Amtrak’s plans for Chicago will vastly improve train travel across America
Amtrak is seeking a federal grant to upgrade Chicago Union Station (CUS) and to create better routes into the station. The Chicago DOT, Cook County, Illinois DOT, Michigan DOT and Metra are funding partners in the program.
This is huge news, with implications far beyond Chicago. As Amtrak notes in its application, Chicago is “the most important rail hub in the United States,” with “more trackage radiating in more directions than any other city in North America.”
The upgrades, if funded, would improve train travel not only in the city and region but across America.
The grant application proposes a series of projects intended to increase capacity and improve reliability, many of which the High Speed Rail Alliance has advocated for years.
A group of the projects would improve Union Station itself. Those include:
- Removing walls and other barriers in the Concourse to improve traffic flows.
- New express escalators from the Concourse to street level to reduce crowding in the station.
- Widening the BNSF platforms to reduce over crowding on the platforms during rush hour.
- Rebuilding the former mail platforms to allow through running and level boarding.
- Improving ventilation to remove diesel exhaust from the platform areas.
There is a mismatch between the best route options into Chicago and the routes Amtrak uses. Better, less congested options are largely inaccessible because they don’t connect with the tracks running into and out of CUS.
Fortunately, the St. Charles Air Line offers a relatively simple solution. It’s a half-mile stretch of track not far south of the station.
Amtrak has proposed the following group of projects to make use of this asset:
A) A new ramp up to the St. Charles Airline.
B) A faster connection to the Rock Island, combined with a new platform at Joliet.
C) Purchasing and upgrading the CN-owned Lakefront Line to Kensington, in the Pullman neighborhood.
Through-running at Union Station and improvements to the St. Charles Airline open up a variety of new routing options:
- Eliminate a long backup move for trains coming from Champaign, Memphis and other cities along the Illinois Central.
- Allow trains from St. Louis, Kansas City, Dallas other cities to avoid major delay points along the existing route.
- Allow eastern trains to bypass congestion caused to two Norfolk Southern yards on the southside.
- Give eastern trains more options for getting around Lake Michigan.
- Amtrak or South Shore service to O’Hare.
- A new crosstown Metra service.
We are excited that Amtrak has taken the lead on this critical program.
These projects are just the beginning, of course.
The big-picture goal is fast, frequent and affordable trains linking Chicago to much of the country. That means electrifying the system, dramtically increasing the speed and frequency of service, building new high-speed lines, and much more. That’s the long-term vision.
These near-term solutions—which have been a high priority of the Alliance for years—are very doable. And they’re a great start. By upgrading Chicago’s railroad infrastructure, they will improve passenger rail across America and move the needle toward a true transformation in national transportation priorities.
There will be a lot more to say about this exciting development. Please sign up for our newsletter to keep up to date.