From the Rail Director
citizens visit other states and countries, they often use
public rail transportation to get around. When they come
back home, some wonder why rail passenger service is not
more available to Iowans.
Amtrak service is in the southern part of the state, and the
daily California Zephyr train from the west is frequently
behind schedule. In the last two years, I have used the
light-rail commuter system in Boston, metro train system in
Washington D.C., subway in New York, and Hiawatha light rail
line in Minneapolis to avoid using automobiles on congested
number one question I’ve received since becoming the rail
office director is, “When are we going to have reliable rail
passenger service in Central Iowa where the population
Light rail is an electric railway operating on dedicated
tracks – the modern equivalent of a streetcar (e.g.,
Hiawatha line in Minneapolis/St. Paul).
Commuter rail is a passenger rail operating between a
central city and outlying suburbs, most often on
existing freight lines (e.g., Minnesota's Northstar
Rapid transit or heavy rail is a high-capacity/frequency
underground, subway or elevated railway system operating
on dedicated tracks with grade separation from other
traffic (e.g., Chicago's "L").
Intercity rail provides long-distance passenger rail
service between cities operating on existing freight
lines (e.g., Amtrak's California Zephyr line).
Regional rail is a subset of the intercity rail
passenger system serving multiple communities and states
within a region, and operating on existing freight lines
(e.g., the proposed Midwest Regional Rail Initiative).
Amtrak is a national network of rail passenger service
that includes the entire intercity rail system and
selected commuter rail corridors.
years ago, the Des Moines Metropolitan Planning Organization
contracted for a study of possible commuter rail service on
existing freight rail lines in the Greater Des Moines area.
The challenge for any commuter system is to provide
door-to-door service in equivalent or less time than the
commuter’s personal car. The Des Moines study found that the
service would be slow, passenger count too low and the cost
recently, the planning agencies in Linn and Johnson counties
hired a consultant to study the feasibility of commuter rail
service on the freight line between Cedar Rapids and Iowa
The study concluded that commuter rail service would
likely be feasible between North Liberty and Iowa City in
three to five years and between Cedar Rapids and Iowa City
in six to 10 years. The conclusion assumes rapid population
growth along the I-380 corridor and higher gas prices.
therein lies the real issue, in my opinion – currently,
there is not enough highway traffic congestion and
population density in most Iowa communities to support rail
passenger service. However, it is envisioned that the demand
for rail passenger service will grow in Iowa over the next
five to 25 years. Intercity passenger rail service may grow
in incremental stages where there is sufficient interest and
passenger use to support the service. Yes, it may require
federal funding and state assistance to cover the
implementation and operating cost – similar to public
funding to build and maintain public transit systems.
trends that may speed the investment in regional intercity
rail passenger systems include:
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
alternates to the personal automobile.
long term, Iowans may see improved intercity rail passenger
service in select corridors.
Director, Office of Rail Transportation
In 1920, U.S. rail passenger travel reached its historic
peak with 1.2 billion passengers. Over the following
decades, poor economic conditions, world wars and other
events caused passenger use to decline. However, it was
American's love affair with the car, that symbol of freedom
and prosperity, and a first-class Interstate Highway System
that dealt rail travel a near-fatal blow. By 1970, railroads
carried only 7.2 percent of travelers. In 1971, Congress
created Amtrak, a national rail passenger system, to
preserve passenger rail travel and provide some balance in
record-breaking gas prices, the threat of petroleum
depletion, concerns about emissions and global warming, and
delays and frustrations due to congestion have dulled the
passion for the automobile for many highway users. Interest
in passenger rail travel is increasing and Amtrak has marked
the third straight year of record-breaking national
a brief update on current issues and developments in
Amtrak provides intercity passenger rail service to more
than 500 destinations in 46 states on a
system consists of long-distance routes (like the routes
through Iowa) that primarily use the track of freight
railroads and shorter commuter routes, primarily in the
Northeast, where Amtrak owns more track.
relies on annual appropriations from the federal government
to supplement its budget. Many states have negotiated
additional rail passenger service by agreeing to provide
state funding for rail infrastructure improvements,
operating subsidies or both.
Amtrak in Iowa
There are two Amtrak intercity routes that cross Iowa, each
with one departure and arrival time per day.
California Zephyr, a Chicago to San Francisco route, has
stops in Burlington, Mount Pleasant, Ottumwa, Osceola,
Southwest Chief, a Chicago to Los Angeles route, has a
stop in Fort Madison.
routes within Iowa operate on track owned by BNSF Railway.
Challenges for passenger rail
The freight rail system is nearing capacity and experiencing
some congestion. Amtrak's on-time performance record on many
intercity routes is poor, often due to conflicts with
freight traffic. Without better predictability in schedules,
business travelers and others that must arrive in time for
an event have difficulty taking advantage of rail travel.
Intercity passenger rail must be recognized as an integral
part of the overall transportation system to thrive and
better meet the needs of passengers throughout the nation.
Because the passenger rail system is a national system, that
issue must first be addressed in Washington, D.C.
Currently, several proposals are before Congress. The issues
under consideration include the system size; level of
support for a national system; cost sharing, role and
responsibility of the states; structure of Amtrak; and, of
course, level of federal investment. Public investment will
be required to maintain Amtrak's nationwide system. The
outcome of these policy questions will directly impact
passenger rail service in Iowa, the Midwest and throughout
What is happening in Iowa and the region?
In addition to the continuing national discussion on Amtrak
issues, some exciting state and regional rail passenger
activities are underway.
is currently conducting two studies that could lead to
additional passenger rail service in Iowa.
Illinois Department of Transportation asked Amtrak to
study adding passenger service from Chicago through
Rockford, Ill., to Dubuque, Iowa. The
recently completed study estimates the cost of
capital improvements and state-sponsored annual subsidy
required for Amtrak to add this service. Many residents
of Dubuque are excited about the prospect, but any
potential service additions are dependent on future
Amtrak is conducting a study of the Chicago to Quad
Cities to Iowa City corridor. The study originally
stopped with the Quad Cities, but the Iowa DOT asked
Amtrak to look at the prospect of extending service to
Iowa City. The study is due for completion later this
fall. The Iowa DOT has also requested a follow-up study
extending service to Des Moines.
are many hurdles for potential new passenger rail service –
an analysis of cost/benefit, cooperation and agreement on
cost-sharing and service issues with the State of Illinois,
and the support of Iowa's legislators and the Governor to
appropriate the needed funding.
Midwest Regional Rail Initiative is an ongoing effort to
improve and expand passenger rail in the Midwest. Made up of
nine states (including Iowa) this group advocates a regional
"hub and spoke" rail system with Chicago as the hub. The
recommended route would pass through the center of the
Iowa, providing better access to more Iowans, and increased
speed, reliability and potential destinations. A
recent economic analysis showed significant positive
benefits to an improved Midwest passenger rail system.
Midwest Interstate Passenger
Rail Commission brings together state leaders from
across the region to advocate for passenger rail
improvements. Iowa has joined this commission, with Senator
Daryl Beall, of Fort Dodge, and Representative Paul Bell, of
Newton, as Iowa's legislative representatives.
States for Passenger Rail
Coalition is a 30-state association of state
transportation agencies working for a national policy and
federal program for passenger rail development. Iowa is an
active participant in this organization.
Rail Revolving Loan and Grant Program (RRLGP) update
Applications for financial assistance to build or improve
railroad track and structures were accepted through Aug. 17,
2007. Grants and loans totaling $2.8 million were available
in this round of funding through the
Railroad Revolving Loan
and Grant Program.
RRLGP has a dual purpose to provide assistance to:
Businesses to build or improve rail facilities that will
spur economic development and job growth.
Railroads for the preservation and improvement of rail
Established in 2005, the RRLGP has assisted 15 businesses
with awards totaling $4.6 million. The awards assisted in
the creation or retention of more than 1,200 jobs. The
program helped build rail spurs to new businesses and
industrial parks, build or rebuild rail sidings to
accommodate growth, and rehabilitate rail lines to increase
capacity and safety.
Assistance for rail development through the RRLGP got a
boost when the Iowa General Assembly passed, and Governor
Culver signed, a bill including $2 million to assist
businesses and railroads in building and improving rail
infrastructure. The funding initiative, called
Rail, was one of the Iowa DOT’s two top legislative
priorities. Thanks to legislators and other supporters who
recognized that public investments in rail infrastructure
and helping businesses connect to the rail system can reap
much larger benefits and build Iowa's economy.
DOT is hopeful that additional Access Rail funding will be
approved in the upcoming legislative session. An annual
investment in the RRLGP of $2 million for the next few years
will allow the program to continue to assist businesses in
accessing the rail system and build a sustainable pool of
funds, replenished with loan repayments.
The last of the
(reprinted with permission from INSIDE magazine)
a lot of steam to power 454 tons of steel down the tracks.
With 23,500 gallons of water onboard, the Union Pacific
Railroad’s steam locomotive No. 844 chugged through Iowa in
late June on a mission to celebrate the rich heritage of
railroading in the United States.
locomotive pulling 10 cars spent 16 days traveling more than
3,000 miles from its base in Cheyenne, Wyo., to North
Platte, Neb.; Denison, Boone, Des Moines, and Carlisle,
Iowa; Kansas City, Mo., and circling back through Topeka,
Kan., and Hastings, Neb., on its way back to Wyoming. The
vintage engine and rail cars serve as a moving museum of 145
years of the railroad industry.
was the first time No. 844 has stopped in Carlisle, Iowa,
Trenton and Liberty, Mo., and Fairbury, Neb. We were pleased
to bring a piece of living history to this part of our rail
network," said Steve Lee, Union Pacific’s manager –
operating practices and locomotive engineer. "We are
extremely proud of our collection of historical railroad
equipment, which is the largest of any U. S. railroad."
locomotive No. 844, delivered in 1944, is the last steam
locomotive built for the Union Pacific Railroad. A
high-speed passenger engine, it pulled such widely known
trains as the Overland Limited, Los Angeles Limited,
Portland Rose and Challenger. When diesels took over
passenger train duties, the UP placed No. 844 in freight
service in Nebraska between 1957 and 1959. It was saved from
being scrapped in 1960 and held for special service.
The engine returned to service in 2005 after one of the most
extensive steam locomotive overhauls in the United States
since the 1950s. The work began in 2000 and affected its
running gear, pumps, piping, valves, and springs, along with
replacement of its firebox and extensive boiler work. The
cab interior also was refurbished.
has run hundreds of thousands of miles for UP's Heritage
Program. It has made appearances at Expo '74 in Spokane, the
1981 opening of the California State Railroad Museum in
Sacramento, 1984 World's Fair in New Orleans, and 50th
Anniversary Celebration of the Los Angeles Union Station in
Information for this article is from the Union Pacific
Railroad’s Web site at
fan journeys far
Clark Humble and his two sons, Ryan and Colin, ages 13 and
11, traveled from Marietta, Ga., to enjoy a special train
ride on the
Cedar Rapids & Iowa City Railway Company
(CRANDIC) on June 15. As a fundraiser for the Cedar Rapids
United Way campaign, CRANDIC auctioned off a train ride to
the highest bidder. Humble, a Cedar Rapids native,
aggressively bid $655.44 on eBay®
to earn the ride. "CRANDIC has a lot of memories for me.
This is a chance for me to come back and share the
experience with my sons,” Humble said.
Iowa Forward Conference, April 2, 2008, Downtown Marriot
Hotel, Des Moines – The Iowa departments of Economic
Development and Transportation will host the second joint
conference exploring how transportation can contribute to
economic development in the state.
TRANSCAER tour - A tour in April 2008 will offer free
emergency preparedness training to local and regional
emergency response organizations. Tentative stops include
Burlington, Creston, Red Oak, Sioux City, Storm Lake, and
Waterloo. Stay tuned for more details or check
www.transcaer.com closer to the event.