Is Passenger Rail Still A Possibility From Chicago To Dubuque?

Jan 30, 2018

Plans for a passenger train linking Chicago and Iowa were sidetracked several years ago, but that hasn’t slowed efforts by some passionate rail enthusiasts to keep the vision alive.

Amtrak operated the Black Hawk line from 1974 to 1981. Before that, there was the Land O’Corn route between Chicago and Waterloo, Iowa, but that ended in the 1960s.

The Wikipedia entry for the new proposal is pretty optimistic despite the current stalled state of the project. It says, “The Black Hawk is a planned Amtrak intercity rail route which will ultimately run from Chicago, Illinois, to Dubuque, Iowa, via Rockford, Illinois."

The entry continues: “Service from Chicago to Rockford was expected to begin in 2015, but the start of the service was put on hold by Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner.”

State Sen. Steve Stadelman, D-Rockford, agrees that was the point when the line’s fortune changed.

Sen. Steve Stadelman (D-Rockford)

“For those of us who believe passenger rail service is an important option for people in this area, that’s been very disappointing,” Stadelman said.

Money was promised for the Black Hawk in a statewide construction plan approved during former Gov. Pat Quinn's administration. But then Quinn was defeated by Rauner, who entered office with a cost-cutting budget plan.

According to the Rauner's office, the Black Hawk project currently remains under review.

“I am optimistic it is going to happen eventually," Stadelman said. "Passenger rail service will be an important transportation option for people. When it is going to happen and what it is going to look like? I’m not sure.”

Stadelman doubts it will happen under the current administration and suggests it's time to look beyond the state to shoulder the entire cost of building and maintaining the route.

Gerald Podraza is behind a citizen’s committee to bring back the Black Hawk. He says he doesn't expect the path to be straight.

“There are a lot of challenges, a lot of obstacles, and a lot of skepticism,” he said.

So why try?

“The train, especially the Blackhawk, can be a source of extraordinary rural economic development," Podraza explained. "We have places between Rockford and Galena that are being under-utilized.”

He says it wouldn’t just be for business travelers or tourists. He points to university passenger rail services elsewhere in the state.

“The Saluki, the Illini, all of those routes target heavily the university college population as a foundation for their ridership,” he said.

He says similar connections could be made at universities across northern Illinois, southern Wisconsin, and eastern Iowa.

“I would like to place an ad in all of the colleges and universities that are projected to be along the Black Hawk," Podraza said. "That would be Rockford University, Beloit College, and all of the schools in Dubuque. That would include UW-Platteville, because that is just north of Galena. [We would] ask students if they would be favorably inclined to take the train.” 

But there’s another group that Podraza thinks could help fill the seats—retirees.

An archived map shows the proposed passenger rail line across northern Illinois. The route never came to fruition.
Credit IDOT

That’s exactly why Pat Stortenbecker wants the rail line. She lived in the Chicago area for several decades before settling in the Galena Territory. She recently drove to Rockford to attend an informational meeting organized by Podraza's group.

“Many of our neighbors and friends are also Chicago transplants that came to the Territory, and now I think they are really suffering," she said. "We need to have a new influx of people.”

She says it also would help her feel more connected to the rest of her family.

“We have four adult grown kids, and they live in Schaumburg,” Stortenbecker said. "They would love to be able to send the kids to see us. We would use it all the time."

Rick Harnish, executive director of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association, has several reasons for pushing forward. His is one of the nation’s leading advocacy groups to bring high-speed rail to the U.S.

Rick Harnish, Midwest High Speed Rail Association

“There’s a strong list of manufacturers that need better access to world markets, universities, and tourism," Harnish said. "This is really a great place for trains, but you need a strong coalition that says, ‘It’s time to pay for it and make it work.’”

That could include public-private partnerships or federal programs. But before that can happen, Harnish says, there’s a lot more work to do at the grassroots level.

“The most important thing is to build a strong coalition of all of the institutions along the way that will benefit—and there are a lot of them,” Harnish said.

Supporters say it could pay off when and if the timing is ever right.

“It’s proven over and over again: The person who has the plan, when the time happens, is the one who gets the money.”