Chicago is the heart of Illinois’ rail network, and Metra’s commuter rail service forms the critical veins and arteries. The agency has done a great job of providing a high-quality service despite a lack of investment from Springfield.
Today, though, Metra is primarily about moving workers from Chicago’s bedroom communities to downtown at rush hour. It can be much more.
Metra should be a reliable option for people going to all parts of the region, for all kinds of reasons, at all times. It needs to offer faster and more frequent service, meaning trains that run every 15 minutes on some routes, so that commuter rail is as convenient as rapid transit.
Metra has outlined several priority investments to begin modernizing the system.
A lack of state funding prevents Metra from making these investments. Building the political will depends on connecting Metra to a big-picture vision.
In addition to basic maintenance projects—like replacing bridges, many of which are more than a century old—Metra is proposing to improve and expand its service with the following upgrades.
A statewide transportation plan would incorporate these and multiply their impact by integrating and coordinating them with dozens of other projects statewide. It would justify a more aggressive approach.
Half of Metra’s fleet is at least 40 years old. Some of its coaches date to the 1950s.
Metra is requesting funds for 40 new locomotives and 400 new coaches. The upgrades would result in more passengers per car, fewer repairs, safer trips, enhanced accessibility (especially for people with luggage and strollers), and a much better overall customer experience.
The new locomotives would meet the latest Tier 4 emissions standards. Tier 4 locomotives emit 86% less nitrous oxide, hydrocarbons and particulate matter than most locomotives in use today.
Ten of Metra’s 11 lines would benefit.
Here are two good example of how strategic local investments can foster a better statewide system.
Near downtown Chicago, there’s a crossing called A-2 that is one of the busiest and most complicated rail intersections in North America. Metra and Amtrak trains leaving both Union Station and Ogilvie Transportation Center use it.
About 350 trains cross paths at A-2 each day, carrying more than 50,000 Metra passengers and 3,700 Amtrak passengers. Yet it’s badly outdated in more ways than one. Its switching equipment dates to the 1930s.
A “flyover” would eliminate the bottleneck and allow trains to travel faster as they approach A-2. That solution would be a big plus for commuters, since the flyover would allow Metra to expand service and reduce delays.
But the impact would go well beyond Metra. A flyover will also create better options on Amtrak, which is planning more trains from Chicago to Milwaukee. And it will clear a path for express service to O’Hare, along with high-speed trains that improve access to destinations all over the region.
That’s what the Illinois Fast Track Initiative is all about—making the statewide system run better by making the local parts run better, and vice versa.
75th Street Corridor Improvement Project (CIP)
The 75th Street CIP is a major, much-needed improvement to one of the most congested railroad intersections in the nation. Delays at this junction impact freight and passenger trains nationwide.
The $474 million first phase brings together federal, state, and local agencies to create a flyover that eliminates a chokepoint where east-west tracks cross north-south tracks. The intersection slows down both trains and drivers, resulting in more than three hours of daily traffic delays. The idling trains and cars are a significant source of pollution in the region.
The flyover promises huge benefits for Metra, Amtrak, and freight train companies. Metra, for example, runs 30 trains through the corridor daily, so its service will be more reliable—and faster. The flyover will save Metra riders moving through the corridor an estimated four minutes per trip.The first phase also funds the design stage for eliminating another bottleneck at the junction, where five tracks merge into two, and for creating a second flyover for Metra’s Southwest Service.
Work on the 75th Street CIP begins in the spring of 2019. Its full cost is expected to be about twice the $474 million secured to date.
The Rock Island line has little freight traffic and closely spaced stations—making it a great testing ground for innovations that can be extended across Metra’s system.
Metra has proposed electrifying the route or using hybrid trainsets currently under development. It could result in a new service pattern, with faster and more more frequent service, in the densly populated Beverly neighborhood.
Metra is proposing to offer express trains from Union Station and/or Ogilvie Transportation Center directly to O’Hare—a trip that will take about 30 minutes. The service could use a new type of train, with easier boarding and luggage racks.
The project is a less expensive and more immediately viable alternative to the O’Hare tunnel proposed by Elon Musk’s Boring Company. Any required infrastructure investments could benefit other Metra and Amtrak service, too.