Lawmakers and leaders discuss how to bring Amtrak service up to speed

CHAMPAIGN—Officials say the delays on Amtrak's Chicago to Carbondale route have become increasingly bad in the past seven to eight months. So lawmakers and local leaders met Wednesday to discuss how to get things on the fast track.

Matt Hill travels from Chicago to Champaign for school. He's taken the train twice, but during one of those rides, he spent a lot of the trip sitting on the tracks.

“Only like an hour one of the times it was, so it wasn't that big of a deal for me,” said Hill, a junior at the University of Illinois. “I've heard of some pretty drastic delays from others.”

Which is why Senator Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) met with national officials and local leaders in Champaign to address what he says is the most delayed train route of its kind in the country.

“The Illini and Saluki trains are consistently delayed by freight trains,” said Durbin. “Resulting in trains arriving on time only 48.9 percent of the time this fiscal year.”

Amtrak operates the Chicago-Champaign-Carbondale line, but the tracks are owned by Canadian National. By law, CN is supposed to give Amtrak the right of way so passengers are not delayed by freight trains, but that has not been the case in the past few months. Now, a court case is calling parts of the law unconstitutional.

“That case has gone up to the Supreme Court, so that's good news,” said Daniel Elliott, chairman of the Surface Transportation Board. “Because if the Supreme Court rules in favor and says that those things are constitutional, we will have stronger standards in place for on-time performance.”

If not, the Surface Transportation Board is already working on revised standards, while Amtrak is filing a complaint based on the pieces of the law that are still in place.

But Wednesday's meeting served as an indirect call to action for railway owners.

“To encourage CN to stand up and finally make the changes necessary to improve Amtrak service,” said Durbin.

But those improvements could take months or years. Amtrak plans to formally file its complaint later this month, while the case is scheduled to appear before the Supreme Court in October.

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