Passenger rail in Midwest at a crossroads: More funding from feds, more questions about future

Ridership is on the rise on many passenger rail routes in the Midwest, as is federal support for strengthening the region's passenger rail system. But some newly elected governors opposed new state investments in rail.

Stateline Midwest, Volume 19, No. 11- December 2010

Travelers across the Midwest are taking the train in record numbers, according to Amtrak data released in October.

Ridership for short-distance corridor service (largely state-initiated and -supported) within the region reached almost 2.8 million in fiscal year 2010 — an 8 percent increase over 2009 numbers. Over the past five years, ridership on these corridors has increased by 55 percent. (See table for trends and ridership data for specific routes in the Midwest.)

The future of passenger rail, meanwhile, appears to be at a critical juncture.

On the one hand, the federal government has made an unprecedented funding commitment to expanding and enhancing service: In the first two rounds of funding under the High-Speed Intercity Passenger Rail Program, announced in January and October, the Midwest was awarded $3.1 billion, most of which will go to transforming five key interstate corridors. (Some money also has been awarded to Kansas in order to expand rail service in that state.)

On the other hand, the new governors of Ohio and Wisconsin have questioned whether their states’ passenger rail projects should move forward, citing concerns about costs. (Many of the projects require some type of state funding commitment as well.) Here are some details on the corridor improvements envisioned by state and federal officials.

  • Chicago-St. Louis-Kansas City: Track and signaling improvements will bring 110 mph service to the route between Chicago and St. Louis. On the St. Louis-to-Kansas City route, work on key congestion points will result in faster, more reliable service.
  • Minneapolis/St. Paul-Madison-Milwaukee-Chicago: In addition to conducting the environmental study needed to develop high-speed service between Chicago and the Twin Cities, a number of specific improvements will be made to tracks and bridges in order to improve service reliability and allow trains to travel at faster speeds. Plans also call for new service between Milwaukee and Madison. (Improvements in Wisconsin are currently on hold, but Minnesota is moving forward with its plans.)
  • Chicago-Omaha: A new passenger rail route between Chicago and Omaha — via the Quad Cities, Iowa City and Des Moines — is being planned. With the funding commitment announced in October, track improvements can be made, new stations can be built, and trains can be purchased to establish new service between Chicago and Iowa City.
  • Cleveland-Columbus-Cincinnati: Funding was awarded in January to link the state’s three largest cities via passenger rail for the first time in 40 years.
  • Detroit/Pontiac-Chicago: Under the latest round of funding, almost 100 miles of rail line will be purchased and restored, a key connection track to separate passenger and freight service will be built, and environmental planning to establish 110 mph service will begin.

Improvements to these corridors are part of larger, long-term plans (the Midwest Regional Rail Initiative and The Ohio Hub) to implement faster, more frequent passenger rail service throughout the Midwest.

Through the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact, as well as the multi-state planning efforts of state departments of transportation, the region has been working together for more than a decade to strengthen interstate passenger rail service.

These efforts got a significant boost when the High-Speed Intercity Passenger Rail Program was created. This program has been funded, in large part, by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. In July 2009, the governors of eight Midwestern states agreed to coordinate efforts to secure the federal dollars coming to the region via the Recovery Act.