SPRINGFIELD - Despite possible savings to taxpayers, state employees are largely shunning Amtrak between Chicago and Springfield because they say it's not reliable, a new audit shows.
In findings released this week, the auditor general's office found that nearly 80 percent of state workers surveyed said they preferred to travel by car or air when out of the office on state business.
"Employees' reasons for not using Amtrak included reliability, train schedules, location of meetings, personal preference and cost," noted Auditor General William Holland in the report, which looked at state travel between July 2004 and March 2005.
Though the survey did not calculate whether there would be savings if Amtrak were used more, the findings come as the state is preparing to again spend $12.1 million in the fiscal year beginning July 1 to subsidize Amtrak service on routes between Chicago and Springfield, Carbondale and Quincy.
The state has been subsidizing the train service for a decade in order to boost the number of trains running along those routes. Although passenger rail advocates have pushed for more service, state officials are not currently considering any expansion of service along those routes.
"It says a lot for the commitment we have to Amtrak that we have been able to maintain that level of funding at a time when you see a lot of belt tightening in state government," said Illinois Department of Transportation spokesman Matt Vanover.
State Sen. Larry Bomke, R-Springfield, said he favors adding more trains and is a co-sponsor of legislation that would earmark $15 million to boost service levels between Chicago and Springfield. But, he acknowledged Thursday that the proposal is not high on the governor's priority list this spring.
"Adding those trains would help immensely," Bomke said.
Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said officials support efforts to add more trains, which would allow the company to adjust departures and arrivals to meet the needs of state workers.
Amtrak already offers state workers a discounted fare of $17 one-way between Chicago and Springfield, which is less than what workers would receive if they request reimbursement for mileage driven in their own vehicles.
But, Magliari said some state workers may be traveling to offices that are not in close proximity to Amtrak stations, meaning it makes more sense for them to drive.
"The train needs to be going where they need to go," Magliari said.
According to numbers provided to auditors by the IDOT, one-half of the trains included in the study were less than 75 percent on time.
At the same time, however, the number of all riders boarding Amtrak on the busy Chicago-St. Louis route, which includes stops in Dwight, Pontiac, Normal, Lincoln and Springfield, rose by nearly 14 percent over the previous year. Amtrak also is reporting higher levels of overall ridership in Illinois this year, pointing to high gasoline prices as one reason for the uptick.
The audit found that a majority of state workers who did use the train service said they had an overall experience of average or above average.
But, it also showed America's continuing love affair with the car.
Sixty-three percent of the nearly 20,000 taxpayer-paid trips studied by auditors were by car, whether a personal vehicle or one owned by the state. Another 14 percent of the travel was on a state shuttle plane that operates between Chicago and Springfield, while just 12 percent hit the rails.
"In their survey responses, both agencies and employees indicated that Amtrak trains needed to be more reliable and offer more or different departure-arrival times," the audit noted.