Proposed budget may cut two Amtrak trains

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By Jessica Brown, @BrownJessicaJ

Two of the three daily Amtrak trains in Carbondale may be taken off the schedule later this year if Gov. Bruce Rauner’s budget cut is implemented.

Mike Richards of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association said the proposed budget will reduce Amtrak’s funding by 40 percent — dropping from an annual $42 million to $26 million.

The trains affected are the Saluki and the Illini, which are state-funded and travel between Carbondale and Chicago, leaving at 7:30 a.m. and 4:15 p.m.

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If Rauner’s budget is approved, the only daily train remaining would be the City of New Orleans. It is federally-supported, and leaves for Chicago at 1:26 a.m. and 3:16 a.m. Since it is not state-funded, it is also the most expensive train to run, Richards said.

Trains are one of the most popular forms of transportation, especially among SIU students from the Chicago area, he said. Students from the University of Illinois and Eastern Illinois University also frequently use the daily trains, as well as many non-student passengers.

“One of Amtrak’s major markets is college students,” Richards said. “When you see this train come in, it will have six cars on it. It will bring hundreds of passengers every day.”

The Carbondale station is the seventh busiest in the state, and ridership has increased by 50 percent in the past 10 years, Richards said. Amtrak employs 1,430 people statewide.

Because of this, Sen. Gary Forby, D-Benton, said he is concerned a cut in train transportation will have a negative effect on Carbondale’s economic development and SIU’s student enrollment.  

“More people ride the train every year,” he said. “Instead of demoting it, we ought to be pushing it.”

Train availability is one of SIU’s biggest recruitment tools because it connects Carbondale to other parts of the state, said University Spokeswoman Rae Goldsmith. The possibility the service will be diminished is a major concern for SIU.

“It will be problematic — not only for students who come and go back and forth, [but] our alumni who come here, our faculty and staff,” she said.  

The potential removal of the two trains is not guaranteed to be temporary, Richards said. Even if there’s money available in the next fiscal year, the trains cannot simply be re-added.

Amtrak uses tracks owned by Canadian National for its passenger trains. Canadian National may not agree to return the tracks once the slots have been forfeited.

A permanent absence of the two trains may be seriously damaging to SIU, especially in addition to the potential budget cut of $44 million the Carbondale campus is facing, Forby said.

“We need to make sure SIU keeps going, and this train is a big plus for that,” he said. “I’m all for cuts, but I’m for balancing the budget. You [have] to do it where you don’t destroy people.”

Jessica Brown can be reached at [email protected]

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