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Goodbye Paris Metro entrance, hello waterproofing: A look at planned Van Buren stop changes

The Parisian-style entrance that will be removed as part of this project. Photo: Igor Studenkov

Metra and Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District, the agency that operates the South Shore Line, are working on two projects to improve the Loop’s Van Buren station.

Metra Electric and South Shore Line share the station and, even in the past three years, it remained one of the busiest stops on both rail lines. But the station is showing its age and flooding issues have creeped up, leading Metra to embark on a major renovation to make it drier, more environmentally friendly, and Americans with Disabilities Act compliant. That includes replacing the current entrance on the east side of Michigan Avenue with a wheelchair accessible entrance, restoring the waiting room, and improving the pedestrian tunnels, among other changes.

At the same time, NICTD is looking to build a new platform east of the current island platform, between the fourth and fifth tracks. This will reduce conflicts between the two railroads and aid in the South Shore Line’s long-term goal of increasing speeds and service frequencies.

The tracks at Van Buren Station. Photo: Igor Studenkov
The tracks at Van Buren Station. Photo: Igor Studenkov
The tracks at Van Buren Station. Photo: Igor Studenkov

In order for the projects to go forward, Metra needed the Chicago City council to approve a zoning change, which happened on January 18. But because the site is near the lakefront, the Chicago Plan Commission also has to sign off. the Plan Commission didn’t take up the review in January, and the project is not on the commission's February 16 meeting agenda.

NICTD plans to begin construction in 2023, while Metra hopes to start its project in either 2024 or 2025, with the goal of finishing it by 2027.

The current layout

Van Buren station was originally built in 1896. As the name suggests, its main entrance is on Van Buren Street at Michigan Avenue, serving Grant Park and the nearby office towers and hotels. It is located in a below-grade trench, with a tunnel connecting it to ADA-compliant entrances on the west side of Michigan and stairs on the east side of Michigan Avenue. In 2001, a replica of an Hector Guimard-designed, Art Nouveau Paris Métro entrance – a gift from the city of Paris – was installed at the east entrance.

The station house is built into the west wall of the trench, with a platform facing the westernmost track. There is a second, island platform between the second and third tracks, which can be accessed via a pedestrian tunnel or the stairs leading down from Jackson Drive, a block north of Van Buren. With the tunnel is ADA-compliant, obviously the stairs aren’t.

There are also four tracks with overhead catenary structures already in place. For the most part, the two railroads use them to store equipment. While the space between the fourth and fifth set of tracks is wide enough for a platform, the tracks aren’t evenly aligned, so some track realignment will be necessary to ensure smooth movements.

MED service pattern varies depending on the time of day, and which branch line trains using Track 2 during off-peak hours, while the South Shore Line always uses Track 1 for outbound trains and Track 3 for the inbound trains.

The existing station waiting room. Photo: Igor Studenkov
The existing station waiting room. Photo: Igor Studenkov
The existing station waiting room. Photo: Igor Studenkov

While the station waiting room retains much of its old grandeur, issues are obvious even at a casual glance. During a recent visit to the station, I saw signs of water damage at several points throughout the tunnel, and some wear above the platform doors.

General Improvements

Perhaps the most notable change from the rider perspective will be the east Michigan Avenue entrance. The current entrance will be sealed off, and a brand-new, larger entrance with an elevator will be built a little further east, at the west half of the rectangular patch of lawn at the foot of the Van Buren pedestrian bridge over the tracks. The elevator and the new stairs will descend toward the spot where the tunnel splits into the section that goes to the current island platform and a section that goes to the waiting room.

According to Metra, it will be up to the city of Chicago to decide what to do with the old entrance structure, which looks like something the turn-of0the-century Parisian artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec might emerge from. The commuter rail agency agreed to reinstall it at a new location at its own expense.

Rendering of the new ADA-compliant entrance on the east side of Michigan at Van Buren.
Rendering of the new ADA-compliant entrance on the east side of Michigan at Van Buren.
Rendering of the new ADA-compliant entrance on the east side of Michigan at Van Buren.

The tunnels and the elevators on the west side entrances will be refurbished and waterproofed, and the tunnels’ slope will be adjusted to be more accessible to people with mobility issues.

Metra will refurbish and waterproof the waiting room, repairing the existing skylights and adding a green roof. The waiting room will also be extended to the original footprint – the south section of it was previously walled off to create storage, security office and vendor space.

For the island platform, Metra will refurbish the existing shelter, put in a new elevator to the tunnel and rebuild the Jackson Drive entrance with a new elevator and stairs.

Rendering of the new elevator at the Jackson entrance.
Rendering of the new elevator at the Jackson entrance.
Rendering of the new elevator at the Jackson entrance.

The project received $10 million in federal funds and $38.1 million in Rebuild Illinois capital bill bond funds.

South Shore Line portion

While MED and South Shore Line have separate boarding areas at Millennium Station, once the trains leave, they have to share the same sets of tracks. I’ve been on many South Shore Line trains that had to pause for a few minutes, waiting for Metra trains to clear the tracks.

Over the past decade, NICTD has been working to improve capacity, both to speed up the existing service and to accommodate service on the planned West Lake branch. As part of that, it has been working with Metra to make some improvements on the tracks it shares with MED.

Rendering of a new station tunnel.
Rendering of a new station tunnel.
Rendering of a new station tunnel.

It isn’t currently clear whether all South Shore Line trains will be directed to the new platform or just some of them. But having a separate platform and two tracks it can use to reach it will speed up South Shore Line service, especially during rush hour.

The new platform will have an ADA-compliant stairs-and-elevator entrance at Jackson Drive and an underground connection to the tunnel.

This portion of the project is budgeted at $2,753,046, with $2,202,437 of the money coming from the federal State of Good Repair Grants program.

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