Englewood Flyover Now Smoothing Out South Side Metra Rides

The Englewood Flyover train bridge unofficially opened three weeks ago, carrying test trains along the Metra Rock Island District tracts. The mile-long flyover, near 63rd Street and Wentworth Avenue, is one of the largest projects within CREATE, a larger program to untangle railroad flows around Chicago. The $141 million project could eliminate 7,500 hours of Metra delays each year that stem from this busy intersection, which sees 78 Metra, 60 freight, and 14 Amtrak trains every day.

Anne Alt is a regular rider of the Rock Island line between Beverly and the Loop. (Anne works for FK Law Illinois, a Streetsblog Chicago sponsor.) Alt described the delays on her commute as erratic: “I can go weeks or months without seeing any delays there, and then go two or three days in a row where my train waits anywhere from a few minutes, to 10 or 15,” an appreciable amount on a half-hour ride. Metra’s July delay report [PDF] listed multiple delays at the Englewood interlocking, varying from five to 15 minutes long.

Metra will be the only user of the Englewood Flyover, sending its Rock Island trains soaring over three previously intersecting tracks. Metra will soon add a third track to the flyover for SouthWest Service trains, after another CREATE project is constructed. That flyover [PDF], at 75th Street and Normal Avenue, will allow SWS trains to head to downtown Chicago on the RID tracks. The switch would also send SWS trains into LaSalle Street Station rather than Union Station, freeing up room at Union Station for other Metra lines and for Amtrak service to Michigan and Missouri.

Alt said that her first impression of the new flyover was that it “feels real solid.” She added, “I’m really hoping that the flyover will help reduce weekend delays, which often make it difficult to be on time for things unless I leave ridiculously early (like a couple of hours early) or take the [CTA] Red Line.”

Inbound Metra train
A Metra Rock Island train passing the Englewood Flyover last year, then under construction. Photo: Rick Harnish

Amtrak runs 14 trains daily at this crossing, but it’s unclear if and how those passengers would benefit. Amtrak’s director of government affairs, Derrick James, said that earlier contracts stated that there would be no performance improvements, but also noted that Norfolk Southern freight congestion delays trains to Michigan and Ohio. Getting Metra trains out of the mix would have knock-on effects for other trains.

CREATE is a $3 billion package of 70 separate projects to fix key intersections where freight rail tracks intersect roads and passenger rail tracks. 22 CREATE projects have been completed so far, leaving over $2 billion in projects yet to be builtMost of the accomplishments to date are roadway grade separations, which reduce stops and improve safety for freight trains and vehicles. The Englewood Flyover, though, is one of the largest CREATE projects that primarily benefits train commuters. 21 projects still don’t have funding, including 11 more that could improve Metra reliability.

 

Yet instead of fully funding projects that will improve existing freight and passenger flows throughout the region — and particularly facilitate the freight flows that feed the manufacturing and trade industries that are the Chicago Southland’s biggest employers — the state is directing its resources elsewhere.

  • Ryan G-S

    The Englewood Flyover definitely benefits Amtrak trains. I’ve been on many Amtrak trains that ground to a halt at Englewood to wait for Metra traffic. That source of interference is now gone. These days, however, there are much larger congestion problems further down the Norfolk Southern line. Any benefits from the presence of the Englewood Flyover are likely to go unnoticed until that congestion is dealt with. The completion of the Indiana Gateway projects will help Michigan-bound trains, at least: http://www.railwayage.com/index.php/passenger/intercity/amtrak-fra-ns-indot-kick-off-71-million-upgrade-project.html

  • Guest

    “Metra riders experience more than 7,500 annual passenger hours of delay”

    That’s a very different number when the word “passenger” is included. If one (like I did) assumed that it was hours of train delay then… 7500 * 60 / 365 / 78 = 15 minutes of delay per train.

  • Anne A

    I’ve sometimes experienced similar delays while on an Amtrak train.

  • Alex_H

    I’m not real up on the train lines and traffic routes/patterns, but it does seem to me that in the last couple years it’s pretty common to get hung up waiting for freight traffic not that long after leaving Union Station. (This would be the St. Louis line that I regularly take.) Is that what you’re talking about?

  • Bill Molony

    Amtrak’s Chicago-to-St. Louis trains do not pass under the new Englewood Flyover. The Amtrak trains that go that way are the ones to Michigan and the east coast.

  • I think talking about people instead of vehicles is a better metric on which to gauge transit use, effectiveness, and convenience.

  • Does the train to New Orleans pass under the new EF?

  • Anne A

    I believe the City of New Orleans runs on the lakefront right of way shared with Metra Electric. Trains to Washington DC do pass under the new flyover.

  • Kevin M

    Confirming Anne’s response, the City of New Orleans definitely does not pass under the new EF.

    However, if CrossRail Chicago happens, the St. Charles Air Line would be rebuilt, and that is infrastructure that the City of New Orleans uses.

  • Chrissy Mancini

    MPC’s holding a roundtable – Nov. 18th at noon – on CREATE funding. Event details here: http://www.metroplanning.org/events/roundtable/detail/308

  • Annie F. Adams

    I do not think the Englewood Flyover benefits the City of New Orleans, Saluki and Illini. Delays on those routes due to freight trains are endemic. It is often faster and more reliable to drive or go by bus. That said the number of people riding those trains are way up! Why? It is cheaper or nearly the same to take a train, than drive my 32 mpg car. Link to a campaign that explains why freight delays people & some action you can take: If you’re tired of late trains being the New
    Normal http://www.narprail.org/hotline–blog/im-already-tired-of-the-new-normal

  • BlueFairlane

    The cheapest rate I could find for one person to buy a round-trip Amtrak ticket to New Orleans is $254. Making the trip in a 32 mpg car, costs $202, assuming $3.50 a gallon. (The national average is currently $3.18.) Driving is four hours faster than the scheduled travel time for the train, you can leave whenever you want, stop whenever you feel like it, and you have a car when you get to New Orleans. I usually travel with one other person, so my cost on Amtrak would be $508, versus $185 in a car. (My car gets slightly better mileage than yours.) Plus, I get to have lunch in a nice place I know in Memphis.

    My point: The cost of Amtrak needs to come way down before it becomes a preferred choice for most people. If two people could travel by train for half the cost of traveling by car, then we might see a jump even with the freight delays.

  • Annie F. Adams

    Gas prices will continue to rise. We need to heavily subsidize train travel in the same way we currently heavily subsidize air travel, gas and highways. That all said. I am driving to Urbana/Champaign. I can pull my receipts for gas and get back to you. But it is cheaper if you are traveling alone to take the train or a bus. & the Illini & Saluki are subsidized.

    I have family in NOLA so I agree. They would love to take the train. But “cheaper” and faster to drive sometimes. Then again car insurance, driving 20 hours, wear and tear on car…I began memorizing Exit signs to stay awake on my drive to Urbana/Champaign. Train is way nicer. Bus is okay.

  • BlueFairlane

    Using the same average price of $3.50/gal, Chicago to Champaign and back in a 32-mpg car will cost $29.97. Amtrak costs $30. So it translates to a wash. If you include insurance cost, you’ll add something like $5 if it’s a weekend trip. (Based on what I pay. Your policy may vary.) The vast majority of people would consider this a convenience fee, and it replaces what you spend to get to or from stations. Wear and tear on a 300-mile trip is negligible.

    Now, gas prices will go up over time, though the rate of increase is fairly slow, and there’s a long way for gas prices to go to overcome Amtrak’s disadvantages and tip this in Amtrak’s direction for most people. One way or another, there needs to be a big cost advantage to Amtrak to make most people consider it.

    Here’s what I’d do if I wanted Amtrak to work. Yes, subsidize it heavily, but forget all the infrastructure improvements. Ultimately, the time advantages you gain are worth far less than cutting the price of a ticket. So take all the money you’d spend eliminating the freight conflicts and upgrading track and equipment and use it to cut the price of a ticket to a fourth of what it is now. Then you might see some movement toward getting people on the trains. Once that happens, these people will be more interested in voting for infrastructure improvements.

  • Annie F. Adams

    Doesn’t matter how inexpensive something is (see: CTA bus ridership declines) people will not take a bus or train if there are constant delays, takes too long & you have missed appointments.

    Big infrastructure changes take about 10 years to build if approved today. So in 10 years (2024) what does IL need? More highly subsidized and costly roads, gas and airplanes combined with cheap rides on “not-gonna-use-it-nor-worth-the-hassle” bus and train transport?

  • Alex_H

    Fair points, though one benefit of the train is that you can read, sleep, do work, etc.

  • BlueFairlane

    I think those are minor benefits in most people’s minds.

  • BlueFairlane

    If you made every infrastructure change possible so that Amtrak worked as efficiently as it could, it’s still going to be slow and ponderous, and it’s still going to have those last-mile (or in many cases, last 40-mile) limitations. Time-wise, it will always be comparable to car with the convenience of the airport portion of air, and the subset for whom those equations tilt people trainward will always be small. Your argument depends on the sort of catastrophic rise in gas prices many have been predicting for decades, and yeah, that catastrophic rise may come, but I see far more indication that it won’t come in the next 20 years. And when it comes, I think people will just jump to electric cars running off coal rather than trains.

    But imagine if you could travel round-trip to New Orleans for $50. New York for $50. Los Angeles for $70. Imagine if your Champaign trip cost $5. Then you have different equations.

  • Fred

    Spirit Airlines: An experiment in just how many shenanigans people will tolerate for cheap travel!

  • neroden

    The Amtrak trains which run through the Englewood Flyover location are the trains to Michigan (Wolverine, Blue Water, Pere Marquette), the Lake Shore Limited (to NY), and the Capitol Limited (to DC). The westbounds routinely stopped dead for 15 minutes plus at the diamonds to wait for Metra to pass. Now they’ll keep moving.

    It has to have at least some benefit for schedule reliability. Although there is currently a complete mess on Norfolk Southern further east, in Indiana, which is ruining all the Amtrak schedules worse, and this won’t help that. :-(

  • neroden

    If you’re travelling with two people who alternate the driving, fine — but if you’re a solo traveller, the car is slower than the train, because in the car you have to stop repeatedly to eat, sleep, stretch, rest your eyes (you’re supposed to take a 15 minute break every 2 hourse in order to remain safe on the road), etc…

  • neroden

    Typical wear and tear on a 300 mile car trip is actually pretty substantial. Shall I tell you how many tires I’ve lost to road debris?

  • neroden

    You’re basically wrong. With appropriate infrastructure improvements, Amtrak will be *comparable* to car travel, yes, and people who *compare* them will decide that Amtrak is better.

    With suitable infrastructure improvements, train travel can easily be consistently faster than car travel, and everyone agrees it’s more comfortable. Train stations are far more convenient than airports. The subset of people for whom the differences will tilt them towards train travel will be the vast, vast majority.

    But the trains have to be slightly faster than driving, not slower. This is easy enough to do…

  • BlueFairlane

    Perhaps you need to pay more attention to your driving. I would bet a large sum of money I drive far more than you, and I last lost a tire to road debris in 1996. I’ve probably driven close to a million miles since then, so that’s a loss I think I can afford.

  • BlueFairlane

    The usual narrative of rail supporters is to look at something like this $141 million bridge and say, “If we only had 47,519 more projects like this and use super technology from Japan, rail would be comparable to air!” That’s not really grounded in realism, and isn’t likely to happen. Sure, if you can talk the nation into committing $6.7 trillion to the project, you might get rail time between relatively close cities to something within 10 or 20% of air, but the public isn’t likely to commit $6.7 trillion to something that nobody uses. To get those kind of speeds, you need buy-in from a large segment of the population. You need that population to already be taking the train. As long as Amtrak serves only a niche population, any infrastructure improvement will only be piecemeal.

  • BlueFairlane

    I have often been a solo traveler. I have two mental modes when I make those kind of trips.

    In one mode, I’m usually traveling to see family in Kentucky, about 300 miles away. I can make that drive in six hours, including stops. I often leave at about 4 on a Saturday morning and get there by 10, then come back home late on Sunday. The closest Amtrak comes to my usual destination is about 100 miles, but let’s say I didn’t have that last hundred mile problem and my destination was right next to the Amtrak station. The fastest travel time is 7 hours, 5 minutes. So I lose an hour, and people have to give me a ride when I get there. Meanwhile, the schedule that gets me there in 7 hours is in the middle of the day, making a two-day weekend trip pointless. My little trip suddenly involves two days of nothing but travel.

    In my other mode, I’m traveling someplace far away, usually to visit friends somewhere like Denver. I’m not in a hurry when I travel like this, so time doesn’t matter. What does matter is that I’m able to amble. I can take weird route, go exploring, look for giant balls of string or Titan missiles set up in Nebraska parks and such. You can’t do that on a train. So in either mental mode, Amtrak is useless to me.

    Now, this doesn’t mean it’s useless to everybody. Some people hate driving and are always in “just want to get there” mode. But the vast majority of these people choose to drive anyway for short trips (say, <10 hours), because it's far less hassle than fooling with a train. Anything longer, they just fly, which costs nearly the same money as Amtrak, but is way faster.

  • SpinyNorman

    Correct, the CoN currently uses the St Charles Air Line to connect from Union Station to the Canadian National tracks (previously owned by Illinois Central – IC).

    However, one of the CREATE projects will build a connector at Grand Crossing (76th and Woodlawn), allowing CN-NS interchange. I’m not sure if Amtrak is planning to use this new connection, but it would allow the Southern Illinois trains to connect to the NS trackage into Union Station, and bypass the St Charles Air Line.

    This would cut ~20 minutes off the trip, as the use of the existing Air Line requires a backing move. Basically, a southbound train leaving Union Station moves in reverse on to BNSF tracks near Canal St, and then proceeds on to the Air Line. Arriving trains back into Union Station after crossing the Chicago River on the Air Line.

  • Joe Trudo

    Just wondering how anybody thinks the cost of driving one’s car from Chicago to New Orleans only involves the cost of the fuel @32 mpg.
    If l were going to drive round trip to New Orleans from Chicago I would need a better and much more expensive car so I would have $400 a month loan payments, much higher car insurance because there would be a car loan and loan companies require low deductible insurance adding about $200 a month to the gas bill to “get there”. In most states there is some personal property or sliding scale tax based on vehicle value and that would add as much as $50-75 to my monthly car ownership and MUST be factored into my drive to New Orleans. Then there is maintenance as I oil changes and tires, spark plug and filter cost which add $50-80 every 6-8000 miles.
    So how Mr “Only cost me X for gas @ 32 miles per gallon” figures he can drive so cheaply is a bit of a fantasy! Maybe a bit of new math?

  • The Wolverine on Friday evenings currently has a completely predictable 3-4 hour delay (from scheduled times) over its length because of 2-3 places it has to pull over on a siding and wait more than 45min standing still for freights.

    Every week.

    This is not unpredictable or catastrophic and impossible to schedule around. it is pervasive.

  • IronMike500

    Wrong again Annie .Gas is now 2.15 a gallon.

  • Annie F. Adams

    IronMike500 you crack me up! You know this is short term—right? If not here is some reading: http://www.wsj.com/articles/why-gas-feels-cheapand-why-its-not-historically-speaking-1420217738

  • Annie F. Adams
  • BlueFairlane

    Nope. Old math using real costs instead of the mythical expenses you describe.

    I drove my 2003 Honda Civic to New Orleans and back over the Thanksgiving weekend a couple of months ago. I paid cash for that car four years ago, so I didn’t need any sort of loan and don’t make payments. My annual cost for tags is about $110. Insurance for me is about $65 per month. I get the oil changed about once every 8,000 miles or so. Most of the costs you cite don’t apply to me. Your sliding scale tax amount to $50-$75 per month is just silly, and doesn’t apply to anybody at anything close to that rate.

    My trip lasted six days. The daily expense for insurance and state licensing works out to about $2,44. Over six days, that’s $14.63. Gas for the trip averaged around $2 per gallon. (An unusual low, yes, but it’s still what I paid.) Total mileage for my trip was about 2500 miles. (I made some round-about detours rather than a direct NOLA and back trip.) My car averaged about 34 mpg, so my cost in gas about $147. Total cost to drive, adding insurance, licensing and a third of a $30 oil change is about $170. Total cost to make a trip for two people with the same departure and return days of the week (only on a non-holiday weekend) is $508.

    Meanwhile, saving that $338 also allows me to divert from the City of New Orleans route and visit my son at Fort Polk, far from any train route. It allows me to explore the coastal marshland and take a swamp tour in the Atchafalaya. It allows me to drive out to the end of the Plaquemines Parish for the hell of it, then come back and have a French Quarter dinner before making my way back home on my own schedule. This trip would not be possible on Amtrak.

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