Illinois Capital bill helps revive Rockford Amtrak service proposal

By Igor Studenkov For Chronicle Media

Passengers boarding an Amtrak train in Naperville, Ill. could become a common sight in Rockford if hopes for restoration of train service become a reality. The new state budget includes $275 million to extend service to the city. (Photo by Jack McCarthy / Chronicle Media)

Ever since Amtrak ended the Black Hawk service from Chicago to Galena and Dubuque, Iowa through in 1981 there have been several futile efforts to bring it back.

Most recent efforts ramped up in the late 2000s to early 2010s, as the the state of Illinois and Amtrak studied several options, and Illinois  allocated funding to bring it back. But after Republican Bruce Rauner was sworn in as governor, the funds were “de-obligated” and the project was suspended.

Now, a new state capital budget has set aside $275 million to extend Amtrak service as far as Rockford.

But before that can happen, IDOT and Amtrak will need to work with the host railroads to renegotiate the details. At this point, the timeline for when those negotiations might wrap up, let alone when the service would actually launch, remains unclear.

The original Black Hawk route was launched in Feb. 14, 1974 over what was then the Illinois Central Railroad tracks and ran between Chicago and Dubuque, Iowa. Similar to other Amtrak routes that were either mostly or completely inside the state, IDOT provided funding to keep it running. But when the state reduced the budget for state-supported routes, Black Hawk was eliminated on Sept. 30, 1981.

Rockford has been an epicenter of efforts to either restore the route or extend one of the Metra lines into the city. But it wasn’t until 2007 that it gained serious traction as IDOT asked Amtrak to do a feasibility study on restoring the service. After considering several options, IDOT announced on Dec. 10, 2010 that it would mostly follow the same route as previous.

But that proposal ran into problems with Canadian National Railroad, the current owner of the tracks.

While Amtrak has a right to run passenger trains on any rail tracks, the agency generally prefers to negotiate with the owners to reduce potential conflicts with freight trains. As negotiations between the transit agencies and the railroad stalled, IDOT announced an alternative plan on April 10, 2014. It would use Metra’s Milwaukee District West Line to reach Big Timber, then take the Union Pacific Railroad tracks to Rockford.

Under this plan, the train would stop in Elgin, Huntley and Belvidere. Since the only train tracks that run further west are owned by Canadian National, IDOT planned to continue talking with CN in hopes of reaching a compromise somewhere down the line.

According to the original 2007 Amtrak study, the Union Pacific segment would require signal improvements, installation of passing tracks in several spots. The study also noted that, at the time, the track condition of the section between Big Timber and Belvidere were generally good, they deteriorated considerably between Belvidere and Rockford, so it would require significant upgrades.

Amtrak would also need to build a connecting track between Metra and Union Pacific tracks. The study estimated that, together, the upgrades to Rockford to Chicago segment would be around $24.6 million in 2007 dollars.

It is worth noting that, if IDOT wished to upgrade the tracks to the point where trains would be able to run at maximum Amtrak train speed of 79 miles per hour, the costs would be higher. The costs of buying trains and crew equipment and building a layover facility in Dubuque would add to the number as well.  When the plans for the Chicago to Rockford Black Hawk service were announced, IDOT pegged the capital costs at $223 million.

There are currently several ways to get between Rockford and Chicago by public transit.

Greyhound and Trailways bus companies both have routes that run to Chicago and stop in Rockford once a day in each direction. Van Galder bus company provides service between its Rockford station at 7559 Walton St. and the O’Hare International Airport once an hour in each direction, and between Rockford Mass Transit District’s East Terminal, Chicago Union Station and Midway Airport an average of once every 1-2 hours in each direction.

Even after Rauner suspended the plans, calls for the service continued in Rockford and other communities along the route. During the Nov. 6, 2018 election, ballots in Winnebago and Boone counties included an advisory referendum asking if they were in favor of having IDOT asked Amtrak to restore the entire Black Hawk route.

Seventy-nine percent of the voters in both counties wound up supporting it.

Rockford has no passenger rail station anymore. But if service returns it could take a page from Joliet, which constructed a new Gateway Center to handle Amtrak and commuter rail traffic. (Photo by Jack McCarthy / Chronicle Media)

Through it all, State senator Steve Stadelman (D-Rockford), who represented his district since 2013, has been a vocal supporter of the service restoration. Several officials and residents who spoke to the Chronicle credited him with ensuring that the capital bill would fund it.

Guy Tridgell, IDOT’s director of communications, explained that the plan was to try to pick up where earlier efforts left off – getting the Black Hawk as far as Rockford and trying to work out the extension further west once it’s done. But since it’s been a few years since the project was suspended, it will need to figure out many aspects of the restored service all over again.

“This new infusion of funding will require us to re-engage with the Union Pacific, Amtrak, and the local communities on scope, budget and schedule after the hiatus,” Tridgell said.

He added that IDOT will “work with stakeholders and be transparent with the community” every step of the way.

Indeed, there are several unknowns – the exact schedules, what kind of amenities the trains would have and whether any new stops may be added.  Stations would need to be built Huntley, Belvidere and Rockford, and IDOT and Amtrak would need to work with the municipalities to figure out how to pay for their construction.

And one interesting issue may be the status of Metra’s downtown Elgin station. Long-distance Amtrak trains that stop at Metra stations don’t compete with the commuter rail system, so passengers heading to Chicago can’t get on the train at one of the suburban stations, and people heading for the suburbs can’t get off at the suburbs.


But the same isn’t always true for state-supported routes. On Hiawatha route, which connects Chicago and Milwaukee, riders can get on and off at Glenview Metra station in either direction. On the Lincoln Service route, which runs Chicago and St. Louis, the same is true for Joliet Metra station.

As the Chronicle previously reported, some rush hour commuters treat Glenview riders have taken advantage of as a faster alternative to Metra during rush hours, since, unlike most Metra trains on the Milwaukee District North Line, it doesn’t make any intermediate stops.

The 2007 study assumed that, if the Black Hawk would use Union Pacific tracks, it would stop at Bensenville rather than Elgin. Under that scenario, Bensenville stop would follow the more common non-competition model. But given that the distance between Elgin and Chicago is compatible to the distance between Joliet and Chicago, the same may not necessarily be true for Elgin.

In a statement to the Chronicle, Wester Wuori, Chief of Staff for the City of Rockford, said that the funding is a step in the right direction – even if it will be a while before it bears fruit.


“The project is still somewhat undefined and we know it will take time to implement,” he stated. “However, we’re very pleased that our legislators, especially [Stadelman], are seeing the economic development value of expanding rail beyond just suburban commuter rail or longer-route downstate rail.”

The Black Hawk restoration, Wuori said, would complement Rockford’s other redevelopment projects.

“With other infrastructure improvements we’ve made in our region, including continued growth in our cargo and logistics business at the Chicago Rockford International Airport, we’re confident that an investment in rail is coming at the right time and in the right part of our state.,” he said.

Michael Smith is a Rockford native who studied urban planning at University of Illinois at Chicago, earning his degree at the end of 2018.

He reflected that the possibility of taking the train between two cities was “not something that was even known” to people who came of age over the past 35 years. He argued that with the rise of the “super-commuters” – people who travel for work to Chicago from beyond the traditional six-county Chicagoland region – means that the demand for the restored Black Hawk is very much there.

“We were ready to go four years ago, and I think we’ll see a lot of pieces falling into place very quickly,” Smith said.

For workplace commuters, he said, the ability to get work done while traveling was invaluable – and he agreed with Wuori that it would help economic development in Rockford.

Officials from Huntley and Belvidere didn’t respond to calls and e-mails seeking comment.