Amtrak trains could run between Memphis and Chicago twice daily but not before the city and the state of Tennessee get on board with the plan.
Amtrak officials spoke to the Memphis City Council last week about a plan that could expand rail service into and out of Memphis.
"Our long-term goal would be to get another train coming through Memphis at Central Station," said Memphis Councilmember Myron Lowery. "The markets between Chicago and Memphis and Memphis and New Orleans are very productive markets and are increasing on an annualized basis."
Ridership on the City of New Orleans, the train that runs from Chicago to Memphis to New Orleans and back, rose about 46 percent from 1997 to 2012, according to a study from The Brookings Institution.
Even with the 253,170 passengers riding the route in 2012, the City of New Orleans line lost $22.8 million. That's roughly half of the $41.6 million it cost to run the line that year.
Still, the number of passengers getting on and off Amtrak trains in Memphis is rising. More than 73,000 passengers started or ended their rail trips in Memphis in 2012, according to the Brookings report. Amtrak figures show that number rose to more than 76,000 last year. In 1994, only about 38,000 passengers used Amtrak in Memphis.
The idea to expand service here comes only after an expansion of service in Illinois from Chicago to Champaign and Carbondale. Two more trains are running now on the popular route that links the college towns to Chicago. Those new trains could run farther south to Memphis.
"This is the most likely venue for expanding and adding new service to Memphis," said Charlie Monte Verde, a government affairs official with Amtrak. "So, the future of expanding rail service in Memphis would be having a train in and out of here to Chicago every single day in each direction."
The City of New Orleans currently leaves Memphis daily for Chicago, but it only leaves once a day at 10:40 p.m. The trip takes more than 10 hours. The new schedule could see a morning and evening train going each way.
Before any new service can begin, Amtrak officials told councilmembers they would need to work with state legislators to conduct a feasibility study. That study would show the cost, benefits, and possible ridership numbers for the new service. With approvals in hand, the Tennessee Department of Transportation would work out the details with the Illinois Department of Transportation. Then, they could take the plan to the federal government.
"When the federal government sees an opportunity to work with an aggressive partner or finds a community that really wants to do passenger rail service, that tends to turn on the [financial] faucet," Monte Verde said. "When that faucet is on, it tends to stay on."
Amtrak is now on the other side of a federal government program to improve its finances, management, and operations. The Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act gave Amtrak five years (from 2008 to 2013) of oversight from the Office of Inspector General. A report from the probe was published in January to inform future votes in Congress on rail service.
Congress approved nearly $1.4 billion for Amtrak capital and operations in January. Federal legislators also allowed Amtrak to use $81 million from Hurricane Sandy Disaster Supplemental funding to improve service in its Northeast Corridor.