in 2018, which is among the lowest in the nation according to Amtrak’s 2018 Host Railroad Report Card. The City of New Orleans passenger route, serving as a long-distance train from Chicago to New Orleans, was on time 51 percent of the time. Amtrak classifies on-time trains as those leaving or arriving within 15 minutes of their scheduled times. 

Through October and November, Amtrak trains had departed around 29 minutes later than their scheduled departure time on average from Champaign-Urbana. Some trains between the two months had even departed up to one to two hours later than their scheduled departure, according to an Amtrak status database.

The commission cites Amtrak as the primary agency capable of achieving increased C-U Amtrak usage through “increasing service frequencies and providing cheaper and more consistent Amtrak fare pricing.” 

Amtrak owns around 3 percent of the tracks it conducts business on. And in most cases, Amtrak has to pay host railroads, the owners of the railways on which it conducts business, large amounts of money to use their tracks and other resources. Under federal law, host railroads are required to give preference to passenger trains on their tracks over their freight trains. However, the law is often not adhered to, as is the case with the Canadian National Railway (CN) which owns the railway hosting Champaign-Urbana’s three Amtrak passenger trains.  

“We’ve had issues with CN handling our trains for quite some time,” Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said. “If you look on our website, you’ll see report cards we give out on how these (host) railroads handle our trains and the schedules they’ve agreed to, and you won’t find a high score for CN.”

Amtrak’s 2018 Host Railroad Report Card gave the Canadian National Railway a “D-” rating, which according to the Report Card indicates that “most passengers are very late” on average.

Freight railroad interferences are attributed to causing around 60 percent of all Amtrak train delays, according to Amtrak. Magliari said such delays have played a large part in Amtrak’s $171 million operating loss in the 2018 fiscal year. Amtrak even establishes financial incentives for host railroad owners to retain priority for Amtrak trains and ensure they keep to their schedules, but Magilari said even this is not enough to elicit cooperation.

“We have money left on the table that we could win from people driving on I-57,” he said. “If only the trains had higher reliability and if CN would observe the statutory right of preference we have and honor the schedules they’ve agreed to.”

Wuzhati wrote that the commission has “no direct authority over local railroads” and has had “limited success directly communicating with Amtrak or railroad owners in the course of different planning projects.”

Despite this, she wrote, the commission has tried to advocate for increased train frequency, a reduction in delays and the creation of a Chicago-Champaign-St. Louis high-speed rail corridor based on community input.

Illinois Senators Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth have been vocal in recent years about Amtrak delays plaguing the Chicago-Carbondale line on which the Illini, Saluki and the City of New Orleans passenger routes reside. 

In an Oct. 22 letter sent to Amtrak, Durbin wrote that “freight railroads continue to ignore their statutory obligation to provide Amtrak with a preference on their tracks. 

“I have consistently taken an active role in holding Canadian National… accountable for repeated freight interference and speed restrictions that have plagued the Illini/Saluki route with some of the worst OTP in the country,” he wrote. “Freight interference has hampered Amtrak’s financial stability as well as reliability for riders.”  

Sen. Durbin introduced a U.S. Senate bill on November 21 intended to allow Amtrak to sue freight railroads that fail to oblige to federal law mandating railway priority for passenger trains.     

Amtrak ridership has declined as plans to expand upon the Illinois Terminal are ongoing. The U.S. Department of Transportation recently gave a $17 million federal grant to the Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District (MTD) intended to cover most of the $25 million costs of the terminal expansion. 

Jane Sullivan, the grants & governmental affairs director for MTD, said Amtrak ridership and delays do not affect plans for the expanded Illinois Terminal announced in 2018.

One thought on “Champaign-Urbana Amtrak ridership continues to decline

  1. Hard to believe that when the Illinois Central was still a reputable, two track “Mainline of Mid-America,” stand alone Class 1 railroad, in the mid-1960s under its CEO Alan Boyd, passenger schedules were revamped on a Swiss time face of trains every two hours between Chicago-Champaign on a two hour timecard, which included long distance trains to New Orleans and Florida. As a student in the College of Communications, I personally made good use of those convenient schedules in 1969 and 1970 between Chicago-Champaign.

    However, today, the obscene, perpetually delayed trains running over the CN track has directly and negatively impacted passenger traffic between Chicago to both Champaign and Carbondale. Despite longer schedules than the 1960s and I-57, many students still found the state-supported trains convenient. But how much longer will the State of Illinois be willing to pay the excessive costs for these trains, as currently prescribed by the congressional act known as, PRIIA, with traffic tanking; the concept of day-trippers for business or pleasure eliminated?

    As apparently no amount of tribute offered by Amtrak will satisfy the CN, as much as I favor fair market valuation for track access and timely dispatching, it is time to go beyond the STB and senatorial speeches. Just as the federal government years ago stripped a rail route in New England from a non-compliant operator and had another rail line assume it; was paid to improve its infrastructure for Amtrak service, this must now be seriously considered as an operational alternative. Already, we know that for close to a decade, FRA inspectors have found serious track deficiencies on the CN between Carbondale-New Orleans, levying fines that the CN looked at like parking tickets.

    Too much has changed for the wrong reason from the time when the CEO of Illinois Central, Wayne Johnston, looked out of his office window in the 1960s to see the pride of the railroad, the All Pullman “Panama Limited,” arrive from New Orleans. And if the “Panama” did not arrive exactly on time at 0900, all involved knew they had better have a very good reason to explain.

    If we are to ever succeed in rejuvenating Midwest rail corridors to rely on for fast, frequent, and convenient passenger trains, the CN must be removed from the mix; the sooner, the better.

    BTW-in 1986, I received a U.S. patent on my high-speed rail proposal between O’Hare-Chicago-Champaign-Springfield-St. Louis-Lambert Field.

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