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Envision Tries to Get Region All-Aboard

Passenger Rail Plan Remains a Long-Held Dream for Many

Mary Nevans-Pederson

Dubuque Telegraph Herald

June 11, 2006

[Note: This material is copyright by the Dubuque Telegraph Herald, and is reproduced here as a matter of "fair use" for non-commercial, educational purposes only. Any other use may require the prior approval of the Dubuque Telegraph Herald.]

It sounds like a fanciful, pie-in-the-sky idea: passenger trains arriving and departing from Dubuque, carrying tourists on excursions up and down the Mississippi River or businessmen on trips into downtown Chicago.

But supporters of the Envision 2010's ninth project - reinstating passenger train service to Dubuque - are not just starry-eyed dreamers. They are approaching this campaign with energy and vision and they are in it for the long haul.

Passenger train service has a long history in Dubuque, beginning in the 1850s when railroad fever took hold in Iowa. Pretty much for the next 130 years (until 1981 when Amtrak shut down its Black Hawk line after seven years of operation), passengers could ride the rails into and out of Dubuque for business or pleasure.

Today, Iowa, Chicago & Eastern trains haul freight daily through Dubuque, but travelers must drive to Galesburg, Ill., Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, La Crosse, Wis. or other towns to board an Amtrak cross-country passenger train.

Many supporters of reinstating passenger rail service to Dubuque rode local trains regularly growing up. Most still ride trains whenever they can. For different reasons, they love trains for their romance, history, civility or novelty.

When Dave Kendell was a child, his family took the train twice each month to get from their suburban Chicago home to the family farm west of Bellevue, Iowa. The Kendells boarded the train on Friday afternoons to ride to either Savanna, Ill. or East Dubuque, Ill. and returned Sunday afternoons. Kendell, an historic preservationist who now lives on that family farm, still has tickets which showed the trip cost his family $10.40 each way.

Kendell believes, "now that Dubuque is a destination for visitors, there is a huge market for train travel."

He envisions commuter trains connecting Dubuque to Chicago by a southern route and tourist trains hugging the banks of the Mississippi River.

"The easiest and quickest service that could be up and running would be four- to six-hour excursions north or south from Dubuque," he said. The trips would appeal to a variety of people, particularly wildlife watchers, and could run in every season, he said.

Janet Fisher fondly recalls the many train trips her family took between Chicago and Galena, Ill. in the 1960s and 70s. Those memories have driven her for the past 14 years to work toward getting train service into Galena again.

"It was so much fun, so relaxing and a beautiful ride," said Fisher, of rural Galena.

With the days of cheap gasoline receding, she predicts a resurgence of interest in train travel. If a train line opened into Chicago, Fisher would ride it regularly.

"I want to see it go to Dubuque and beyond. It would be a great economic opportunity for Dubuque to be a rail hub again," she said.

Fisher and Kendell are part of a loosely-organized, as yet unnamed coalition of passenger-train supporters whose growing membership already stretches from Chicago to Cascade, Iowa.

Dubuquer Dave Overby is the head of the Envision 2010 Passenger Train Committee, the core group leading the campaign locally. He is an inveterate train rider and worked for a decade on the unsuccessful attempt to get Amtrak to open a line through Clinton, Iowa.

"Besides what it would do for Dubuque, it would bring people from Chicago to towns like Galena, Guttenberg and Bellevue," he said.

Overby would love to jump on a Chicago-bound train for a Cubs baseball game or a theatrical production and believes many other area people would too.

Cities along one of the potential passenger train routes from Dubuque to Chicago are also interested in what Dubuque is doing. Some have been trying to attract train service for years.

In 2003, the mayor of Freeport, Ill., invited Dubuque and Galena to be part of an excursion train service linking the three cities. The proposal died a quiet death. Three years later, Freeport has enthusiastically joined the Dubuque-led effort to reinstate train service through northwestern Illinois.

"It is serendipitous that now everybody is on board at the same time. Governments favor regional projects like this for funding," said Shelly Griswold, Freeport's community development director.

Freeport is 70 miles from Dubuque and 120 miles from Chicago.

Freeport would benefit from increased commuter traffic into Chicago, and the accompanying job opportunities, and from increased tourism, especially to its new mixed-use development along the Pecatonica River, Griswold said. In turn, locals could take long weekend train excursions west to explore Galena and Dubuque, she said.

Rick Harnish says it's all possible. Harnish is the executive director of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association, based in Chicago.

"Now is the time to do this, to be part of a much bigger thing across the country - faster, cheaper rail service," said Harnish, whose group started in 1991 when 15 individuals came together to brainstorm improving and expanding passenger train lines in the Midwest. The group worked to get several new daily trains added recently out of Chicago.

"In trains you have one vehicle that can handle all kinds of needs - bringing more tourists to Galena and Dubuque or getting Dubuque people to O'Hare (airport) to link Dubuque to world markets," Harnish said.

A Chicago-Dubuque train route presents sizable challenges, but is ultimately "do-able," he added. Chicago must be part of the final mix to make any rail route economically feasible, he said.

Harnish advised supporters of potential passenger train service to aggressively lobby their state transportation planners in the next few months.

"Tell the state you want fast trains included in the required comprehensive transportation plans and funds for an integrated train/bus plan," he said.