Chicago Union Station needs a direct entrance to the mail platform from Van Buren St.

A cutaway illustration of how a Van Burn St. entrance to the Chicago Union Station Mail Platforms will help circulation.

It’s vital to add a direct Van Buren entrance to the mail platform at Chicago Union Station

Amtrak has been awarded a $43 million grant to convert the Mail Platform under the Old Post Office into a passenger platform for Chicago Union Station (CUS). 

Unfortunately, the current plan will force passengers to make a time-consuming trip through the concourse, cross two live tracks, and navigate a chokepoint.  

Fortunately, there is a relatively simple fix: The City of Chicago and Illinois Department of Transportation should partner with Amtrak to ensure that a Van Buren entrance to the Mail Platform is built in Phase 1 of the renovation. 

Why it matters so much

Chicago Union Station is the fifth-busiest Amtrak train station in North America, and it is poised to get much, much busier.

The Federal Railroad Administration recently accepted 16 Midwest corridors into the Corridor Identification and Development Program, and states are now making plans to build or expand the lines accepted into the program. Many of them will terminate in or pass through Chicago.

All of this adds up to a lot more trains at Union Station—potentially 10 times more than current levels—in coming years.

A map of existing and potential passenger rail routes in the Midwest. The layers are 1) FRA Pillar Corridors 2) Corridor ID Corridors 3) Other proposed Expnasions 4) Existing routes.
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The northern end of the Chicago Union Station platform is narrow.  Getting to it requires crossing two live tracks.

Crossing two live tracks and getting past the narrow end of the mail platform will cause passenger delays.

The current plan has a chokepoint

Amtrak’s plan for Chicago Union Station was drawn up before the Corridor ID program’s creation, and also before the recent push in the Assembly to create a statewide rail plan. As a result, it doesn’t take into account the rapid growth in train ridership that’s coming.

Even in the near term, it won’t serve riders very well. A chokepoint at the councourse end of the platform will quickly become congested if just two trains load and unload simultaneously. That delay will eliminate the potential capacity gains of the large platform, add uncertainty, and force passengers to factor in additional time.

Doing it right—right now—will make all the difference

So what’s the solution? Instead of an emergency exit at Van Buren—as the current plan envisions—there should be a regular, direct entrance there. (The current proposal calls for this to be added in a later, unscheduled phase.)

It’s hard to exaggerate what a difference this will make—and how much depends on getting this right. If it’s well-designed and properly funded, this project will: 

• Add the capacity for 5 or 6 trains to load simultaneously. 

• Make it easier to run trains through the station—and make trips like Springfield (IL) to O’Hare and Detroit to Milwaukee more practical. 

• Facilitate level boarding for single-level trains. 

• Allow experienced passengers to bypass the already congested concourse, which will be especially important when concourse remodeling begins.

• Provide additional capacity so that critical improvements can be made to platforms serving the busy BNSF trains.

A diagram of the track and platform layout at Chicago Union Station.

Overcoming the hurdles

As with almost anything worth doing, this plan faces some challenges. They include: 

Additional staff  Using the Mail Platform for passengers will require Amtrak to add staff, whether or not there is a new entrance.  The benefits of adding a regular Van Buren entrance will vastly outweigh the marginal costs of adding more staff. 

Gaining easements from building owners  The owners of the buildings above the platform are reluctant to make provisions for emergency exits—let alone a regular entrance that creates a steady stream of foot traffic.  Which makes it critical for the city and state to get involved now.  

The most likely location for a new entrance is near the food court of the Old Post Office building, which will require a substantial change to the lobby and to the building’s procedures for managing the public. The City and State can help find a design that allows the owner to benefit from the dramatically increased foot traffic. 

Lack of funding  Since Amtrak did not think optimistically or ambitiously during the design process, the existing grant does not include an entrance.  The City and State should identify the necessary funds and work with the Federal Railroad Administration to modify the grant without delaying the project.

The art-deco lobby of the Old Post Office building in Chicago.

The City will need to help the owner of the Old Post Office take advantage of the increased foot traffic through its lobby.

The Need for a Statewide Railway Program

It’s urgent for the City and State to get involved now to ensure that a Van Buren entrance is included in Phase 1.

And it’s important to be clear that we are in this position because Illinois does not have a long-range, integrated rail plan. Nor does it have a funding stream to implement such a plan.

The Illinois High Speed Railway Commission is developing a long-range plan for the state’s railways. The General Assembly needs to provide the funding to implement it.

Convenient travel is a major driver of the economy in Chicago and the Midwest. That’s why Chicago has invested more than $10 billion over the past 20 years to upgrade, expand, and beautify Midway and O’Hare. It’s also why Chicago Alderman Matt O’Shea recently called for the city to get behind a multi-billion plan to replace Terminal 2. “Chicago has maintained its prominence as a transportation center,” he wrote in the Tribune, because of “our willingness to invest in infrastructure.” 

There’s no doubt about that. And there’s no doubt about this: For a tiny fraction of what Chicago invests in O’Hare, Union Station could become a world-class facility that offers travelers an excellent experience.

Which would be a big boon for Chicago. 

A great user experience at CUS will increase ridership on existing rail lines and incentivize new rail routes and upgraded service across the Midwest. And CUS, unlike the airports, delivers people right to the heart of the city—on foot—at a time when Chicago is searching for ways to reinvent its downtown. 

More foot traffic in our streets means more money flowing through our economy. It means more visitors in our museums, more people shopping and eating downtown, more people enjoying our parks and waterfront. 

It means a more vibrant city overall.

For all of these reasons, it’s worth the time, energy, and commitment it will take to get the CUS renovation done right—right now. 

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