Iowa passenger rail follow-up and discussion thread

In the final days of the 2011 Iowa legislative session, funding for passenger rail was one of the last disputes House Republican and Senate Democratic negotiators resolved. The final deal called for no passenger rail money in the state budget for fiscal year 2012, but left “intent” language describing future state funding to match federal grants for a train route between Iowa City and Chicago. At that time, news reports indicated that legislators would need to allocate $6.5 million toward passenger rail in fiscal year 2013 to keep this project alive, plus $10 million total in subsequent years.

Before the Iowa House and Senate adjourned last week, I saw no mention of passenger rail funding in any reports about the infrastructure budget for fiscal year 2013, which begins on July 1. Wondering whether no news was bad news, I started asking around. What I learned is after the jump, along with new links on the potential for passenger rail across Iowa.

Passenger rail should not be a partisan issue, but it has become one in Iowa and other states. Newly-elected Republican governors in Wisconsin, Ohio, and Florida rejected federal funding for high-speed rail in 2011. Governor Terry Branstad didn’t go as far as rejecting federal money awarded to Iowa in late 2010, but he didn’t include any passenger rail funding in his own draft budget for 2012.

Meanwhile, Iowa House Republicans used their new majority status to try to eliminate passenger rail funding already approved for fiscal year 2011 and oppose any allocation for fiscal year 2012. I can’t explain the Republican hostility to rail projects in substantive terms. The money at stake is not a large portion of Iowa’s transportation spending. Arguments against “subsidies” for rail don’t hold water when no one questions the massive federal and state subsidies supporting our roads. I suspect that when Governor Chet Culver went all in for passenger rail, Iowa Republicans decided that whatever a Democrat was for must be bad. In addition, a rail link from Chicago to Iowa City through the Quad Cities would mostly benefit residents of Democratic-held Iowa House and Senate districts.

Members of the Iowa Transportation Commission supported the plan to extend Amtrak service in Iowa and even offered to “look at reallocating funds from existing programs” to match the federal grant. Nevertheless, last summer Branstad signaled his skepticism by withdrawing Iowa’s membership in the Midwest Regional Rail Initiative.

Under the leadership of Paul Trombino, the Iowa Department of Transportation announced last September that officials would study a different passenger rail plan, with the potential to serve a larger population. Click here for more details on the Iowa DOT’s Chicago to Omaha Regional Passenger Rail System Planning Study. Public meetings were held earlier this month, but Iowans can submit public comments online through May 21. Depending on the results of this study, the Iowa DOT may ask the federal government to support a rail link from Chicago to Omaha through Des Moines, instead of the original plan to end the rail link in Iowa City.

Running the rail line through central Iowa to the Council Bluffs/Omaha metro would increase the political leverage for this project. Republican lawmakers who represent the Des Moines suburbs and western Iowa could imagine their constituents benefiting from the rail line. Business groups like the Greater Des Moines Partnership are already for passenger rail but may lobby more actively if a line through central Iowa is a less distant goal. Their input has a better chance of bringing Branstad around than any case I could make for investing in rail.

Coming back to the starting point for this post: what’s going on with Iowa’s matching funds for passenger rail? The infrastructure budget for fiscal year 2013 doesn’t contain any money for rail. That’s not a death blow, because the Iowa DOT reset the clock, in effect, by requesting a new study of a line from Chicago to Omaha. According to Steve Falck, senior policy advocate for the Environmental Policy and Law Center, next year passenger rail advocates will need to convince state legislators to allocate funds for the new version of the project. The required match will depend on how much federal funding is at stake, but over several years, Iowa will need to allocate a total of 20 percent of the federal grant.

Bringing lawmakers on board with that may be a very heavy lift, especially if Republicans win control of the Iowa Senate and hold their Iowa House majority this November. Prospects for passenger rail funding would improve if Branstad became convinced of the value of passenger rail and included the matching money in his draft budgets for fiscal years 2014 and beyond.

Is the Chicago to Omaha passenger rail project worthwhile? One of my favorite transportation bloggers, BruceMcF, writes a “Sunday train” series at Daily Kos, and two of his recent posts featured the Iowa project. In “The Rock Island Line is a Mighty Find Iowa Rapid-Rail Road, BruceMcF discussed several possible routes through Iowa.

The Rock Island Line (blue line) through Moline, Iowa City, and Des Moines serves the greatest intermediate population, with an intermediate service population of 1,034,000. This alternative is expected to be able to use the existing Mississippi River bridge between Rock Island, Illinois and Davenport, Iowa, and would require new second main track for half of its length, and new third track for a tenth of its length. It would be 17 minutes slower than the Cedar Rapids route at 79mph, and 25 minutes slower at 110mph. […]

While the Rock Island line has the wildcard advantage of the best song of the five route alternates, it does have a glaring weakness: while the Cedar Rapids route and the Burlington route both connect directly to Chicago Union Station, the Rock Island Line terminates at La Salle Street station, several blocks from Union Station. Making a junction to track with a direct connection to Chicago Union Station would require additional work, and would have to be fitted into the CREATE plan to remove passenger and freight rail bottlenecks in the greater Chicago area.

However, the Burlington Line and Rock Island Line cross in western Illinois, and it turns out that the route formed from the Burlington line on the eastern side to Chicago and the Rock Island Line on the western side through Iowa to Omaha (yellow highlight along green and blue lines) is first or second on most things we would want from a route.

The combined Rock Island Line / Burlington Line route has the same intermediate population as the Rock Island Line, so it is equal first in intermediate population. It is the second fastest route, 4 minutes slower than the Cedar Rapids route at 79mph and 14 minutes slower at 110mph. It is the second lowest cost alternative, after the Burlington line. And with its direct connection of the Burlington line into Chicago’s Union Station and superior speed to the Rock Island line all the way, it has the highest projected ridership and revenue.

BruceMcF goes on to analyze how a “new Cornhusker Rocket” would fit into a larger intercity rail network to the east and west. I recommend clicking through to read the whole thing.

In yesterday’s installment of “Sunday train,” BruceMcF drew up three possible timetables for Chicago to Omaha service. One assumes a “lower speed project operating at 8hrs 30mins Omaha to Chicago, with 30 minute turn-arounds. I assume that the Chicago to Quad Cities route is 3hrs, so I assume that the Quad Cities to Omaha is 5hrs 30min.” In that scenario, there would be three full trips each way daily.

The second timetable assumes track improvements to raise the maximum train speed from 89 miles per hour to 110 miles per hour. That would allow travelers to get Chicago to Omaha in seven and a half hours: two and a half hours to the Quad Cities, and another five hours from the Quad Cities across Iowa to Omaha. In that scenario, there could be five services each day.

BruceMcF’s third scenario looks “pie in the sky” to me: a true high-speed rail corridor, reaching maximum speeds of 125 miles per hour. Riders could get from Chicago to Omaha in six hours: two hours to the Quad Cities and another four hours across Iowa. In that case, every day there could be “six main services Omaha to Chicago, and a red eye service each way, primarily to pass trains through Chicago for regular overnight servicing but also as a red eye service allowing business traveller along the entire line to arrive in Chicago at the start of the business day and/or to depart for Chicago after the end of the business day.”

Any comments related to passenger rail in Iowa are welcome in this thread.

  • The 125mph corridor ...

    … doesn’t assume that the Iowa state government pays for a substantial amount of the works, it assumes a federal government program (linked through to in the piece) to provide a transcontinental network of electric rapid freight rail corridors. Which may be pie in the sky, but perhaps a different pie in a different sky than what you were thinking.

    A 110mph corridor from Chicago to Moline in the Quad Cities and 90mph from the Quad Cities to Omaha is about where the intercity passenger demand on its own would take the improvements. Maybe one day 110mph the whole way if there are 220mph trains available to catch in Chicago.

    • given GOP control of the U.S. House

      I can’t imagine any significant federal investment in high-speed rail occurring. If I could turn back the clock to 2009, I’d have Congress abandon all work on the climate change bill and focus on getting the transportation bill through while Oberstar was still chairing the House Transportation Committee. We could have accomplished some great things instead of spinning our wheels over cap and trade.

      • Given GOP control in the US House ...

        … under the same dynamic, sure, but I don’t know that its all that stable a dynamic.

        Its a few take-downs of GOP incumbents in Republican primaries that has half of the GOP caucus pretending to be another Michele Bachmann in an effort to avoid being primaried by another Michele Bachmann. But a few take-downs of GOP incumbents in general elections for being too extreme, and the concern to not look too extreme kicks in again.

        And investing in intercity passenger rail projects that make local Chambers of Commerce happy is one of those things that Republicans sometimes do when they are working to not look too extreme. The rail project that Gov. Walker took down, after all, was pushed by a previous GOP Governor of Wisconsin.

        Like I said in the Agent Orange comments, my crystal ball as far as what shenanigans local politicians will get up to is broken … but the case for an Iowa extension of the Quad Cities corridor will only get stronger as Illinois continues investing in the Quad Cities corridor ~ including the Burlington Line section in Illinois which is shared by an already existing Illinois state service and by two Amtrak long distance services.

  • Pie in the sky.......

    This absurd train proposal has so many flaws it is even hard to know where to begin….so let’s just take a couple areas to start…

    Cost…According to the Business Plan presented by the Iowa DOT on March 21, on the Iowa City to Chicago route, the projected ticket cost is $62, well short of the estimated $225 cost per passenger, requiring MASSIVE per passenger subsidies..

    Service…What so many do not know is that existing ontime service at Osceola is somewhere between 27-37%, depending on the source. Few have any idea why the proposal has a 90% on time projection in the IC-Chicago business plan, but few really believe that as a figure.  Nor do many know that in reading the business plan, a food cart may very well replace what many are expecting, a dining car.

    Competition….Megabus provides existing, far less costly, and far more flexible alternatives, and is a private sector alternative.  The rail estimates only a 40 mph average speed…Megabus will get to Chicago far far faster with an expected far better ontime performance.

    Location….With the latest information, it appears the preferred rail alternative does not even go to Grand Central Station in Chicago…oh oh.  No other Amtrak connections are available at the alternative.  Trouble there.

    The passenger rail idea needs shelved.  The sooner the better.

    • This point doesn't make any sense ...

      Service…What so many do not know is that existing ontime service at Osceola is somewhere between 27-37%, depending on the source. Few have any idea why the proposal has a 90% on time projection in the IC-Chicago business plan, but few really believe that as a figure.

      The existing service that you are referring to is the Long Distance Amtrak service between Chicago and San Francisco, along one of the main western freight corridors connecting Omaha to both Chicago and Pittsburgh.

      Interference of freight with westbound trains from Chicago requires additional schedule padding, which is normally inserted at the main stations, which would be Chicago and Omaha. The figure at Osceola would be the worst figure between Chicago and Lincoln, Nebraska.

      And of course, any decision by Union Pacific or BNSF controllers to put a freight train through and force the Amtrak to wait anywhere in California, Nevada, Utah, Denver or Nebraska disrupts the service eastbound between Omaha and Chicago.

      The Rock Island Line is a much less heavily used single track freight rail corridor through the Quad Cities, Iowas City, and Des Moines to Omaha, operated by the Iowa Interstate Railway, and the proposal includes the capacity upgrades required to allow passenger trains and freight trains to operate without interference.

      Using on-time performance on the Burlington line at Osceola to predict end to end one time performance of the proposed route between Chicago and Iowa City is like using one time performance of a driver on the I-80 between Gary In and Joliet IL during rush hour to predict the on-time performance of a driver on the I-80 between Iowa City and Des Moines in the middle of the day.

  • one more thing....

    for those high speed train lovers that point to Hong Kong, or Osaka, or Tokyo, or Singapore and the like as a model system, keep in mind NONE of those highly successful systems are requiring a government subsidy in their operation.  all are at 119% or more on their fairbox recovery ratio, meaning the users are paying for the service.  Tokyo at 170%!

    • Yes, a system between Iowa City and ...

      … Chicago won’t hit operating cost breakeven when it is running two services each way at 79mph maximum and an average transit speed slower than freeway driving.

      But nobody who is being serious about the subject would call the initial service a high speed rail service. Its a starter service, while works that allow faster speed progress. And nobody who is being serious about the subject would take the projected farebox recovery of the starter service as an indicator of the likely performance of a higher speed Des Moines to Chicago service.

      Increasing speed has three positive effects on farebox recovery. First, labor costs of operating the line are paid by hour, so the faster the transit speed, the lower the labor cost per mile. Second, demand for the service increases substantially once it is competitive with freeway driving times, and higher occupancy reduces per-passenger shares of vehicle operating costs. And third, quicker transit times mean that the same equipment can operate additional services during the day, whether that is more turns per day or reaching a destination further from Chicago on its route, either of which reduce the share of fixed corridor and service support costs per passenger mile.

      Its easy for misleading claims to be made about what the farebox recovery will be for the faster and longer versions of this route, since projections on farebox recovery of the higher speed rail services for this corridor do not exist. An alignment has to be selected first before its possible to do the detailed schedule and ridership modeling that it requires, and the alignment selection for the full Omaha to Chicago route is the step of the process that the Iowa DoT just completed. Projected financial performance for various service levels along the selected alignment will be performed in the Environmental Impact Report, which is the next step in the process.

      It is, however, highly likely that a service 90mph Des Moines to the Quad Cities and 110mph from the Quad Cities to Chicago will do substantially better than freeway driving in terms of cost recovery, since its unlikely that cost recovery along the I-80 through Iowa is much above 30%.

      • another variable

        is the price of gas. Spending an extra hour or two on the train may look better if gas is $5 per gallon or more. You also don’t have to pay for parking in Chicago if you take the train.

        • There's the price of gas ...

          … which according to the recent IMF projection seems likely to hit $7 to $8 gallon in another ten years, in real terms (that is, even after correcting for inflation).

          There’s also the aging of the population: both people who no longer can drive, and people who no longer feel comfortable driving long stretches.

  • No one

    reading or posting on this forum will ever ride a train between Iowa City and Chicago.  

    • The Quad Cities to Chicago service is going ahead ...

      … with or without Iowa. Its going to start as a conventional rail service, but once the 110mph corridors start operating between Chicago and St. Louis and between Chicago and Detroit, upgrading the Quad Cities service to 110mph is not going to be long behind.

      And once the Quad Cities to Chicago service is upgraded to a 110mph service, that good old 90’s “can’t-do spirit” is going to come up against “why can’t we have the nice things that they have”.

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