It is Time to Rebuild the Rock

The former Rock Island Railroad is an untapped asset, linking four of Illinois’ largest metro areas, a top tourist destination, and two international airports.

The State of Illinois can unlock its power and potential by rebuilding it for 90-mph regional rail and improved freight service.

Can you name the two biggest cities missing from the Illinois passenger-rail map?

Hint: Both are situated on busy rivers and both are an ideal distance from Chicago for a train trip. And, both were once served by the Rock Island Railroad.

We’re talking about the Quad Cities and Peoria, two hugely important Downstate industrial and commercial centers.  Both lost their passenger-trains when the Rock Island was split up and downgraded decades ago.

Both are ideal for fast, frequent, and affordable trains.

Historically, streamliners on the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad blasted across northern Illinois at more than 100 mph. The fastest trains made Chicago-Moline in 3 hours and Chicago-Peoria in 2 hours 40 minutes.

Rock Island Regional Rail would:

  • Connect four of the state’s largest metros,

  • Create a pillar route for a future Midwest high-speed rail network, and

  • Unleash the region’s incredible potential.

A table of the largest MSAs in Illinois. Chicago, Peoria, Quad Cities, Ottawa are highlighted. Caption reads: The Rock Island connects four of the largest metros in Illinois.

Peoria and the Quad Cities have a lot in common

They’re both multi-city metroplexes with about 400,000 people. Both are too close to Chicago for a flight to make sense—but too far away to be an easy drive. And they’re both economic dynamos that boast some of the state’s key institutions and major employers.

Think John Deere, Caterpillar, Liberty Steel and Wire, OSF HealthCare, Eaton Corporation, Tyson, Kraft, ADM, Rock Island Arsenal, Bradley University, Augustana College, and Western Illinois University—just for starters.

This means that hundreds of managers and executives travel this corridor every week—as do thousands of college students and families enjoying day trips to favorite destinations.

It’s not just Peoria and the Quad Cities that need regional rail.

Rapidly growing communities along the Illinois Valley have long argued for frequent trains.

And, the cluster of Starved Rock, Matthiessen, and Buffalo Rock State Parks is one of the state’s busiest tourist destinations.

To thrive, they need a train every two hours—i.e., 10 trains a day in each direction.

Rebuilding the Rock Island is the only way to do it.

The Rock Island Corridor would make Starved Rock, Matthiessen, and Buffalo Rock state parks, an easy train ride away from the state’s three of the state’s four biggest metro areas.

The State is already committed
to all but 14 miles

Illinois and Missouri have four projects in the Federal Corridor ID process that all interact with the Rock.

  1. Quad Cities – Chicago via the Rock and BNSF
  2. Hannibal – Chicago via the BNSF
  3. Peoria – Chicago via the Rock
  4. St. Louis – Chicago via the UP and the Rock

IDOT should rethink their approach to the corridors to maximize the potential of each.  For example, the capacity on the BNSF currently held for Quad Cities could be used to expand service to Galesburg.

Most importantly, the State needs to designate the Rock Island as a single corridor.

 

A map showing the inter-relationship between the BNSF Corridor and the Rock Island Corridor in Illinois.

Status by Segment

Moline - Wyanet

Status:
Partial construction funding
In Corridor ID Program

IDOT has partial funding to rebuild this section for two daily roundtrips.   Trains would reach Chicago via a new connection to the BNSF.

Wyanet - Bureau

Status:
Not being studied

Adding this 14-mile segment into the State’s plans unlocks the full value of the Rock Island Corridor.

Peoria - Bureau - Joliet

Status:
Completed Feasibility Study
In Corridor ID Program

The City of Peoria and a coalition of online communities is pushing hard to get the corridor rebuilt.

Joliet - Chicago

Status:
Existing Metra service
In Corridor ID Program

Metra, Amtrak, and IDOT are seeking federal funds to triple track a portion of this segment so that Chicago – St. Louis trains and Southwest Service trains can use these tracks.

First step towards a “pillar” corridor

The Federal Railroad Administration’s Midwest Regional Rail Plan lists Chicago – Omaha as one of six “pillar” corridors. It would tie the Quad Cities, Omaha, Des Moines, the University of Iowa, and Cedar Rapids into a much stronger economic unit.

The State of Iowa completed initial design work in 2013.

A map of the FRA planning framework for corridors in the Midwest. It shows 6 pillar corridors out of Chciago.

Photo: Johnny Hansen

Improving Freight

The State should engage the owners of the tracks, the CSX and Iowa Interstate, as true partners to ensure that the project results in improved service to Illinois manufacturers and farmers.

Buying the railroad is likely the State’s best option.

We need a state railway program

Making the Rock suitable for Regional Rail will require investments similar to any of the highway upgrades that Illinois Department of Transportation conducts every year.

IDOT has an ongoing highway program to maintain and expand its 15,900-mile highway network.

A similar state railway program is needed to make high-speed and regional rail a reality across the state,

Tell Springfield to fund a statewide railway program.

What the program would pay for

New Track: The current track is fine for slow freight trains. But it would need to be rebuilt to passenger-train standards, with the double-track sections being re-installed.

New Bridges: Many of the bridges would need to be upgraded or replaced.  The bridge over the Rock River is the most significant.

New Signals: The current railroad has no signals.  Positive Train Control is now required for passenger trains.

New Trainsets: Illinois doesn’t have enough trains to run the existing services well. The State should place a large order that includes enough rolling stock for the Rock.

Next Steps

Linking the Quad Cities, Peoria, and Chicago into a busy, high-performance, Y-shaped regional rail corridor will require that IDOT take a new approach to planning and development.

Step 1 > Identify funding and reconstruct the Wyanet – Moline segment.

The Quad Cities have waited long enough for passenger trains. Illinois should get the currently proposed BNSF/Iowa Interstate connection at Wyanet, and the track upgrades from Wyanet to Moline, underway immediately. Completing this segment will create new travel possibilities, demonstrate the strong demand for passenger trains, and give Illinois shippers new options for routing their freight.

Step 2 > Designate the former Rock Island Railroad as a unified corridor.

Illinois should work with the Federal Railroad Administration to re-align its Corridor ID projects so that the Rock becomes a unified, powerhouse corridor.

Step 3 > Cooperate with Iowa and the FRA to expand the Rock Island to Omaha.

Extending this route to Omaha will multiply its value by making it accessible to several prime markets in the I-80 corridor. For example, the stretch of corridor from the Quad Cities to Des Moines alone is home to two major universities—Iowa and Iowa State—and several vibrant colleges, including Grinnell and Coe.

Let’s get to it

Regional Rail will mean a freer flow of students, workers, and tourists between Illinois and its neighbors—creating more commerce, more collaborations, and a more resilient regional economy. This plan will create strong connections between dozens of core companies, educational institutions, and tourist attractions across Illinois and eastern Iowa. At the same time, people in communities of all sizes will gain easy, affordable access to the dozens of other towns and cities in the corridor. And freight shippers will gain substantial new capacity. It’s a win-win-win that’s not only cost-effective but doable and long overdue.

A woman with a rolling suitcase is walking towards a regional train.
The Capitol Building in Springfield, IL

Get Involved

The Illinois General Assembly is debating the future transit and regional rail right now.  The package should include a State Railway Program to invest in bridges, trainsets, and better track.

Learn how you can get involved