Bob & Tom’s Excellent Adventures: Amtrak in Illinois

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If you’re looking to take a train trip, you’ll have to head east or west from Peoria. If you want to ride the rails, you need to go to Galesburg or Normal. Railroading is like real estate: it’s all about location.

The first railroad arrived in Illinois in 1842. Forty years later, there was 8,000 miles of track in the state, connecting Chicago and Great Lakes shipping to the world. About the same time the railroads arrived, Galesburg was being created as a planned community centered on Knox College, a school for religious education. Early on, Galesburg leaders recognized that if their community was to grow, it needed a rail line. Galesburg investors helped create the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad, which brought rail lines in from four directions. In the early 1880s, the city raised $60,000 to get the Santa Fe Railroad into the city. The CB&Q sited a major sorting yard in Galesburg back in 1916, and that’s made Galesburg nationally important.

“It’s always been a vital part of the whole national railway system,” says Richard Stine, Galesburg Railroad Museum Director, “because we’re like the spokes of a wheel and we spread out in seven different directions. So when these trains come to Galesburg to be sorted out and classified, they’re heading out in seven different directions.” 

In 1934, the Burlington Zephyr started coming through Galesburg to and from Chicago. It was one of the first fast streamlined diesel passenger trains. But after World War II, the new Interstate highway system reduced the passenger numbers for trains. The railroads were suffering under tight federal regulations, while the Government poured billions into the highway system. 

“We’re being treated by governments: national, state, and local, as if we still had a monopoly on transportation,” says Stine. “In fact, the truth is we have very unfair competition.”

The railroads were hurt again when the Postal Service withdrew its mail subsidy from the railroad, which had supported passenger service. Peoria’s Rock Island Rocket ended service to Chicago in 1978.

By the time the Government deregulated the railroads in 1980, passenger service was mostly left to Amtrak. Galesburg had two Amtrak stations, one for the Burlington Northern tracks and the other for the Santa Fe tracks. When the two lines merged, only the Seminary Street station was retained, but that’s still one more Amtrak station than Peoria, and you can still ride the Zephyr from Galesburg.

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