DOT: Passenger trains return to area possible, but not in current plan

Thursday, January 17, 2008

It has been 35 years since the last passenger train pulled out of Storm Lake - but state officials feel they may be back.

"I think it's possible," said Tammy Nicholson, of the Iowa Department of Transportation's Office of Rail Transportation. "The time in here when we want to take a new look statewide at what could be possible for railroad travel. I would not rule Storm Lake out."

Currently, a Midwest Initiative plan exists to restore rail service from Chicago to Omaha - connecting on to hundreds of locations nationwide. The initial route proposed passes through central Iowa, but shows optional lines connecting to Sioux City and Fort Dodge - with a big blank space where a line running through Storm Lake could connect those spurs that would otherwise be dead ends.

"Since there is no passenger rail service in northwest Iowa, it's something that could be considered," Nicholson said.

A determining factor would be the condition of the rail bed in the region, she adds - before a passenger line would be added, the DOT would have to ensure that it would be safe enough and able to carry trains at the rate of speed passengers need for efficient service.

Not long ago, the idea of passenger trains in cities like Storm Lake would have seemed foolish and outmoded. But that is changing rapidly.

According to DOT railroads expert Peggy Baer, there are three reasons passenger trains could soon make a comeback in the state:

* Energy costs - few authorities expect the price of gasoline to decrease significantly and some are projecting further increases.

* Emissions - state and federal governments will be implementing strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which may translate into increased costs for flying or driving.

* Demographics - as baby boomers age, they may want to use travel alternatives.

"In the long term, Iowans may see improved intercity rail passenger service," she said.

The DOT plans to take advantage of the opportunity.

"We will look at all the regional services people might have a need for - it's too early to say where Storm Lake might fit into that, but there has been a recent change in focus for Amtrak to look at more regional lines in addition to national, so I think northwest Iowa could be a possibility," Nicholson said.

Currently, Amtrak - the network of various passenger lines across the country, operates only two routes, both in extreme southern Iowa: the Southwest Chief, from Chicago to Kansas City, crossing the southeast tip of Iowa; and the California Zephyr, running from Chicago to Denver.

On January 7, a new study was completed on the feasibility of extending a new route from Chicago into the Quad Cities.

According to the study, 111,000 people a year might use such a line, especially to access the casinos of Iowa and Illinois. It would cost $14-23 million to upgrade the tracks, lower than earlier estimates.

Also proposed is a new passenger line from Dubuque into Rockford, Illinois. If approved, the lines could be operational within three years.

To be successful, train speed needs to top out at 79 miles per hour in rural areas, so that riders can get from the Iowa border to Chicago as fast as they could in a car, for perhaps $30 a round trip, the study shows. Later this year, Amtrak plans to release a study on extending the line to Iowa City.

The success of Amrak in recent years - with Iowa ridership up 15,200 passenegers a year from 2002-2006 - the Midwest Regional Rail Initiative is pushing for a Chicago to Omaha route that would put ultimately give all Iowans reasonable access to railroad travel that could connect from New York to Los Angeles.

If, at some point, a passenger train returns to Storm Lake for the first time in over a generation, it would not be the first rail milestone here.

On the Fourth of July, 1870, the first steam passenger train rolled into Storm Lake, spurring the infant city to be moved from "old town" on the south side of the lake to the current site.

Four days later, with considerable celebration, the "Golden Spike" was pounded at a site known as "Sag Point" - just west of Storm Lake, the connecting point of the east and west segments of what became the Illinois Central Railroad.

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