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50 years of Amtrak in western Illinois

Rich Egger
Macomb had a large contingent participate in the celebration.

Representatives from Macomb, Galesburg, and Quincy got together along with Amtrak officials to celebrate a half-century of Amtrak service through western Illinois. The local officials marked the occasion by taking the morning train up to Princeton and back.

“The train we’re riding on today – the Illinois Zephyr – is the first state supported Amtrak train and the longest running in the United States,” said Derrick James, Amtrak’s Senior Manager of Government Affairs – State and Local Relations.

The Illinois Zephyr runs from Quincy to Chicago in the morning and from Chicago to Quincy in the evening. A second line, the Carl Sandburg, runs from Chicago to Quincy in the morning and from Quincy to Chicago in the evening.

The Western Illinois Amtrak Corridor Coalition

Macomb Mayor Mike Inman said the Western Illinois Amtrak Corridor Coalition organized the trip, which took place on November 3. The group includes representatives from the communities on the rail line from Quincy to Princeton.

Credit Rich Egger

“This coalition of communities meets quarterly to promote all things Amtrak, both on our corridor and on the national level. We understand the corridor is best served when we have a robust passenger rail service across the United States,” Inman said.

Officials from Kewanee greeted the train but did not board it. The representatives from Macomb, Galesburg, and Quincy got off the train in Princeton, where city leaders held a reception for them. After the reception, they took the southbound mid-morning train back to their communities.

What the Line Means to the Communities

Inman said the event underscored the regional approach to what he called an important service.

“For the City of Macomb it’s hugely important, given the history of Forgottonia and not always being well served by transportation interests at the state level,” Inman said.

Credit Rich Egger
Derrick James of Amtrak

“It brings students to and from Western Illinois University. It’s a selling point when we try to attract professionals. And for folks that have relatives in other parts of the state, it allows them direct access at a very affordable price for transportation. Many folks have no other way to get where they’re going except by rail.

“We will continue to tout Amtrak every chance we get.”

Macomb even runs a bus line in conjunction with Amtrak’s schedule, according to the city’s Transit Director, Miranda Lambert.

“We have a specific route (10 Amtrak) that will drop off at the City Center to catch the AM and PM departure from Macomb on Fridays and will pick them up from the City Center on the AM and PM arrival train on Sundays,” said Lambert.

“This route was primarily created for the number of WIU students who use the Amtrak service to get to and from home on weekends and holidays.”

Galesburg Mayor Peter Schwartzman said he rides the train often – both personally and professionally -- and sees many Knox College and Western Illinois University students on board. He questioned whether all of them would attend those schools if they had to make the drive from the Chicago area to western Illinois.

He believes the line also boosts the region’s economy.

“It’s hard to imagine what communities along this line would look like if we didn’t have Amtrak,” said Schwartzman.

“How many visitors come to Galesburg every year because of Amtrak? We think the number is close to 90,000. That’s just immeasurable in terms of its economic benefit.”

Schwartzman said the line through western Illinois has persisted through the years, even at times when Amtrak faced challenges.

Listen to the interview with Tom Carper of Macomb, who serves on the Amtrak Board of Directors

A Brief History

Amtrak’s Derrick James said an Act of Congress created the passenger rail service, including the line that runs through western Illinois. But he said it didn’t take long for the line to end up on the chopping block – it was slated to be discontinued due to a major cutback in the first year.

“The locals along the route … fought to keep train service. They lost in the court but they won in the legislature. The state legislature provided money to keep the train going,” James said. He said a combination of state funding and customer fares now pays for the providing the service, while state and federal funding pays for capital needs.

Credit Rich Egger
Tom Carper

Tom Carper, who’s on the Amtrak Board of Directors and is a former mayor of Macomb, said the agency is doing much better operationally than it has in the past and enjoys strong support in Congress.

“It’s come an awful long way. We’ve made some great strides in the last 13 years,” he said.

Carper has been on the Amtrak board since March, 2008. His initial term expired in March, 2013, and he was reappointed a few months later. His current term is up but he will continue to serve until a replacement is named and confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

He said there were huge political battles when Amtrak was created, followed by more battles to secure the route that runs through western Illinois.

“All of us here are standing on the shoulders of people who fought like crazy,” Carper said. “I really believe in my heart that it’s our obligation to continue to make it better, expand it where it’s needed, make it safer, and continue the work that they did. If they hadn’t done it, we wouldn’t be here today.”

He said the fights since then have not been quite as intense – he called them a series of skirmishes.

“When we doubled the service in Illinois – that was a two-or-three-year effort. Some presidents would zero the budget out,” Carper said.

“Those are kind of inherent in the way our funding comes because we don’t have a dedicated source of revenue. As you know in public radio, you’re never quite certain, which makes planning incredibly difficult.”

Carper said the western Illinois line was made possible through a lot of hard work from communities on the route. He said he really came to appreciate how important Amtrak is to Macomb and its economy after he was elected mayor in 1991, the first of three four-year terms as mayor.

He credited Democratic U.S. Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois with being a strong supporter of Amtrak in Congress.  And he urged people to not take the service for granted.

Looking Ahead

Derrick James said Amtrak now serves about 500 stations across the U.S. and would like to increase that by around 160 in the next five to ten years.

James said that includes the possibility of adding lines between the Quad Cities & Chicago and between Rockford & Chicago. He said Amtrak is also working with Wisconsin to add more lines between Milwaukee & Chicago.

He also said Amtrak will be talking to officials from Missouri about extending the line that runs through western Illinois.

“There are interested civic leaders over on the west side of the Mississippi River who would like to see this route extended down to their communities. That’s going to require political support from their legislators.”

James said Amtrak’s national expansion plans can be found here

He said ridership nationally is about 75% - 80% of what it was before the pandemic and is gradually trending up. He said Amtrak carried more than 32 million people nationally in the year before the pandemic, which he said was a ridership record.

James said Amtrak is adding diesel locomotives that are more fuel efficient, has some trains powered by electricity, and just signed a deal to buy trains powered by a combination of batteries, electricity, and diesel.

In addition, James said Illinois bought new passenger cars that are scheduled to come online in the spring.

Tri States Public Radio produced this story.  TSPR relies on financial support from our readers and listeners in order to provide coverage of the issues that matter to west central Illinois, southeast Iowa, and northeast Missouri. As someone who values the content created by TSPR's news department please consider making a financial contribution.

Rich is TSPR's News Director.