The study's authors examined all the existing freight railroads crossing the state, and one that was largely abandoned 30 years ago, before deciding the best course is to build on a revived Chicago-Moline route Illinois is developing for planned launch in late 2014.
Backers hope service would be extended to Iowa City, but Gov. Terry Branstad and legislative Republicans have so far been unwilling to appropriate the state's $3 million annual operating subsidy.
"That is a route that is able to deliver passenger rail service that meets the purpose and need," said Mark Hemphill, director of rail consulting services for HDR Engineering of Omaha, which is conducting the study. "Most of all it's a competitive rail service that's attractive to travelers."
Now that a preferred route has been identified, it will be the subject of a detailed environmental study over the next year. IDOT and the federal government are splitting the study's $2 million cost.
IDOT, the Federal Railroad Administration and Illinois Department of Transportation will host meetings this week to discuss the study and take public comment on the project:
Jerome Lipka, president and CEO of Cedar Rapids-based Iowa Interstate, said the railroad will consider hosting the new service if it doesn't interfere with its profitable freight traffic.
"As long as there's no impact on our freight service and as long as there is total cost neutrality to us, basically we would be in support of it," Lipka said. "We've got to be concerned about our business, and we've got to be concerned about our ability to survive and to grow."
The initial review of the potential for Omaha service found the Iowa Interstate route, which also serves Des Moines, Grinnell and Newton, would draw up to 935,000 riders a year on five daily trains in each direction operating at speeds up to 110 mph.
That would require track, signal, and maintenance upgrades to Iowa Interstate's present track, which Lipka said now has a maximum 40-mph speed limit. He said Iowa Interstate operates up to 14 freight trains a day "and looking to grow even more" over segments of the 360 miles between Wyanet, Ill., and Council Bluffs.
Left unsaid is that the improvements would also greatly improve freight service for Iowa Interstate, which currently runs entirely dark territory, without signals. I must admit to being rather surprised at five daily trains in each direction; given the length of the total run, 9 hours, I wouldn't have expected such, though it makes rather more sense in the context of many of the shorter trips available on the route.