Amtrak is ride home for thousands of Illinois college students


NORMAL, Ill. (AP) – For thousands of Illinois college students, a short ride to home cooking and free washers and dryers is just blocks away aboard Amtrak trains that rumble past nearly a dozen campuses across the state.

Students accounted for as much as an estimated 30 percent of the 3 million passengers who rode Illinois lines last year, many heading home from downstate colleges where up to half of students call the Chicago area home, said David Johnson, assistant director of the National Association of Railroad Passengers.

The Bush administration has proposed yanking federal operating subsidies for the beleaguered passenger rail system that links Chicago with campuses from Champaign to Carbondale, a move critics contend could doom the service.

Illinois political leaders predict Congress will derail the latest threat to Amtrak, which has routinely come under siege for draining nearly $30 billion in federal funds since it was established as a for-profit entity in 1970.

The train will be key for Monica Long, who starts her freshman year at Illinois State University this week and plans to ride Amtrak for trips home to the Chicago suburb of Schaumburg.

“It would be a little more inconvenient without the train. My parents don’t really like having to drive down here,” Long said.

Xavier Romano, vice president for student development and dean of students at Knox College in Galesburg, says Amtrak is more than a convenience. He said the rail link out of rural central Illinois helps recruiting at the 1,200-student school, which draws students from all 50 states and 45 foreign countries.

“They want to have an opportunity to go to the cultural amenities of Chicagoland and Amtrak provides that opportunity. … Without it, I would see that hurting our position against other liberal arts colleges nationally,” Romano said.

Amtrak gets mixed reviews around ISU’s campus in Normal, where about 40 percent of the school’s 20,000 students are a two-hour train ride from their homes around Chicago.

Some students like Amtrak’s college-discounted train fares and not having to worry about driving and parking when they spend weekends in Chicago, while others prefer to take buses to Chicago or drive their own cars.

“Who knows, with gas prices the way they are it may be cheaper to use the train,” said Becky Hughes, a senior now facing record gas prices of more than $2.70 a gallon for trips back to her home in New Lennox.

Campus administrators say Amtrak saves taxpayers’ money too by shuttling faculty and staff to meetings and conferences in Chicago or to O’Hare and Midway airports for out-of-state travel.

Western Illinois University President Al Goldfarb said driving a university car round-trip to Chicago costs nearly $190, including parking. With train fares ranging from $36 to $100, the school saved at least $99,000 last year on more than 1,100 business trips along the Amtrak corridor.

“Instead of watching the road, you can get work done or just read, sleep or look out the window at the scenery,” said Helen Mamarchev, vice president of student affairs at Illinois State.

Excluding Chicago, which led Illinois with 2.3 million Amtrak riders, the state’s six busiest stations last year were in college towns, according to Amtrak, which counts riders but doesn’t survey who they are or why they use the train. An Illinois Department of Transportation study six years ago found student riders accounted for 11 to 19 percent of ridership at the time.

State government, the University of Illinois-Springfield and two smaller colleges lure passengers to Springfield, the state’s second-busiest Amtrak stop with nearly 99,000 riders last year.

WIU officials say most of the roughly 36,000 Amtrak riders in Macomb were from the university, where half of the school’s 13,000 students are from the Chicago area and 70 percent live along Amtrak corridors.

“With four lines that all have several colleges, Illinois is a stronger Amtrak state than most,” said Johnson of the Washington-based railroad passengers association.

Congress is considering a funding plan for Amtrak that would trim operating subsidies by a total of $3.3 billion over six years. However, Amtrak would receive $4.9 billion over six years for capital improvements, while states would get another $1.4 billion to spend on intercity passenger rail service.

Representatives for two longtime Amtrak supporters _ Democratic U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin and Rep. Ray LaHood, a Peoria Republican _ predict Congress will renew subsidies despite Bush’s push to throw the brakes on funding.

“We subsidize all of the other forms of transportation _ roads, barge traffic, air travel _ so there’s no reason we shouldn’t support Amtrak. … If we’re going to have a viable transportation system, we have to pay for it,” said LaHood spokesman Tim Butler.

Amtrak officials are hopeful, but cautious after weathering funding battles that date back to the Reagan administration, spokesman Marc Magliari said.

“Until Congress adjourns, their options are wide open,” he said.