One Change to IDOT’s Rail Plans Could Vastly Improve Amtrak, Metra Service

The Midwest High Speed Rail Association’s CrossRail proposal would connect already-electrified tracks — ready for high-speed rail — to Amtrak’s Union Station, improving both Metra service and intercity service.

Amtrak trains would run faster between Chicago and Joliet in the Illinois Department of Transportation’s proposal to switch St. Louis-bound trains to less crowded tracks. But IDOT’s project could be even better with a few key changes. By folding the track upgrade known as CrossRail into the Amtrak project, IDOT could improve intercity trains and regional Metra service in one fell swoop.

Illinois is perhaps the farthest along on high-speed rail development among all the states, having begun planning efforts in 2004 to upgrade St. Louis trains before the $8 billion federal HSR program began in 2009. IDOT used federal HSR funds to upgrade tracks in 2011, and St. Louis trains now operate at up to 110 mph in one section. Track upgrades and more service have resulted in continually growing Amtrak ridership.

Currently, Amtrak takes 50 to 90 minutes to arrive at Union Station from Joliet. To move trains quicker through the denser, urban areas between Joliet and downtown Chicago, IDOT proposes switching Amtrak runs from tracks shared with Metra’s Heritage Corridor trains to the Rock Island branch, as well as upgrading crossings, possibly grade-separating some and adding better gates and signals at others. This would reduce travel times by up to 30 minutes.

While IDOT’s main focus is to improve Amtrak service, these changes would also reduce delays and improve speeds on Metra’s Rock Island service while preventing car and pedestrian crashes. If IDOT goes a little further and builds the CrossRail project as part of these upgrades, the benefits for both Amtrak and Metra service would be much more substantial. So far, however, that doesn’t seem to be the plan.

UP SD70Ms in Amtrak Territory
To speed up trip times in Chicago, Amtrak trains need to go from the elevated line in the background to ground level. A new ramp would make a big difference. Photo: Eric Pancer

IDOT has presented two options for getting Amtrak trains from the Rock Island line — which terminates at LaSalle Street station — into Union Station. Trains could cross the Chicago River at 16th Street on the elevated St. Charles Air Line, turn around and reverse into Union Station, or cross the Dan Ryan at 40th Street over a semi-abandoned bridge to run north-south along Canal Street, straight into Union Station.

Transit activist Charles Papanek attended a public meeting Monday and shared his assessment of these options. Papanek said that IDOT is considering a modification of the 16th Street option that would add a ramp directly from the elevated St. Charles Air Line down to the yard, which would avoid spending 15 minutes turning around. This ramp is also central to the proposed CrossRail project that would link future electric HSR trains from Union Station to the already-electrified tracks that Metra Electric uses, meaning Rock Island tracks would not have to be electrified, saving some expense.

IDOT would use some existing track to cross over from Rock Island tracks to Union Station-bound tracks.
For the 40th Street connection. IDOT would use some existing track to cross over from Rock Island tracks to Union Station-bound tracks. Image: Charles Papanek

The CrossRail project, including the ramp, would upgrade Metra Electric tracks and improve commuter accessibility by linking riders to the West Loop at Union Station. However, an IDOT employee told Papanek there are some space constraints in the yard that may hinder building the ramp.

Without the ramp and CrossRail, the 16th Street option would still be plagued by freight track-crossing delays. In that scenario, “40th Street is arguably the better of the two” options, Papanek said. However, the existing bridge’s tight curves at 40th Street will slow trains. It’s only the superior option if CrossRail never happens.

The tight curves at 40th Street, Papanek suggested, could be stretched to allow faster service, but that’s still inferior to building out the CrossRail project. As IDOT continues planning for the Amtrak route switch, it should embrace the opportunity to build the CrossRail design for future high-speed rail service into the Midwest hub.

IDOT is collecting comments on their plan. Get in touch through the website, call 1-800-436-8477, or write John Oimoen at IDOT, Division of Public & Intermodal Transportation, 100 W Randolph St, Suite 6-600, Chicago, IL 60601.

  • Harvey Kahler

    I was a transportation planner at CATS (now CMAP) and NIRPC with experience with the issues and have urged the 16th Street, aka the Air Line, connection for decades. It reduces the distances of slow running out of Union Station to 75th and 40th Streets for Carbondale and Saint Louis trains respectively. Carbondale trains were proposed by CREATE to be rerouted at 75th Street/Grand Crossing; but this poses conflicts getting around the NS 47th Street Yard. A more recent decision was made by CREATE to reroute Amtrak between new connections at Joliet and over the RID to 39th Street rather than building four grade separations that would benefit and facilitate expanded Metra Heritage Corridor service that could relieve demand on the BNSF. The 16th Street connection will allow weekend RID service to be consolidated at Union Station to further improve intra-regional connections. Secondly, and IMO most importantly, 16th Street would allow extension of Metra North Central Service from Antioch, O’Hare Airport and intermediagte stations through Union Station to McCormick Place or Hyde Park (as incorporated in Crossrail) and connect with Metra Electric and the NICTD South Shore for points south and east. Daily half-hour NCS frequencies would be feasible to Vernon Hills or to Antioch with about six miles of additioal second main track. Combining O’Hare and NCS serices would not unduly burden near-capacity MD services as Crossrail would. Pace feeder services to the UPN and MDN could be modified to serve the NCS as well. O’Hare Transfer – McCormick Place doesn’t need costly and problematic (for CN and CP) electrification with extending the NCS. NCS trains can use existing platforms in the north and south terminals with minor improvements for a more compact Union Station for more convenient transfers and West loop destinations. While direct rail access to the O’Hare terminals is possible and would be much more convenient, the approximate $1.5-billion cost would be hard to justify just for trains from Union Station and McCormick Place with the planned extension of the Airport Transit System to O’Hare Transfer and new parking facility at Lot-F. NCS and Amtrak trains are relatively short and infrequent to pose significant interference and delay at Clark Tower for RID trains. The proposed flyover at Clark Tower seems undoable with the short distance between the CTA elevated and the South Branch bridge.

  • Harvey Kahler

    Grand crossing poses the disadvantage of eight miles of limited speeds compared to potential 110-mph speeds on the CN.

  • Harvey Kahler

    The ramp connecting Union Station with the Air Line bridge and the CN along 16th Street would exacerbate capacity to service Amtrak trains. Yards are essential – servicing and storing trains at Union Station would severely limit capacity and be an inefficient use of high-value downtown land No one thought to allow expansion of Amtrak service facilities because the future was so uncertain with substantial congressional opposition. The PRR freight house was given over to ComEd for a switchyard rather than to Amtrak. I also thought the Canal Street Yard was a possible location for expanded Amtrak service facilities.

  • Harvey Kahler

    With the maximum allowed cant and unbalance cant, height of the outer rail above the inner rail of a curve, many frequent curves and disgtances for acceleration would prevent actual 110-mph running over most of the Michigan corridor, Sustained 110-mph or higher speeds would require an extensive relocation of tracks.

  • Harvey Kahler

    Notwithstanding the traffic issues on the NS, the route is the shortest and the alignment would allow 150-mph trains if additional main tracks were restored; but that faces conflict with the National Lakeshore. Another disadvantage is the two movable bridges at the Calumet River and Indiana Harbor.

    The South Shore is five miles longer and has more severe curve restictions, a second main track would face National Lakeshore opposition, but has the potential advantage of sharing stations.

    The former Michican Central has a somewht better alignment than the South Shore, but has numerous road and rail grade crossings and would require substantial improvements.

  • Harvey Kahler

    The GM&O scheduled 50 minutes between Joliet and Chicago before draconian limits were imposed between 21st Street and Corwith by ICG, IC, or CN. Then there are occasional limting curves between Summit and Romeoville. Still, there isn’t the problem of getting around rush hour Joliet Mainline trains on the RID.

  • Harvey Kahler

    A 400′-foot radius curve would allow 20 mph. While an Amtrak official once told me this was “unacceptable,” it’s comparable to the curve at Canal Street at the north end of Union Station, and it exceeds the minimum radius for a TALGO and other Amtrak and Metra equipment.

  • Harvey Kahler

    A close-in yard is a benefit for operations. Even with a good price for the land that would pay for relocation, the long-term operating cost would overtake any short-term profit.

  • Harvey Kahler

    The Beverly branch goes through residential neighborhoods at grade and IMO is unsuitable 79-mph rush hour Mainine expresses to Joliet. Beside the overtake points would be in the suburbs.

  • Harvey Kahler

    As was expressed in someone else’s comments, frequecy is more important than small increases in speed.

  • Harvey Kahler

    As desirable as a faster underground connection between McCormick Place and Union Station may be, the cost would be hard to justify for the limited volume of trains and riders. Dividing Metra Electric services between Michigan Avenue and Union Station would be an operational nightmare for the bulk of commuters. The trade-off is using and improving existing infrastructure for relatively little costs in money and time and extending NCS.

  • JacobEPeters

    I just need someone to show me where this mythical ramp fits into the existing rail yard geometry for “relatively low costs”. Adding a ramp to Union Station from the St. Charles Connector isn’t an improvement if it requires taking away track space from an already cramped yard. The only reason I was speculating about a tunnel combining Metra Electric, Amtrak, & CTA was because there is no space to make this connection at grade without having to relocate maintenance & yards used for staging during rush hour. As I said, far down the line, when planned passenger rail improvements would justify hourly trains to Detroit, St. Louis, Cincinnati & Cleveland, and a west loop subway would need to provide connections between the north & south sides to relieve congestion on the Dearborn & State Street subways. Of course we need to improve existing infrastructure in the short term, but in the long term we might need to think about how new infrastructure could add capacity once it is warranted. I have not been able to find a diagram that shows how the ramp could be inserted into this rail yard without the expensive displacement of one of the functions within this facility.

  • Harvey Kahler

    Truly the Amtrak yard is cramped an needs to be expanded for expected increases in service. Wisconsin is discussing adding three Hiawatha round trips, Illinois will add a Saint Louis round trip next year, and Michigan is expecting to add trains soon to exacerbate the problem of sericing trains. The 16th St/Airline connection would aggravate that need and raise the urgency for finding more space; so this cost cannot be laid entirely on a new ramp displacing some of Amtrak’s existing facility. Still, adding the cost of dislocation, the Air Line connection should be a lot cheaper than a tunnel; and wouldn’t that also require costly relocation of existing Amtrak facilities?

    A West Loop Transportation Center could add another $4-billion for services, some of which would further reduce its limited capacity for roujtes subject to unreliability with in route delays.

  • Harvey Kahler

    Part of the cost for rerouting Amtrak between Joliet and Chicago is the construction of a shared Joliet transportation center south of the existing Amtrak/Metra station.

  • Harvey Kahler

    The Englewood Flyover as been completed and the NS is lengthening its 47th Street intermodal terminal to improve traffic flow into Chicago. Colehour and Burns Harbor also are being improved.

  • JacobEPeters

    Then that is how it needs to be explained. Because until that relocation & expansion of the Amtrak yard takes place, the ramp just isn’t physically possible. Once again, the tunnel would be a long range solution to adding through track capacity that would go beyond the 2 existing tracks that can through run at Union Station. The West Loop Transportation Center, along with new tunnels serving it from the north, west, & south would provide new capacity while also serving the west Loop. What existing Amtrak facilities would need to be relocated for a tunnel that would only connect to existing tracks at McCormick Place and somewhere around Kinzie west of the Kennedy?

    To repeat, “I have been toying with the idea of how to roll multiple infrastructure investments into a single project…This is definitely a long range plan.”

    The tunnel isn’t a counter proposal to the Air Line connection, it is a vision for how to provide new subway, high speed rail, and RER connections if additional capacity is needed in the future. If there is ever demand for more capacity for these services, wouldn’t building 1 tunnel be more cost effective at that point than amassing 3 separate sets of right of way through a densely built up urban area? I repeat, my question about the purported “simplicity” and “cheapness” of the Air Line connection is unrelated to my speculation on how to built a multipurpose tunnel to add far future capacity.

  • JacobEPeters

    On February 26th 2014 the Englewood Flyover was not completed yet, and NS had 2 years less of progress in their ongoing attempts to expand the 47th street intermodal terminal, and to untangle northern Indiana with the still uncompleted Indiana Gateway Project. We can all agree that great progress has been made on multiple improvements since Elliott made his initial comment 2 years ago.

  • I haven’t ridden it since, so I don’t know if on-time performance has improved. But the big holdups were a little bit into Indiana (just east of the IL/IN border) and about half an hour into Michigan. Both cases led to 1hr+ wait periods on sidings.

  • Harvey Kahler

    In the interim, hourly Metra North Central Service could be extended to McCormick Place with the reversing move at Halsted. This could be scheduled congruent with MD and ED hourly services.

    It is imperative that additional or alternative Amtrak train service facilities be found and developed quickly. I hadn’t realized until recently how pressing the issue of 14th Street was.

    I always like seeing the City, looking down the River, coming into Chicago, and despair at the new developments over the tracks.

  • Harvey Kahler

    We thought the primacy of passenger service was sacrosant, but that is being attacked, undercutting Amtrak in any scheduling. As it is, the railroads are constrainig Amtrak services to suit their own priorities. I’ve seen some of this business before – new trains and schedules will be allowed, but Amtrak has to pay for capacity improvements often due as much to the railroad’s own increase in traffic as to any new Amtrak service.

  • Harvey Kahler

    First, raising low or medium speeds can have a greater impact of a given distance than high speeds which is why I’m appalled by the low speeds as far as Corwith on the Saint Louis line.

    Second, Heritage cars with traps for low-level boarding unduly lengthens dwell time, partly to assist boarding at a manned door of which there often are fewer than the number of cars, and partly due to seeing if all boarding the train have tickets and random Iidentification checks.

    If security is so necessary, then station platforms must be secured at larger stations and passengers screened before entering a secure waiting area. The secure waiting area at Chicago UInion Station is inadequate, Champaign,IL could be secured, and a substantial improvement would be needed at Springfield, IL.

  • Harvey Kahler

    I originally estimated $200-million for a ramp, track improvements, and station facilitries using the concourse at McCormick Place without Amtrak service facility relocation..

  • Harvey Kahler

    Much of your criticism rings true to my experience, includung the task of evaluating the Amtrak Valparaiso commuter service for Northwest Indiana RPC in 1983. Frustrated by Amtrak’s opaque accounting and lack of cooperation, I only could resort to a comparison of comparable Metra costs.

    One interesting “Valpo'” cost as I recall was $200,000, (10%!) for advertising; and all I found were generic ads and 800 number for Amtrak reservations without any mention of the commuter service in local Yellow Pages. That cost would be needed more for track and other line maintenance that seemed under-allocated, especially after Conrail traffic and the Broadway Limited were rerouted.

  • Harvey Kahler

    Forgve the sarcasm, but the actual 150 mph running on the NEC in RI and MA is only a few miles in two short segment with two 11,000 hp locomotives.

  • Aaron Friedman

    The best option for Chicago – St. Louis trains would be to double track the entire route and create overpasses over the many rail crossings in the Chicago area. The old Gulf Mobile and Ohio tracks between Joliet and Chicago could easily handle high speeds right into the crossovers to Union Station Chicago as long as the many rail crossings are circumvented. In fact, the whole Chicago – St. Louis run is ideal for very high speed since there is very little interfering with the line as far as grade crossings, communities, etc. The
    Chicago – Carbondale run should have a ramp from just outside Union Station, over the Chicago River and to the existing tacks right before the old Rock Island intersection. This would decrease the time by – I assume – around 20 minutes and also preserve the historical rail line through Chicago’s south side which is more important than many people realize. The 79th Street bridge is a fair alternative, but I’m not sure that would speed things up too much since the trains would have to slow down several times to finally connect with the old IC tracks. I’m also not sure what issues the 47th Street yard would create with this option. The solutions are not that complicated. Just do it!