The Iowa Interstate is one of the nation’s largest and most exciting regional railroads. The locomotive roster has changed from cast-offs and hand-me-downs to the latest GEVOs. And at one time even included steam engines! The IAIS is a Class 2 Regional Railroad running 470 miles of former Rock Island trackage from Chicago and Peoria, Illinois to Omaha, Nebraska via Rock Island on the Mississippi River.
The mainline affords the Iowa Interstate one very unique selling point, that it plays up to potential customers, it is the only Class 2 that interchanges with every Class 1 railroad in the United States. They advertise access to every market in the world by rail with this Class 1 access and by ship with a port on the Mississippi and year-round ice free access to the Illinois River.
Iowa Interstate Railroad History
Out of the ashes of a once great railroad, a future great railroad would rise. in 1975 the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific would enter its third and final bankruptcy, with only an unbelievable $300 cash on hand. It took five years, but that bankruptcy was the death knell for “The Rock”. No one wanted the entire system. Individual lines were either sold to existing railroads, new shortlines or scrappers who tore it all out.
The Iowa Interstate Railroad was formed in late 1984, four years after the collapse of the Rock Island Railroad. One of the first public/private partnerships – and a partnership with a real estate company – made the IAIS possible. Real Estate company Heartland Rail Corporation was formed to buy the right-of-way and infrastructure for $31 million, with the assistance of $15 million from the Iowa Railway Finance Authority.
Heartland took the real estate it wanted and leased the railroad to the newly formed IAIS. The Heartland/IAIS partnership lasted for nearly 20 years. In 2003 Railroad Development Company (RDC) purchased the Iowa Interstate Railroad. Interestingly, the IAIA is the only US rail operation owned by Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania based RDC. Other rail operations it owns or manages are based in Peru, Germany, France, England and Belgium. The history of the Iowa Interstate Railroad continues to be written. On December 31st 2020, iCON Infrastructure purchased 40% of the Iowa Interstate from RDC. In a statement to the press, iCON said its investment is an indication of its belief in the future earning potential of the IAIS.
As its future is still being written, the Iowa Interstate, in recognition of its Rock Island heritage, has painted GE ES44AC #513 in a Rock Island commemorative scheme.
Because of the lack of maintenance before the Rock Island Railroad ended in bankruptcy and the four years of no maintenance and vandalism, the signal system left behind by the Rock Island was damaged beyond repair and so, unusual for a railroad its size, operations on the railroad are primarily controlled by track warrants rather than signals.
Trains are dispatched from IAIS headquarters in Cedar Rapids, Iowa from a new dispatching office as of 2016. (Using the Wabtec Train Management and Dispatching System.) At times, operations on the IAIS are a bit different than other railroads because the IAIS still runs passenger excursions – and occasionally steam. More on IAIS steam below.
The railroad has 6 subdivisions, 4 on the main and 2 branch subdivisions. The railroad’s mainline is roughly a straight line between Omaha, Nebraska and Council Bluffs, Iowa through Rock Island, Illinois to Chicago, Illinois The mainline is divided into 4 Subdivisions:
- Council Bluffs Sub (Omaha/Council Bluffs to Des Moines)
- Newton Sub (Des Moines to South Amana, Iowa)
- Iowa City Sub (South Amana to Silvis, Illinois)
- Blue Island Subdivision (Silvis to Bureau Jct)
- the run from Bureau Jct to Blue Island (via La Salle and Joliet) is over leased track or via trackage rights (CSX and Metra).
In Blue Island, the Iowa Interstate operates two yards, Burr Oak Yard and Evans Yard. The two branch line subdivisions are:
- Peoria Sub (Bureau Jct to Peoria) (Bureau to Henry via trackage rights)
- Cedar Rapids Sub (South Amana to Cedar Rapids). This is the CRANDIC line, owned by the Cedar Rapids and Iowa City Railroad, but dispatched and operated by the Iowa Interstate.
In 2006 the Iowa Interstate startled the railfan world by purchasing two ex-China Railways QJ class 2-10-2 steam engines. A 2-10-2 is a large steam engine! The IAIS announced the purchase saying they would be used for passenger excursions and for fund raising events for organizations along their service area.
The pair arrived by ship at the Port of Houston, but since they did not have an FRA inspection/blessing to operate had to make their way to Rock Island partially disassembled via flat car. Five weeks later, after reassembly, they were moved to Iowa City for finishing work and FRA testing. The first wheels turned under steam later in 2006 and then they were put away for the winter and for exciting excursions to come. Both steam engines were modified by the IAIS in 2011 to use a tank car (IAIS 8000) as an auxiliary water tender to increase the locomotives range.
#6988 Still Running
Otherwise, each locomotive has had a different treatment. IAIS #6988 was formerly China Railways #6988 and worked on the Ji Tong Railway. In 2011 #6988 was “Americanized”, painting the engine all black, changing out the headlight and whistle and removal of the shroud around the smokestack. Steam engine #6988 continues to thrill, being used for fundraisers in both Iowa and Illinois in 2019 before the COVID-19 pandemic sidelined such activities in 2020 and 2021.
Now operating under the auspices of the Central States Steam Preservation Association, among the 6988’s recent excursions were trips made in 2018 for volunteer fire departments in Brooklyn and Mitchellville, Iowa. The 2019 trips ran between Annawan and Geneseo, Illinois and then a July 4th Special between Oxford and Iowa City.
#7081 Might Be Running Again
The second steam engine acquired for the Iowa Interstate is China Railways #7081. It also worked for the Ji Tong Railway. It was built new in 1986 by the Datong Locomotive Works. This QJ Class ran for the IAIS and the Central States Steam Preservation Association through at least 2015, she is now sidelined.
Unlike her sister, #7081 has retained her Chinese looks and styling. Although that may change. #7081 has been out of service for several years. However, “informed” rumor – or an educated guess – has it that she is being shopped and prepared for FRA inspection and a possible double header with #6988 in 2021. Shopping, money and pandemic permitting.