Today, Brightline launched passenger rail service between Miami and Orlando, the fastest passenger rail service in the U.S. outside of the Northeast. Brightline will offer 16 round trips a day on the 235-mile corridor, with the trip taking about 3 1/2 hours, and...
A robust network of fast trains would make our communities more competitive
Illinois has great assets: A central location, a large and educated workforce, and world-class universities and research centers.
But congested highways and long-distance drives are slowing us down and holding us back.
To keep the dynamic businesses we have and attract new ones, we need fast, convenient, and affordable ways to get from anywhere in Illinois to anywhere in Illinois.
The good news is that the state has a long history of investing in passenger trains, including Amtrak, Metra, and the South Shore.
Federal funds are now available to expand and upgrade our network. But to make the most of the opportunities, the state must act quickly.
We need a plan. And we need state funding to back it up.
The train station at Champaign-Urbana, Illinois.
Our vision for an integrated rail plan to connect Illinois with fast, frequent and affordable trains.
It should be practical and affordable to travel by train throughout the state.
Trains already operate on most of the routes needed for a vibrant passenger rail network.
But the schedules are too focused on trips to downtown Chicago, and the trips are too infrequent to serve intermediate stations well.
Illinois has state-rail plan that could help change that—in theory. Unfortunately, it’s just a list of disconnected projects. They aren’t integrated into a true plan. And they aren’t coordinated for maximum impact.
Its time to change that. Illinois needs a rail plan designed to connect the entire state.
Illinois can learn from its example and follow its lead.
The number of daily departures increases as you get closer to Chicago. Every 15-minutes in Cook County, Every 2-hours downstate.
Trains and buses should be scheduled to meet each at key transfer points, like Champaign, Galesburg, and East St. Louis. to make cross-state trips convenient.
Amtrak, Metra, the South Shore, and local transit agencies should coordinate schedules and fares.
Connect All Metropolitan Areas
The big-picture goal is to make it practical to travel by train or bus from any metropolitan area to any other metropolitan area—any time of day.
That will mean upgrading tracks so that regional trains can run every one or two hours on downstate routes.
Improvements done to the Union Pacific-owned tracks between Joliet and Alton lead the way.
We need similar improvements to lines currently running to Carbondale, Quincy, and Milwaukee. The state should add new routes serving Peoria, the Quad Cities, Rockford, and Galena.
Likewise, the state should work with private companies to expand bus routes to small towns. Although it’s often overlooked by state planning agencies, bus service is a critical link to Amtrak and other transportation options for communities all across Illinois.
All areas with Metropolitan Planning Organizations should be connected by train or bus.
Link to O’Hare
It should be convenient to reach O’Hare by train—and not just to catch a plane.
O’Hare should be a major gateway for trains to and from the suburbs.
Many trains could serve it directly. Others could make timed connections to O’Hare Express trains at convenient points along regular Metra lines.
Metra Regional Rail
Metra has always focused on getting suburbanites to and from downtown for their 9-5 jobs.
But it could be so much more. And it must be. To meet the needs of Illinois’s economy and the post-pandemic new normal, Metra will have to raise its game.
With more frequent departures, faster schedules, and crosstown connections, people could ride the train to meet friends and family, go to school, take shopping trips, and keep a doctor’s appointment. In other words, they could use Metra to go any place they would normally drive—any time of day.
And there’s no good reason Metra service has to end at the “six-county line.”
Metra tracks should be improved to support commuter, regional, and high-speed trains.
Better bus service connects communities to the rail network and improves travel throughout the region.
Run More Buses
Intercity bus service plays an important role in small communities not directly served by trains. Buses connect them to each other, to larger cities, and to nearby train lines. Bus lines are also a first step toward integrating more cities into an expanding train network.
Illinois can look to California excellent bus system as a model, which is well-used statewide.
Expanded Freight Service
One critical but overlooked way a statewide rail plan improves passenger-rail service is by improving freight-rail service.
When freight-train conditions deteriorate, the ripple-out effects make passenger-rail worse. And the same is true in reverse. When infrastructure investments improve freight-rail systems, passenger trains run faster and with fewer delays. It’s a classic win-win.
But that can happen only with a plan.
Investments in the rail network should improve passenger and freight rail.
The new Illinois High Speed Rail Commission is a great vehicle for producing a statewide rail plan. Few states have anything similar to the Commission. Creating a plan could be one of its core responsibilities.
But that will happen only if grassroots activists persuade state lawmakers to show strong leadership.
If you live in Illinois, please let your legislators know that you want the Commission to create a statewide rail plan—and that you want it to be funded.
Few things would move the needle in the Midwest and across America like a true plan for integrating rail and transit systems in Illinois.
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