A New Approach to Chicago
Amtrak is seeking federal funding for a group of projects to upgrade Chicago Union Station (CUS) and create better routes through Chicago into the station. This is the first phase of a program to modernize infrastructure in the Chicago area.
If properly executed, these projects could set the stage for:
- Critical safety improvements at Union Station
- New crosstown Metra service linking McCormick Place, Hyde Park, Beverly and other communities to O’Hare
- Faster and more reliable trains, with more daily departures on several Amtrak routes.
Today, Chicago Union Station offers direct service to 375 cities and towns in 36 states, providing critical connections throughout the country. In 2019, more than 15 million passengers boarded Amtrak or Metra trains at the station, making it busier than Midway Airport.
Substantial investments are needed to expand service.
Urgent Need for Expansion
The potential for rapid growth exists. In fact, the Federal Railroad Administration has created a vision for high-speed trains leaving Union Station hourly to hundreds of cities across the region.
- Space constraints and safety issues in the station are limiting its ability to grow
- The routes Amtrak uses to reach the station are constrained by heavy freight traffic.
- Limited through capacity blocks Metra’s ability to reinvent its services for the post-COVID travel market.
Project Group 1: Fixing Union Station
This group of projects would perform long-overdue capacity, state-of-good repair, and critical safety improvements to Union Station itself. They include:
- Removing walls and other barriers in the Concourse to improve traffic flows.
- New express escalators from the Concourse to street level to reduce station crowding.
- Widening the BNSF platforms to reduce over-crowding during rush hour.
- Improving ventilation to remove diesel exhaust from the platform areas.
- Rebuilding the former mail platforms to allow through running and level boarding.
Everyone that uses Union Station would benefit from these projects.
Project Group 2: Crosstown Connector
St. Charles Airline: Existing Track Layout
There is a mismatch between the best route options into Chicago and the routes Amtrak actually uses. Better, less congested options are largely inaccessible because they don’t connect well with Chicago Union Station.
On the south end of Union Station, the Metra’s Rock Island route and CN’s Lakefront Line offer clearer paths into Chicago.
The St. Charles Air Line connects to these routes, but it requires a slow and tedious back-up move.
St. Charles Airline: Proposed Track Layout
Amtrak has proposed the following group of projects to create a new Crosstown Connector:
- A new ramp up to the St. Charles Airline to eliminate the back-up move
- Upgrading the St. Charles Airline, including restoring an out-of-service bridge
- A faster connection to the Rock Island line, combined with a new platform at Joliet
- Upgrading the CN-owned Lakefront Line to Kensington, in the Pullman neighborhood
These initial investments are the first step towards a modernization of services across the Midwest. Further investments could create significant time savings, reductions in delays, more reliable schedules, and entirely new services.
A one-seat ride from the O’Hare Transfer station to McCormick Place would be feasible.
More importantly, through trains—between any station on the Rock Island and Metra Electric routes, to any station on the Milwaukee District routes—would be possible via the Crosstown Connector.
One exciting possibility is a Metra Crosstown Express network as illustrated here.
Unlocking the Rock
Bloomington/Normal – Springfield – St. Louis, etc.
The current route to Joliet has four delay points, where trains can stall for 15 minutes or more.
The Connector would allow Amtrak trains to use the Rock Island District, which is owned by Metra and has few freight movements. This would make Lincoln Service trains more reliable and set the stage for filling gaps in the existing schedule.
Rock Island Route:
La Salle-Peru, Peoria, Moline, Iowa City, etc.
The City of Peoria is leading a coalition to establish new service to towns along the Illinois Valley. The Connector would allow those trains to access Union Station instead of La Salle St. Station.
The improvements for Peoria could also set the stage for increasing daily departures on the Moline route beyond the initial two daily roundtrips currently under development.
The Power of the Lakefront Line
Champaign/Urbana – Carbondale – Memphis, etc.
The Connector would save 15 minutes or more from the existing, tortuous routing.
Cleveland – Columbus – Detroit – Indianapolis and many more
The greatest impacts to intercity service would be for trains headed east, to hundreds of stations including Cleveland, Cincinnati, Columbus, Detroit, Indianapolis and New York.
Today, eastern trains use a very busy Norfolk Southern mainline to leave Chicago and get around Lake Michigan. Initially, the Connector will allow Amtrak to bypass three delay points within the City of Chicago, and it will open up the option of using the South Shore Line across northern Indiana.
Ultimately, gaining high-quality service to eastern cities will require the South-of-the-Lake Reroute—a double-track mainline dedicated to passenger trains (SOTL).
The Connector would provide access to two potential rights-of-way for the SOTL.