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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
IDOT would use some existing track to cross over from Rock Island tracks to Union Station-bound tracks.

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.

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