Though the interest may seem to have started recently, intercity passenger rail service in Iowa and the Midwest is not new and has been under study for many years.
Passenger rail service along the planned route began between 1850 and 1870. By the 1880s, commuter rail service in Chicago had been developed in a hub-and-spoke pattern, extending 30 to 40 miles in 15 different directions from downtown Chicago. This hub-and-spoke system is still operating today as Chicago's Metra.
With the increasing importance of the interstate highway system, American's love affair with their automobiles, and other economic and regulatory issues, passenger rail service declined across the United States. Nationally, by 1971, many intercity passenger rail services were terminated and consolidated into Amtrak's long-distance routes.
The Midwest Regional Rail Initiative (MWRRI) was established in 1996 as a multistate Midwest effort. Sponsors of the MWRRI include Amtrak and the transportation agencies in nine Midwestern states – Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio, and Wisconsin.
Following a series of studies, in 2004 the MWRRI identified a bold Midwest intercity passenger rail plan based on a "hub and spoke" model, with Chicago as the hub. This rail transportation system is known as the Midwest Regional Rail System. This plan included "spokes" reaching throughout the Midwest, including a route through Iowa to Council Bluffs-Omaha.
Planning, design, and development for many of the Midwest passenger rail corridors has moved forward since the original conception of the plan. The Iowa DOT has continued study and progress toward development of the Chicago to Iowa City passenger rail corridor, with possible future extensions to Council Bluffs-Omaha.
The service being evaluated is regional intercity routes that are distinguished from the Amtrak national long-distance rail routes (like the California Zephyr and Southwest Chief in southern Iowa). Because this is regional service, it results in schedules that permit "day trips" to many metropolitan areas, more reliable on-time performance, and amenities designed for shorter duration routes. These types of routes are important to business and student travelers, and serve the leisure traveler as well.
No changes are anticipated on Amtrak's long-distance passenger rail routes. The long-distance routes currently include stops in Fort Madison on the Southwest Chief and stops in Burlington, Mount Pleasant, Ottumwa, Osceola, Creston, and Omaha on the California Zephyr.
Both intercity and long-distance routes serve important purposes and have different strengths to meet travelers' needs.
Expanding passenger rail is a key piece of a versatile, flexible way to move people and is a vital part of a total transportation system that includes automobiles, air travel, buses, commuter services, bicycles, and pedestrians. Alternative travel options that work in concert with or as alternatives to other modes of transportation allow smart and easy choices for travelers and an opportunity to create growth and vitality within Iowa.
The benefits include the following:
Passenger rail is a sustainable transportation alternative with:
- Energy efficiency that promotes energy independence.
- Fewer greenhouse gas emissions than other alternatives for healthier Iowans and a better environment.
Regional intercity routes can stimulate economic vitality and development by creating:
- A business environment that will create and attract new jobs and retain existing jobs.
- Travel options for both business and leisure travelers and that appeal to the leaders of tomorrow.
- Enhanced business and university recruitment.
- Links between Iowa and the business opportunities and connections to the Midwest's largest metropolitan megaregion.
Quality of life enhancements can be achieved through:
- Access to travel for those who do not have or want the expense of a motor vehicle or air travel.
- Enhanced mobility for Iowa's aging population who may no longer be able or want to drive.
- A comfortable, convenient travel option.
Efficiencies are achieved due to:
- Speedy and straightforward boarding.
- Productive travel time through the use of laptops and cell phones en route.
- Access to wireless Internet throughout trip.
Studies in late 2012 projected that you can expect the following:
- Round-trip cost round to the nearest $10.
- One-way travel time rounded to the nearest 10 minutes for auto, air and rail.
- Auto cost assumes round-trip distance at 55.5 cents per mile (Internal Revenue Service mileage rate), plus Illinois tolls and one-day cost of perking in Chicago loop.
- Bus trip assumes maximum time and cost between MegaBus and Burlington Trailways; does not include parking cost.
- Bus trip assumes no dwell time at the bus depot
- Air trip from Chicago to Iowa City assumes going through Cedar Rapids Eastern Iowa Airport, then an additional 30-minute drive to Iowa City. It does not include cost of a rental car for this segment of the trip.
- Air trip assumes travel time to include drive to airport, parking, shuttle bus to terminal, advance arrival before departure, flight time, collection of luggage and train to/from downtown Chicago.
- Rail trip costs uses $0.135/miles, based on current Amtrak Midwest pricing; does not include parking cost at trip origin; rail trip travel time does not include time to or from station; schedules are estimates.
- Fares do not include taxes or baggage fees.
The most recent analysis of ridership conservatively projects 300,000 travelers on the route. On average, that is approximately 800 riders per day. That doesn't mean that 800 people per day will get on in Iowa City and off in Chicago. What it does mean is that approximately 800 people will get on and off the train somewhere on the route. For example, a rider could be a traveler that gets on in Iowa City and off in the Quad Cities or one that gets on in Chicago and travels the entire route to Iowa City – both are considered a rider when calculating ridership.
Phase 1 from Chicago to the Quad Cities, with six intermediate stops, is expected to generate 185,000 riders. Extending the route to Iowa City in Phase 2 will generate an additional 115,000 riders. Due to Iowa City's location, population, and educational/medical facilities, the Iowa City station will provide nearly 40 percent of the ridership of the entire route.
The project development process for passenger rail uses a phased approach. The basic concept is that you begin looking at the "big picture" and move on to more detail and effort if the prior step makes sense. The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) also has certain requirements for new developments that must be met. In addition, the initial NEPA studies are a prerequisite for eligibility for federal funding. The basic steps in development include:
- Identifying a preferred corridor for the proposed route.
- Broadly analyzing a wide potential corridor for impacts. For the Chicago to Iowa City corridor this resulted in a Tier 1 Environmental Assessment (EA) and Supplement. For the Chicago to Omaha-Council Bluffs corridor, a Tier 1 Environmental Impact Statement was completed that built upon the Iowa City study.
- Completing preliminary engineering of the preferred corridor to identify specific locations where additional infrastructure is needed and analyze the impacts in detail. This detailed analysis is documented in Tier 2 project level NEPA documents.
- Final design and construction of the infrastructure.
The freight railroad will continue to operate its freight trains, serve its customers, and connect with other freight railroads safely and efficiently even after the introduction of passenger trains on the corridor, and will have the same opportunity for growth that it did previously.
Adding passenger rail service to a freight railroad requires measures to ensure that both the freight and the passenger service operate safely, efficiently, and reliably. Just a few examples include:
- In order to efficiently run faster passenger trains in concert with slower, longer freight trains, additional side tracks are needed so that freight and passenger trains can meet and pass one another.
- The higher speeds necessary for passenger trains to provide an attractive transportation service to the traveling public requires that the track is more frequently inspected, and that track maintenance is more frequent and more involved, to provide good ride quality and comply with federal safety regulations.
- More than 50 highway railroad at-grade crossings will receive warning signal systems consisting of flashing lights, bells, and gates, where today these crossings may only have crossbucks. This improves safety for passengers, motorists, and pedestrians, but the mechanical and electronic systems of each of these new crossing signal locations must be inspected and maintained by the railroad.
- The system that controls train operation on the railroad, both freight and passenger, must be upgraded from today's radio-based system to a signal system with positive train control, a system designed to prevent train collisions and trains exceeding their maximum safe speed.
Identifying, designing, and incorporating all the passenger rail safety and other requirements without interfering with existing and future freight operations or the ability of the freight railroad to serve its customers is complicated. This explains why costs to develop passenger rail services on an existing railroad may be higher than you may expect.
The concept of a corridor shared by passenger and freight trains is as old as the railroad industry itself. Nearly every mile of Amtrak's existing long-distance passenger rail network operates over routes shared with freight trains.
Federal regulations require that new passenger trains on existing freight railroads be "freight neutral" – that is, the passenger rail may neither harm nor help the freight railroad in any significant way. As private companies, the railroads will have a "public tenant" providing a public benefit to citizens using the railroad's private infrastructure.
Any improvements to infrastructure, additional maintenance (both immediate and long term), and additional operating expense required to host the passenger service must be reimbursed to the host freight railroad to remain "freight neutral."
Yes, safety is a foremost concern. Operating practices on a shared-use corridor are geared to maximize the safety and efficiency of freight and passenger trains and to minimize operating conflicts between the two modes. A high-tech signal and train control system will help assure safe operation on the corridor. Track improvements will be made to allow faster speeds. The addition of warning signals at currently uncontrolled at-grade crossings will improve safety for passengers, motorists, and pedestrians.
Many states that have developed intercity passenger rail services contract with Amtrak to operate the service. Amtrak has experience operating passenger trains on freight railroads and can provide through- ticketing for both the intercity route and any connecting services for passengers.
Federal funding through the Federal Railroad Administration's High Speed Intercity Passenger Rail (HSIPR) program first became available in 2009. The Iowa and Illinois DOTs submitted a joint application in 2010 for $248 million to develop intercity passenger rail service between Chicago and Iowa City at a total cost of $310 million. The HSIPR program is a highly competitive grant program that pays 80 percent of the estimated cost. Iowa and Illinois were to provide 20 percent state and local funding based on the portion of the route in each state.
In October 2010, the awards were announced, and the Iowa/Illinois DOTs were awarded $230 million, $18 million less than requested. The award was reduced when a portion of a rail improvement at Eola Yard in Illinois was deemed ineligible. Based on the estimated costs when the grant was announced, Iowa's state and local share was expected to be $21.8 million (20 percent state and local share).
In 2011, when Illinois wanted to move forward with service to the Quad Cities and Iowa was unable to commit the state funding for the Iowa portion, the two DOTs asked that the FRA split the award into phases. The FRA agreed, and that is when the project became more complicated. Costs to initiate a new passenger rail service just do not easily or neatly split into two parts by FRA. Illinois needs locomotives and cars to start the service. The Eola Yard improvements were re-evaluated and became eligible for funding. A layover facility to house trains when not in use was moved from Iowa to Illinois. Additionally, certain costs must be spent in Phase 1 in order to start up the service, such as the train communications and signaling, but will benefit both phases of the development.
The bottom line is that in December 2011, the FRA allocated $177 million of the $230 million award to Illinois for Phase 1, leaving $53 million in federal funding to Iowa for Phase 2.
Iowa's total cost was estimated at $108.6 million in the 2010 application. This included $17 million dollars for Iowa's portion of the new passenger rail equipment. Federal funds were expected to pay 80 percent of the cost leaving Iowa's state and local share at $21.8 million ($20.6 million state and $1.2 million local).
More refined estimates of costs were completed in December 2013, including changes that have occurred between 2010 and 2013. The total estimated cost for Phase 2 is $125 million (this does not include the $17 million in costs for new rail equipment that was provided to Illinois for Phase I). With $53 million available in federal funding for Phase 2, Iowa's state and local share is now estimated at $72 million. These costs assume service would begin in 2017.
Additional engineering and design was completed to further identify costs for Phase 2. In addition, a risk analysis was performed. The risk analysis identified potential problems and opportunities that could be encountered in completion of the project. Each of these factors were quantified by looking at the potential financial impact of the risk (increased costs) or opportunity (cost savings), as well as how likely that event was to occur. On any large scale infrastructure project unanticipated events can occur, but the department has done due diligence to be as confident as possible that the project can be completed for $125 million, if Iowa's state and local share of $72 million is made available for service to begin in 2017.
Yes, there will be an annual operating cost, or subsidy, required for the service. The operating cost is the difference between the ticket revenue and the cost to operate and maintain the service. Operating subsidies are frequently used when setting the price for public transportation in order to keep it competitive and available for users. The states of Iowa and Illinois must pay for the net operating cost because this is a state supported intercity route. Negotiations with Illinois on how to split these costs are ongoing. By looking at the ridership on the route and revenues generated, extension into Iowa City provides a net benefit to the operating costs.
Nearly all types of transportation receive public funding or are subsidized in some way or to some extent. Intercity passenger rail is no different. User fees seldom cover the full cost of transportation. When you ride a public transit bus, your bus may have been purchased with a federal grant. Airports are usually owned by a city or other public entity. Airport security and air traffic controllers are federal employees. Locks and dams are owned and maintained by the federal government. Highway user fees and gas taxes have failed to keep up with costs and no longer fully pay for the highways and are now partially funded with general funds.
It is important to note that based on the high number of Iowa-based riders and the small incremental operating cost required to extend regional intercity passenger rail service to Iowa City, the estimated annual operating cost to be paid by Iowa is relatively low – $600,000. While the final number will be finalized as the project progresses, it is expected that this will not require annual appropriations by the legislature to support this service into the future.
- Do your homework and get the facts. The Iowa DOT's website (www.iowadot.gov/iowarail ) has a number of technical documents that provide more details on the proposed service.
- Talk to your local officials about expanded passenger rail service opportunities.
- Encourage your state legislators to learn more about passenger rail. A list of legislators and their contact information is available at the Iowa Legislature's website at www.legis.state.ia.us .
- Join a local rail passenger advocacy group.