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I want you to want commuter rail: Pritzker announces $275M award to Metra to restore Rockford-Chicago train service

Hopefully in four years Chicagoans will be able to say "Hello There" to a new way to get to Rockford car-free.

From today’s press conference in Rockford: IDOT Sec. Omer Osman; Governor JB Pritzker; John Turner – Senior Vice President Harriman Dispatch Center and Network Planning, Union Pacific Railroad; Ill. Sen. Steve Stadelman; Rockford Mayor Tom McNamara; Ill. Rep. Dave Vella; Lt. Gov Juliana Stratton; Ill. Rep. Maurice West; unidentified person; Metra CEO/Executive Director Jim Derwinski; Ill. Sen. Dave Syverson; Metra Board Chair Romayne C. Brown. Photo: Metra

With apologies to the Rockford-founded rock band Cheap Trick (also referenced in this article's title), hopefully in four years Chicagoans will be able to say "Hello There" to a new way to get to Rockford car-free.

Today Illinois Governor JB Pritzker announced that Metra been awarded $275 million from the state to reestablish passenger rail between the Forest City and Chicago, with new stops in Elgin, Huntley, and Belvidere. That means that many people who currently drive between these cities may switch to the safer, more environmentally friendly, and more relaxing alternative of commuter rail.

"With this new service, we're connecting more communities and creating greater opportunities for people across the state line region," Pritzker said in a statement. "From the hundreds of construction and engineering jobs created by our planned rail improvements to the increased economic growth that comes with heightened connectivity, all the way to the long-lasting reduction in pollution and traffic congestion that will stem from more efficient rail alternatives to driving, the new Rockford Intercity Passenger Rail service will have positive impacts that will strengthen northern Illinois for years to come."

According to the governor's office, the new train service will travel at up to 79 mph. Passenger service is slated to start in 2027.

The ground was laid for this announcement was laid in June 2019, when the Rebuild Illinois infrastructure package passed in Springfield, including the $275 million for service between Rockford and Chicago.

In February 2020, Guy Tridgell, spokesperson for the Illinois Department of Transportation, which is overseeing the project, told Streetsblog that the state "was in the early stages" of getting a consultant on board to manage the project. He said the Rockford route would be Metra’s Milwaukee District West Line tracks to the Big Timber Road station in Elgin, where the train would make a stop, and then the Union Pacific tracks to Rockford, with the intermediate stops along the way in Huntley and Belvidere. But the COVID-19 pandemic hit Illinois the next month, which surely delayed the rail initiative.

Pritzker's office said this is the first time this rail corridor will have passenger service in over 40 years. The "Black Hawk" route operated between Rockford and Chicago from 1974 to 1981, when it ended due to reduced funding as driving was assumed to be the transportation mode of the future.

According to the state, The $275 million will be used several infrastructure upgrades along the corridor (their language):

  • Track improvements between Elgin and Rockford to support increasing speeds from existing freight operations (40 mph or slower) to passenger rail operations (up to 79 mph). 
  • Construction of a connection between Metra and Union Pacific tracks near Big Timber Road in Elgin.
  • Enhanced grade crossing surfaces, highway approaches, and warning devices. 
  • Improved bridge structures, which may include the Rock River Bridge.
  • A potential second siding and second main track locations, such as potential siding in Marengo and potential second main track past the Belvidere yard. 

The rail trip from Rockford to Chicago is supposed to take a little less than two hours. The exact station locations has not been determined yet.

Screenshot of an interactive map of the new train route showing road crossings on the chicagotorockfordrail.org website.

One sobering aspect of today's announcement is that a mere two roundtrips a day are currently planned. Hopefully that skimpy schedule will be expanded, because it would discourage ridership.

According to Pritzker's office, the next phases of the project, which will need to be approved by the Metra board (which I assume will rubber-stamp them without any controversy) require reaching operations and maintenance agreements between the Illinois Department of Transportation, Metra, and Union Pacific. The initiative also calls for engineering studies to figure out what track upgrades are needed to allow for raising speed limits from the current 40 mph limit to 79 mph between Elgin and Rockford.

"This is a major step for Metra to journey outside our six-county, Chicago-area home, but it is something we are well-prepared to do," said Metra CEO and Executive Director Jim Derwinski in a statement. "We know how to operate passenger trains - we've been doing it for nearly 40 years, through polar vortexes and hot streaks and pandemics and with an on-time performance rate that is the envy of our peers. And we could not be more excited that we will soon be providing service to Rockford."

Pritzker noted that Rebuild Illinois also includes $225 million to bring back passenger service to the Quad Cities. He also lauded the start of high-speed passenger service between Chicago and St. Louis two weeks ago, a nearly $2 billion project that started in 2010.

Read more about the Rockford-Chicago project at the new website, chicagotorockfordrail.org, which will provide status updates and schedules for community meetings in the future.

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