Staff Columnist

Trump dashes hopes for Iowa City rail revival

Train supporters should push to fix existing system, not create new routes

A train pulling executive coaches from the Iowa Interstate Railroad pulls up to the old Rock Island line train depot Tuesday, May 5, 2009 in Iowa City. The train was dropping off passengers returning from a meeting in the Moline, Ill. to discuss establishment of intercity passenger rail services in Iowa, with an initial focus on routes from Iowa City to the Quad Cities to Chicago, and Dubuque to Chicago. The meeting was sponsored by the Iowa Department of Transportation. (Brian Ray/The Gazette)
A train pulling executive coaches from the Iowa Interstate Railroad pulls up to the old Rock Island line train depot Tuesday, May 5, 2009 in Iowa City. The train was dropping off passengers returning from a meeting in the Moline, Ill. to discuss establishment of intercity passenger rail services in Iowa, with an initial focus on routes from Iowa City to the Quad Cities to Chicago, and Dubuque to Chicago. The meeting was sponsored by the Iowa Department of Transportation. (Brian Ray/The Gazette)

Iowa may have just dodged a speeding train, and sidestepped a bulky budget blunder in the process.

President Donald Trump released a proposal this month to rescind some $15 billion in federal funding previously authorized by Congress. Slashes to federal health care programs have drawn the most outrage, including $7 billion from the Children’s Health Insurance Program.

The Trump proposal also would strike out about $48 million for Iowa’s portion of an Iowa City-Chicago passenger line. That’s the latest in a series of clear signs the Trump administration is strongly opposed to paying for expanded passenger rail service.

If the rescission package is approved by Congress, it could finally smother the decade-old fantasy of a passenger train connecting Chicago to Iowa City and beyond.

In 2010, federal officials set aside more than $200 million for the proposed Iowa City-Chicago line, pending state government investments from Iowa and Illinois. While Illinois is moving forward with service to Moline, Iowa has shown little interest. Iowa’s share of the project would likely cost more than $100 million to start, in addition to ongoing operating subsidies indefinitely into the future.

Here in Iowa City, local leaders have repeatedly pushed for the state to support the project, hoping to cash in on a massive government-funded infrastructure project. Never mind the fact Americans overwhelmingly do not want to ride trains.

The Amtrak system’s load factor, which compares trains’ capacity to their ridership, is about 50 percent nationally. That discouraging figure is partly due to the supply of rail service outpacing demand in most areas, but also part of trains’ inherent inefficiencies. Riders get on and off at various stops on longer routes, leaving empty seats for significant spans.

So passenger trains’ huge operating loss should come as a surprise to nobody.

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Amtrak reported nearly $200 million in operating losses last year, which leaders trumpeted as their lowest loss ever. However, Amtrak counts $224 million in state government subsidies as revenue, effectively hiding more than half its operating shortfall.

Even for those who remain hopeful for an American rail renaissance, spending huge amounts of money to develop new routes like the Iowa City-Chicago line remains a poor strategy. It would be much wiser to invest in the crumbling infrastructure already in place elsewhere.

Amtrak trains have been involved in at least two fatal incidents so far in 2018, and three more since 2015. While the situations were all different, some have been blamed in part on outdated safety technology on the nation’s aging rails and train fleet.

And while the wheels are falling off America’s trains (figuratively, at least for now), automobiles are seeing advances which will radically transform the way humans travel. Within my lifetime, increased energy efficiency and autonomous vehicles could negate any advantages trains now have over cars, even in densely populated urban areas.

Hopes for an Iowa City train station are rolling away. I say good riddance.

• Comments: (319) 339-3156; adam.sullivan@thegazette.com

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