Amtrak line to Chicago could be used despite likely purchase

By Eric Heisig

While the future of the Amtrak route between Champaign and Chicago is still undetermined, some progress has been made to ensure the route will still be used by Amtrak.

Canadian National Railway, or CN, is interested in purchasing the Elgin, Joliet & Eastern Railway Co., or EJ&E.; This means they would not need an 11-mile strip of track, named the St. Charles Air Line, that serves as the connection into Chicago. Currently, the rail that connects Champaign to Chicago also connects Carbondale, Ill., and New Orleans to Chicago as well.

But, CN has made an offer to Amtrak that has alleviated some of their concerns. CN has said Amtrak would be able to use the Air Line for as long as it needs while it builds Grand Crossing, an alternate route that will be used once the Air Line is abandoned. However, with all other train and freight companies no longer using the Air Line, Amtrak’s concern was having to pay for all maintenance and repair fees on their own.

CN will not make Amtrak pay as high of fees as originally expected.

“They will have unrestricted use of the route in Chicago in the future, and for those 11 miles, we agreed to cap those rates at the rate they are paying today,” said Jim Kvedaras, senior manager for U.S. public and government affairs for CN.

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Marc Magliari, media relations manager for Amtrak, said the agreements for the rate caps are being discussed.

Meanwhile, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., has been vocal about the issue. Durbin has said CN should be helping to pay for Grand Crossing.

“It’s great they’ve decided to cap the cost of the Air Line, but we’d like the second part of the equation,” said Christina Mulka, spokeswoman for Durbin. “We are still talking to them, looking for a commitment.”

CN, however, said Grand Crossing is part of a different project, and it is not clear why Durbin has decided to bring it into this issue.

“That is an unrelated project, not a CN project,” Kvedaras said.

Kvedaras said the Surface Transportation Board, the organization reviewing and potentially approving the purchase, was supposed to have made its decision about the purchase by the first quarter of 2008, but since that has passed, he is optimistic for a decision in the second quarter.