Metra’s UP North Line

A New Path to Chicago-Milwaukee Regional Rail

Issue in Brief

Extending a successful corridor

Chicago and Milwaukee are big enough, and close enough, that hourly service should be the minimum.

Rebuilding the Union Pacific’s lakefront line to extend Metra’s UP North service is the quickest way to make it happen. Intermediate cities like Racine, Kenosha, and Evanston make the case even stronger.

If done right, it can be a springboard to regional rail for Green Bay, Madison, and many other towns.

A state boundary is getting in the way

If Milwaukee and Chicago were in the same state, hourly Metra service would already exist. The Corridor ID process and a new feasibility study of the Kenosha – Milwaukee segment can get the conversation started.

Corridor Basics 

Type

  • Passenger-Focused Line
An icon of a clock face with 6 hands.

Existing Service:

  • Metra commuter rail south of Kenosha

Status:

  • Kenosha – Racine – Milwaukee feasilibity study about to launch.
  • Metra considering regional rail with modern trainsets on Winnetka – Chicago segment.

Our Proposal:

  • Re-install double track north of Kenosha for hourly express trains and half-hourly local trains.

Integrating into the existing corridor

Metra’s UP North schedule would have to be re-arranged to include Chicago-Milwaukee express trains. The diagram above shows one potential off-peak stopping pattern. Milwaukee focused trains are represented in yellow. Chicago-focused trains are in green. Each of lines represents an hourly departure. (This is for illustrative purposes only. No study has been completed.)

Express trains could extend to Green Bay, Madison, and beyond.

 

The Foundation for the Wisconsin network

Planning is underway

With just seven roundtrips daily, the Hiawatha is already the most popular state-supported Amtrak route in the Midwest.

Hourly trains departures will bring Chicago and Milwaukee closer together, strengthen the economic and social ties between them, and help revitalize both city centers.

This corridor also provides a foundation for building regional rail to Green Bay, Madison, and many other cities.

Wisconsin and Illinois set a goal of 14 daily roundtrips, which is close to hourly, in the mid-1990s. More recently, the Federal Railroad Administration’s Midwest Regional Rail Plan called for 24 daily roundtrips.

But heavy freight traffic between Techny and Roundout on the existing route has made the current goal of 10 daily roundtrips difficult to achieve.

A map showing the Corridor ID awards in Wisconsin.

The Chicago-Milwaukee corridor is the foundation for the other corridors planned in Wisconsin.

A southbound Metra train is arriving at the recently opened Ravenswood station.

The UP-N has no freight trains south of, and just one a day north of, Lake Bluff.  There is room for a third track south of Wilmette.

The UP North line has room to grow

It is the only way to get to hourly service before building high-speed rail.

The inclusion of Chicago – Milwaukee in the new federal Corridor ID program, combined with a new feasibility study Kenosha-Racine-Milwaukee, offer an opportunity to rethink the future of this critical corridor.

Local leaders should insist that multiple agencies work together to plan the Hiawatha, KRM, Metra Milwaukee North, and UP-North as complementary services in a single corridor. Doing so will make the goal of hourly+ Chicago-Milwaukee service a real possibility.

To be clear: Upgrades and expansions on the Hiawatha line should still move forward. In fact, every effort should be made to offer 10 daily roundtrips, as the current plan envisions.

Here’s the value of bringing the UP-North into the picture:

  1. Almost no freight traffic. There are no freight trains south of Lake Bluff, and there are just one or two, daily, north of Lake Bluff.
  2. Stations in the Kenosha and Racine city centers will create synergies between these cities’ downtowns—and channel more passengers onto the trains.
  3. Downtown stations in Evanston, Lake Forest, and Waukegan will provide additional traffic and connections to Metra’s local trains.
  4. Metra’s ten daily Chicago-Kenosha roundtrips provide a strong foundation for this expansion.
  5. At one time, limited-stop trains made this trip in 75 minutes.

Joint ticketing, unified departure boards at Union Station and Ogilvie in Chicago, and integrated schedules would be needed to make it look seamless to passengers.​

A map showing the routes freight and passenger trains take between Chicago and Milwaukee.

Extending Metra’s UP North corridor to Milwaukee would complement the existing Hiawatha route and serve new markets.

Union Station and Ogilvie Station are closer than the B and C concourses at O’Hare.  An interior connection should be built.

Challenges and objections to be overcome

  1. UP-North trains use Ogilvie Transportation Center rather than Union Station. It’s just two short blocks—closer than United’s B and C concourses at O’Hare. In truth, they should be connected by a direct, enclosed walkway, and the train boards should be integrated—so that they operate as one station.
  2. The track north of Kenosha needs substantial upgrades, including double-tracking or extensive sidings. In 2022, Racine was awarded $5 million to study a KRM commuter line.  Creating a unified plan will help leverage the full value of this asset and justify the investments in track repairs and upgrades.
  3. FTA and FRA projects are governed by different policies/requirements.  WisDOT already has experience with combining the two funding streams, as a result of rebuilding the Milwaukee station.
  4. The UP-North does not serve Milwaukee’s airport. That’s one of the key reasons the existing route should be expanded.
  5. The UP-North is very busy south of Wilmette, so express trains will be stuck behind other traffic. Ultimately, a third track is needed between Wilmette and Clybourn. Fortunately, the bridge replacements in that stretch were designed to accommodate it. So it will be vastly easier to add a third track here than in the chokepoint between Techny and Roundout on the Hiawatha line.

What needs to happen

Being engaged NOW is key

First, advocates need to pressure on Illinois and Wisconsin Departments of Transportation to take a big-picture approach as they frame the projects over the next year.

Second, advocates need to educate their leaders in Madison and Springfield about the need for annual railway funding.

Racine, WI built its transit center next to the historic railroad station in anticipation of regional rail.

Racine, WI built its transit center next to the historic railroad station in anticipation of regional rail.

The Capitol Building in Springfield, IL

Get Involved

The Illinois General Assembly is debating the future transit and regional rail right now.  The package should include a State Railway Program to invest in bridges, trainsets, and better track.

Learn how you can get involved

The Latest from HSRA

Our Latest Blog Posts

Check out the latest news, updates, and high-speed rail insights from our blog!

Become a Member

Become a Member

Help Reconnect America Become a member with a donation of any size.Travel impacts so much How often we visit in person, where we can get a job, and the quality of the air we breathe are just a few. Getting a lot more people riding trains will improve them all....

Newsletter 7/12/24: Milwaukee Regional Rail & the Revolutionary Shinkansen

Newsletter 6/28/24: A Huge Milestone for High-Speed Rail

"A Huge Milestone for California High-Speed Rail Three key developments emerged from the California High Speed Rail Authority‘s extended board meeting this week. First, the California HSR Authority’s board of directors green lighted the environmental impact...