Culver talks trains
|Gov. Chet Culver, front right, talks with members of his staff, Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad and Amtrak aboard a train heading from Creston to Osceola Wednesday morning. Culver gave speeches in eight southern Iowa communities promoting expanding the state’s rail system during the tour. (TYLER ELLYSON)|
Gov. Chet Culver was in Creston Wednesday to promote his plans for the future of Iowa's passenger and freight lines.
Creston was the first stop during a day-long Amtrak tour of southern Iowa that included an additional appearance in Osceola before continuing east to the eventual stopping point in Burlington.
While in Creston, Culver stressed the importance of upgrading and expanding the current rail system to a crowd of about 40 at the restored Creston Depot.
“We’re not just talking about passenger rail, we’re talking about improving freight rail, as well, and we need to work together to make this a successful endeavor," Culver said.
The governor plans to use federal stimulus money along with $3 million allocated to the state's rail system through I-Jobs to maintain the current system and explore the possibility of bringing high-speed passenger service to select Iowa cities.
Culver has been working with other Midwest governors on a plan that would bring high-speed service between major cities. More specifically, from Iowa City and Dubuque to Chicago with the possibility of Des Moines and Council Bluffs being added.
"It's one step at a time, and we really have to prove ourselves," said Culver.
He said the high-speed line from Iowa City to Chicago has the potential to be reality in about 2 1/2 years, but its success would determine how many more cities are added.
“We have to get the ridership where it needs to be and make it a success story," said Culver. "Then we can go back and say, alright, we’re ready to continue moving west.”
On a high-speed line, the 222-mile ride from Iowa City to Chicago would take about five hours at a maximum speed of 79 miles per hour and cost a passenger $40 roundtrip.
While the idea has seen some opposition, Culver believes passenger rail service offers people affordability and convenience not seen in other modes of transportation.
In the more immediate future, work is being planned on the Amtrak and Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) lines from Creston to Burlington — a stretch of rail Amtrak officials say causes the most delay between Denver and Chicago.
Ground beneath the tracks will be leveled to make for a smoother ride and four high-speed crossovers are planned for installation.
The crossovers, which are scheduled to be installed at Afton, Osceola, near Ottumwa and Beckwith, allow Amtrak trains to pass slower freight trains without the current 15 to 20-minute delay it takes to switch tracks by hand. By allowing Amtrak trains to maintain speeds of 45 miles per hour instead of stopping completely, Amtrak officials believe on-time arrivals will increase by about 60 percent.
“Amtrak is going to continue to provide great service across the state of Iowa, but we need to make these investments," said Culver.
According to Culver, the track improvements will also benefit BNSF, rural communities and Iowa's workforce.
“I think this is going to be a great thing for cities large and small … we can all benefit from this effort,” he said. “The more people we can get riding these trains, the more vibrant these smaller communities can become.”
With the vibrancy of small railroad communities, comes the opportunity to add or improve depots, something the crowd in Creston was excited about.
“We’re going to try to upgrade what we have, not only the tracks … but we’re going to be investing in some of these old depots and kind of bring them back," said Culver. "These are historic landmarks and they are really Iowa treasures.”
Culver added that helping to move Creston's depot back to the original building would be "an exciting project he would try to help on."
When Culver and about 20 local residents loaded onto the Amtrak car headed east toward Osceola, it was a prime example of one of the steps he's taking to promote the rail system.
"We need people to support this initiative, so we're trying to show people the benefits," said Culver.