Get Big or Get Out: It’s Time to Ditch Modest Passenger Rail Projects

Guest post by FK Plous

Today’s example: The case for eight daily roundtrips between Moline and Chicago.

What’s the best way to make passenger trains successful?

The critics who say American passenger trains need to go faster are right.  Most Amtrak trains have a maximum speed of 79 mph and an average point-to-point speed of about 48 mph. That’s about half the speed of the more effective rail systems in Europe and Asia.

But speed is only half the story.  The other half is frequency.  American trains don’t run often enough.

Especially in short-distance corridors, travelers want not just speed but choice.  They want to leave whenever they choose and return as soon as their visit is finished.

That’s why car travel is so popular in the U.S.  The Interstate highway system has spoiled us.  Motorists can choose their own departure and return times without consulting a timetable.  The driving may be dangerous and boring, but the timing is ideal. If rail travel is going to become popular, it’s going to have to offer travelers choices similar to car travel on America’s big Interstate network.

But that’s not the way we do things when it comes to passenger trains.  Instead of an all-in commitment to making trains effective and popular, U.S. transportation planners take a timid, “experimental,” start-small approach: “Let’s run a train and see if anybody rides it.”

That’s how we got Amtrak’s feeble and spindly “network” of corridor trains.  The Rail Passenger Services Act  of 1970 included Paragraph 403(b) that said Amtrak must establish new passenger-train routes at the request of a state if the state agrees to cover a route’s operating deficit.

Illinois got the 403(b) program rolling in 1974 when its General Assembly voted to sponsor one daily round trip between Chicago and Quincy (258 miles).  The Illinois Zephyr became a modest success.

But it didn’t grow much.  Daily ridership soon stabilized at about 150 because one frequency offered little choice of travel times. Leaving Quincy just after 6 a.m., and arriving in Chicago just before 11 a.m., the Zephyr allowed its riders about 8 hours in Chicago before leaving just before 6 p.m. and arriving back in Quincy at about 10:20 p.m.

And what about Chicagoans who wanted to spend a day at a Western Illinois destination?

For them the Illinois Zephyr had no answers. With only one frequency a day—into Chicago in the morning and back to Quincy in the evening—it forced Chicago riders to leave the night before and spend a night in a hotel before enjoying a day in Western Illinois—and then spend another night in a hotel before catching the lone Zephyr frequency back to Chicago.

No wonder most people drove. Driving enabled travelers to make the best use of their time.

This situation prevailed for 32 years. Then, in 2006 a coalition of municipal officials, rail advocates and labor unions persuaded Illinois legislators to fund an additional frequency on the Chicago-Quincy route and on two other state-sponsored corridors.

Within a year ridership doubled and has kept growing ever since.

It turned out there were plenty of train riders between Chicago and Downstate points.  But they weren’t riding trains because there weren’t enough trains to ride.

Now that we know what works, it’s time to junk the old “experimental” approach to building train ridership.  Instead of opening a route by starting up “a train” (and seeing whether anybody comes) we need to open up big—with a full menu of trains offering travelers a real choice of departure times from both ends of the route (and prompt connections to other trains at system hubs).

It’s the same way Starbucks and Walmart open their locations—in multiple locations at once to give customers a range of options so they don’t have to organize a special trip just to get a cup of coffee (or buy a new coffee maker).

As it did in 1974 and again in 2006, Illinois now has a chance to roll out the new way of building passenger-train ridership.  Amtrak and IDOT are planning to open a new route between Chicago and the Quad Cities.

Unfortunately, the current plan is to start up the new service with only two daily round trips.

That’s not enough.  The demographics strongly suggest the Chicago-Quad Cities corridor really merits a full slate of frequencies—maybe six to eight per day right from the start.

Consider the numbers: The busiest corridor in Amtrak’s state-sponsored system of Chicago Hub trains is Chicago-St. Louis, with four daily Lincoln Service round trips sponsored by the state and a fifth, the Texas Eagle, funded out of Amtrak’s long-distance budget.

But while the Chicago-St. Louis corridor is 285 miles long, the bulk of the ridership originates and terminates in the 163-mile mini-corridor between Springfield and Chicago.  In pre-COVID 2019 Springfield generated about 161,000 boardings and disembarkations per year, with Bloomington-Normal—big college town—accounting for 229,894.

What do these numbers tell us about a future Chicago-Quad Cities rail service?

Plenty.  It turns out that the Chicago-Quad Cities corridor is about the same length as the Chicago-Springfield segment of the Lincoln Servicecorridor—163 miles.

But there the similarity ends—because the Quad Cities metro area is three times larger than Springfield.  Springfield’s 2020 population was 114,394.  The Quad Cities had 383,651.

And while sleepy Springfield is a one-industry town centered on state government, the Quad Cities is a booming, diverse and rich manufacturing and tech center.  Deere Inc. alone employs more than 10,000 people making farm and earth-moving machinery, and thousands of other residents earn big wages and salaries in furniture manufacturing, aerospace engineering and manufacturing, food processing and logistics.  Amazon alone employs over 1,000 locals in its Quad Cities distribution centers and trucking operation.

Managers at these firms make frequent trips to Chicago—and their employers don’t want them wasting valuable time on a tiring drive.

And several thousand Chicago-area students attend college in the Quad Cities.  They return home as often as they can, but they don’t like to drive either.

Based on the numbers, a Chicago-Quad Cities passenger-rail corridor should outperform the Chicago-Springfield segment of the Lincoln Service corridor right from the start.  Three times the size of Springfield, it ought to generate at least three times Springfield’s traffic—something like 483,000 passengers off and on per year.

But only if the frequencies are there—at least as many as Springfield has, and probably more.

The Quad Cities service also is likely to pull thousands of passengers a year from Iowa points within an hour’s drive of the Quad Cities: Iowa City, Cedar Rapids and Muscatine—that have been waiting for years for train service but still can’t win funding from their own legislature.  Most people don’t mind a 1-hour drive that connects with a relaxing 3-hour train trip.

So it’s time for IDOT and Amtrak to reset their plans for the Chicago-Quad Cities service to reflect the actual rail-travel potential of the Quad Cities and their hinterland.  It’s time to go big and open the corridor with six to eight round trips per day.

As Daniel Burnham said 150 years ago in Chicago, “Make no little plans.”

And as business people all over America say today, “Get big or get out.”  “Go big or go home.”  The Quad Cities already are full of riders.  Now let’s give them their trains.

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