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Metra construction continues full steam (diesel, electricity?) ahead during COVID-19

Elmhurst Metra station’s current depot, which will be replaced and expanded. Photo: Igor Studenkov

During the pandemic, when transit should only be used for essential trips, Metra is running fewer, much emptier trains than it usually does, and revenue loss is a major challenge. but the Stay at Home order has one silver lining for the commuter railroad. The reduced weekday schedule is allowing Metra to complete construction projects ahead of schedule. That includes building and renovating several stations in the city and the suburbs, replacing platforms, repairing bridges and railroad crossings, and refurbishing the tracks.

Most notably, Metra is starting work on two new stations -- the Peterson/Ridge station in Edgewater and the Auburn Park station in Auburn Gresham -- replacing the current Union Pacific West Line’s Elmhurst station with a larger facility, adding heated platforms at BNSF Line’s Westmont station, and continued work to add a third track on most of the Union Pacific West line. But there are several notable projects that aren’t scheduled to start in the near future, both in the city and the suburbs.

In March, as more people began working from home, non-essential businesses closed, and residents began avoiding transit, Metra’s ridership plummeted. By March 19, it launched a reduced its weekday schedule. On April 1, a conductor tested positive for COVID-19, leading Metra to institute a policy of requiring conductors to stay in the train cars furthest from the locomotive. In my experience riding Metra for work since then, this means that conductors almost never check tickets. But given how few passengers I’ve observed, it’s not like they would be losing much revenue from nonpayment anyway.

At the end of March, Metra announced that it was planning to take advantage of the reduced schedules to get a head start on construction. Most of the work is taking place on what would normally be off-peak weekday hours and during the weekend. Depending on the nature of the work, it may result in 10-15-minute delays. Metra is currently looking to finish the work in the fall.

Metra executive director Jim Derwinski described it as making the best out of a bad situation. “While we’d much rather be running normal service, we’re using this opportunity as best we can,” he stated. “By doing this, we hope to reduce the number of construction schedules needed this summer and may be able to finish some work more quickly than normal.”

"Railway Track & Structures" magazine already did a pretty comprehensive job listing all of the projects on that list, so I’m going to focus on the part that the riders are most likely to notice: new stations, new platforms, more track capacity, and some other nifty features.

New and Improved Stations

The new Peterson/Ridge station on the Union Pacific North line and the Auburn Park stop on the Rock Island District line both had several delays and false starts over the years. Both stations have strong community support, and Auburn Park station is a major component of the Greater Auburn-Gresham Development Corporation’s efforts to revitalize the 79th Street corridor. Work is still in the early stages, but there are signs of progress. At the Peterson/Ridge station, the trees on the east side of the embankment, where the inbound train platform is going to be built, has already been cleared.

Metra will also start work on another major project, the expansion of the City of Elmhurst station, the busiest station on the Union Pacific West line. It serves as a terminal for Pace bus Route 309, which stops behind the station building, and Route 322, which is the only Pace route to provide commuter service to O’Hare Airport’s cargo terminals, has a stop at nearby York Street. According to the city documents, the idea is to build a bigger station building on the inbound platform, a new shelter and two warming shelters on the outbound platform. They are also looking to put in a new pedestrian underpass west of the platform, a useful feature on the line that has more freight traffic than other Union Pacific lines. (When I was there last Sunday, long freight trains blocked traffic three times as they passed.) And the city wants to improve intermodal access, adding more bike racks and a drop-off lane that would double as a bus lane.

Rendering of the Clarendon Hills station. Image: Legat Architects

Further south, Metra and the Village of Clarendon Hills are continuing work on a new station that will replace the now-demolished 1970s building. According to project architect Legat Architects, the idea is to create a visually striking and eco-friendly gateway the village’s downtown. Unlike the previous station, it will have passenger shelters and covered bike parking on both platforms.

On a smaller scale, Metra will work to replace the head house at the BNSF line’s Cicero station, which was damaged in a 2019 freight train derailment. It will rehabilitate the Milwaukee District West Line’s Bensenville station, the Union Pacific North’s Highland Park and North Chicago stations, and the Rock Island District line’s Blue Island station. The 11-week project to add wheelchair access to the Milwaukee District West’s Itasca station got underway last week, and the BNSF line’s West Hinsdale station platforms are slated to get ADA-compliant “truncated dome type surfaces” on the edges.

Blue Island/Vermont Street Metra station's historic depot is among several that will be renovated by Metra this year. Photo: Igor Studenkov
Blue Island/Vermont Street Metra station's historic depot is among several that will be renovated by Metra this year. Photo: Igor Studenkov
Blue Island/Vermont Street Metra station's historic depot is among several that will be renovated by Metra this year. Photo: Igor Studenkov

Waukegan station, a terminal for most Union Pacific Metra trains, will get its bathroom rehabbed, and the platforms will be replaced.  Union Pacific Northwest line’s Woodstock station’s historic station house will be rehabbed as well, and new shelters will be added on both platforms. While most Union Pacific Northwest Line stations have their station houses on the inbound platform to accommodate downtown commuters waiting for morning trains, Woodstock's facility is one of the handful of station house is located by the outbound platform, making the shelters more important for commuters.

One of the more unusual projects on the list is the BNSF line’s Westmont station platform improvements. Metra is working with the Village of Westmont to add “new heated platform technology” that, according to the transit agency’s 2020 capital budget document, “will reduce the amount of snow and ice buildup during winter months, greatly reducing the need for manual snow removal.” Metra is also continuing to work on building the new inbound platform at the Union Pacific North line’s Ravenswood station, and it is rebuilding platforms at the Union Pacific West Line’s River Forest, College Avenue and Geneva stations, the Union Pacific Northwest line’s Palatine station, and the Rock Island District line Beverly/Suburban branch’s 103rd Street/Beverly station (not to be confused with 103rd Street/Washington Height’s station on the line’s main branch). The BNSF line’s Harlem Avenue station in Berwin will get new platform lighting, and the Rock Island District line’s Tinley Park station platforms will be resurfaced.

Capacity building

As I’ve noted, the Union Pacific West line sees more freight traffic than the system average, which created bottlenecks at the two-track sections between River Forest and Geneva. Since 2017, Metra and the Union Pacific Railroad have been working to add a third track, and that project will continue amid COVID-19.

Metra is continuing working on adding a third track on the section of Union Pacific West line between River Forest and Geneva. Photo: Igor Studenkov
Metra is continuing working on adding a third track on the section of Union Pacific West line between River Forest and Geneva. Photo: Igor Studenkov
Metra is continuing working on adding a third track on the section of Union Pacific West line between River Forest and Geneva. Photo: Igor Studenkov

The Union Pacific North Line’s Great Lakes station, which serves the eponymous Navy base, will get its parking lot and drop-off area resurfaced. And, over in the south suburbs, Metra will rebuild and expand the parking lot for Metra Electric line’s Homewood station. As I previously reported, under Metra’s restructuring of the line’s suburban rush hour express trains, it will become a “split” point between trains that express past all the suburban stops further north and the trains that will make local suburban stops. (Metra adopted the service pattern with some changes, though it’s not actually implementing this until the ridership returns to some semblance of “normal.”) And the station doubles as an Amtrak station served by Illini/Saluki Chicago-to-Carbondale trains and the iconic City of New Orleans long-distance train.

What’s not on the list

There are several projects included in the 2020 budget that are conspicuously absent from the list. Most notably, it doesn’t mention work on the Rock Island District line’s new New Lenox station, which is replacing the relocated historic depot and is meant to serve as a centerpiece of larger retail development. The Metra Electric line’s 147th Street/Sibley Boulevard station in Havey is supposed to get a new station entrance, and its platforms are supposed to get shelters with heat lamps and longer canopies. Also missing from the list is the rehab of Union Pacific Line’s Hubbard Woods station, which would include “station repairs, access improvements and platform work,” and a project to renovate theRock Island District Beverly branch’s 11th/Morgan Park station parking lot and possibly add shelters.

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