Depot ribbon cutting touches lives of many

I’ve jumped on a train before. I like the smooth ride of the rails and the smell of the food that works its way through the cars.

I like the view from the lounge car with the glass tops and big windows that allow you to see the backside of river towns. There’s not much interest here for sitting in the coach seats unless there’s a good political read in my hand.

I took an Amtrak to Florida when I graduated from high school with a buddy of mine and enjoyed the ride, but honestly, it took forever to get there. We made some friends and decided that the train was intriguing but not the prime travel mode for cross country trips – unless you’re set on patience and breathing and relaxing.

A mindset of going as many places as you can and making memories, easily supplants the worry of what you’re spending to make them.

But on Friday, I jumped on a 50-minute ride to Galesburg and back with a contingency of dignitaries from the city of Fort Madison.

Mayor Matt Mohrfeld and I sat looking out at the north side of Hancock County as the train rolled at 60+ through the mowed cornfields and baby cover crops that lace the countryside on the way to Knox County.

Our conversation was an extension of the day’s events.

Amtrak, hand-in-hand with the City of Fort Madison and Burlington Northern Santa Fe, cut the ribbon on a relocated depot that puts passenger drops a few blocks from downtown Fort Madison businesses.

Mohrfeld talked about a vision that included Amtrak’s ambitions with the recently signed Infrastructure Jobs Act that includes $66 billion in federal rail funding.

Amtrak Governmental Affairs officer Derrick James told us efforts to improve the federal rail passenger’s short-term runs of 3 to 5 hours for day trips is the sweet spot for Amtrak profit margins.

That got me to thinking about how nice it would be to run a passenger train to downtown St. Louis for a weekend of games. Or to Hannibal for an overnighter and some historical hunting.

The coal trains are more sporadic and spaced and there’s certainly bucks to be made accessing those southbound lines. And the better side of that is a potential marketing effort of the reverse trip. It makes good sense that people could potentially get on for a weekend stop at the only city with a double decker swing span bridge, a historical prison, and a state-of-the-art maximum security prison all within a mile of each other – if it’s marketed effectively.

But that’s a long-term vision that requires coordinated efforts, planning, and capital.

After a short visit to a couple downtown businesses and a gorgeous theater called The Orpheum, we headed back to Fort Madison for a ceremonious stop at the newly relocated depot.

Rain was spitting but not enough to ruin a great moment of the mayor stepping off the train to more than 100 Fort Madison residents on hand to celebrate the moment.

Mohrfeld and former mayors Brad Randolph and John Wright were on hand. The vision of moving the depot started with Wright, and then Steve Ireland picked up the mantle during his time as the city’s mayor. His children were on hand and Ken Kempker spoke on behalf of the family and how proud they were that the project came to fruition.

Randolph told the crowd that there were times when it seemed like the project wouldn’t happen. But there was a force at hand that kept pushing the project forward – almost as a destiny.

Iowa DOT and rail officials stood behind the city as it worked, and reworked agreements and designs that over the past 15 years were changed about as many times as BNSF and Amtrak changed personnel.

But that’s all rocks under the rails because here we are. As Mohrfeld, Randolph, Ireland’s children, and Amtrak officials cut the ribbon on the new platform and fireworks were launched from Riverview Park in the rain, all applauded the efforts, the history, and the potential of the Southwest Chief riding through town daily.

The recently signed Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act put $66 billion into the country’s rail system focusing on passenger service. A separate fund of that money focuses on service outside the northeast corridor.

Let’s hope rail officials put their money where their mouth is and focuses on service trips that are advantageous to rural America.

We’ve got boats, we’re building a new marina, we’re fixing streets and highways, and on the way back from St. Louis Saturday night my brother said to me, “It sure is a smooth road.” well….- that’s Beside the Point.

Chuck Vandenberg is editor and co-owner of Pen City Current and can be reached at charles.v@pencitycurrent.com.

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