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NOTEBOOK: Amtrak expansion seen as another sign that passenger rail will reach D.M. … eventually


Extending passenger railroad service from Chicago to Des Moines and then to Omaha would provide another transportation tool that could be used to attract and retain top talent for the region, said Jay Byers, CEO of the Greater Des Moines Partnership.

But extending passenger rail across Iowa is a long-term goal and the immediate focus should remain on other transportation priorities, such as the new terminal project at the Des Moines International Airport, and improving the state’s roads and bridges, Byers said.

Expanding passenger rail service across Iowa through Des Moines has been the topic of conversation for more than a decade. After the Biden administration released its $2 trillion infrastructure plan, Amtrak released its plan to add 30 more routes and more trips on 20 existing routes by 2035, and interest in the proposition of border-to-border rail service through Central Iowa is once again gaining steam.

Iowa officials celebrated the fact that Amtrak’s plan included an extension of its service from the Quad Cities to Iowa City. That, Byers said, is a good first step in someday seeing the route between the Mississippi and Missouri rivers through Des Moines become a reality.

“It’s a long-term effort, but to continue to make it move forward you have to kind of go piece by piece in keeping the concept and the idea alive, and continue to advance that plan that gets it closer to Des Moines,” Byers said. “There’s still a lot of pieces that need to fall in place, but this is showing momentum in the right direction with the goal and hopeful result that we would eventually get passenger rail back here in Greater Des Moines going east and west.”

Amtrak currently provides rail service through Iowa on the Southwest Chief, which cuts across the southeast corner of the state through Fort Madison, and on the California Zephyr, which travels from Burlington to Omaha across southern Iowa, with stops in Mount Pleasant, Ottumwa, Osceola and Creston.

According to Amtrak, 51,499 people boarded or departed a train in Iowa in 2019, down from just over 58,000 the year before.

A Federal Railroad Administration study done in 2013 shows that about 1.3 million passengers would board the train on a route from Chicago to Omaha, going through Quad Cities, Iowa City and Des Moines, Byers said.

He said having passenger rail service through Des Moines would be another tool the community could use to draw more people to live and work in the region.

“Having another option is a way to increase connectivity to our region and the rest of the country,” Byers said. “Are there a lot of things important to talent attraction and retention? The answer is yes, but this would be another tool, another transportation option that would build on those efforts.”

Todd Ashby, executive director and CEO of the Des Moines Area Metropolitan Planning Organizations, said extending passenger rail across Central Iowa is important to job creation opportunities in the region and to keep it connected to the rest of the Midwest.

“Getting there is still of importance to this region, and we look forward to working with our partners at the state and national levels to hopefully achieve it someday,” he said in a statement provided to the Business Record.

Amanda Martin, freight and passenger policy coordinator with the Iowa Department of Transportation, said some initial studies and planning was done when federal railroad money was made available during the Obama administration in 2010.

Iowa and Illinois were jointly awarded $230 million to begin looking at the Chicago Iowa City route in two phases. The first phase was Chicago to Moline, Ill. The second phase was from Moline to Iowa City.

A 2013 study estimated about 300,000 people would ride the train in the Chicao to Iowa City corridor each year. No new data is available for public release, Martin said.

When completed, Amtrak would use Iowa Interstate Railroad lines from Iowa City to the Quad Cities. A new station would be built in Iowa City, with two round trips daily with a top speed of 79 mph.

The Iowa Interstate tracks would also have to be upgraded to meet federal requirements for passenger traffic, Martin said.

There would also have to be upgrades to communications systems to allow dispatchers to communicate with passenger trains, and for passenger trains to communicate with each other and with cargo trains. That would include the installation of positive train control equipment to prevent trains from colliding, a recent requirement that was not included in the initial cost estimate of $225 million established in 2013.

“It’s not as simple as just taking the passenger train and just putting it on the host railroad and just running it twice a day. It’s much more complicated than that,” Martin said.

A lot will depend on details that come from the Biden administration’s $2 trillion infrastructure plan, which includes $85 billion for public transit, such as commuter rail, buses and stations, and $80 billion to expand the nation’s passenger and freight rail system.

The state would likely have to come up with a 20% match for any federal funds it would receive to extend passenger rail service. That, Martin said, would require legislative approval.

“If a funding opportunity became available, we would also need legislative support to get the match, if it’s required, and there would likely be an ongoing operating subsidy that would be required for operation of the train,” she said.

She said that is typically the state’s responsibility, which would be different from how the Southwest Chief and California Zephyr operate, which operate on Burlington Northern Railroad tracks and rely solely on Amtrak funding.

“We do not provide any state support to that effort, so the one from Chicago through Moline to Iowa City has always been envisioned that that would be what we call a state-supported service, so the state would be funding the annual operating subsidy associated with that,” Martin said.

That is similar to arrangements in Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin, she said.

Byers said there wasn’t any disappointment that Amtrak’s expansion plans didn’t include Des Moines, which is still included on many long-term plans.

“I wasn’t surprised to see it only going to Iowa City because we’ve known all along that you first have to complete the route to the Quad Cities and then the next step,” he said. “I don’t think anybody should be too surprised at this map the way they did it with this particular proposal.”

While Des Moines and Iowa continue to keep passenger rail service on track, there are still a lot of shorter-term transportation needs that need to remain a priority, Byers said.

“We have a really great opportunity to continue to move forward and complete our goal and objective of a new airport terminal at the Des Moines International Airport,” he said. “The same thing with the big-time investments we need to continue to make in our roads and our bridges and other infrastructure. It’s not one or the other, but there is that timing issue in terms of these projects that are right in front of us that we really need to make sure we focus on and get completed.”

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