The Midwest High Speed Rail Association is working with local officials to create the first link in the Midwest high-speed rail network by rethinking infrastructure that already exists.

Building a high-capacity rail line through Chicago would be an enormous undertaking. Luckily, most of it already exists.

Chicago is the hub of the Midwest. Despite having a massive rail infrastructure woven deeply into its fabric and extending in every direction, Chicago can barely handle the current load of Amtrak intercity and Metra commuter trains. We need a high-capacity passenger line, free of interference from freight trains and highway crossings, to provide the frequency and reliability required for high-speed rail.

This passenger rail corridor would provide effortless travel, serving both high-speed intercity trains and frequent, all-day regional commuter trains. It would allow direct access to O'Hare, not only from downtown, but from the entire Midwest. It would become the core of metropolitan Chicago's transit system and the heart of a re-energized Midwest passenger rail network.

This would be a tremendous undertaking if built from scratch, but fortunately, most of it already exists under public ownership. Metra has two key lines that could be linked together and modernized to create such a trunk line: CrossRail Chicago.

CrossRail Chicago would be the highest impact transportation project in the Midwest, providing more passenger capacity than any other single piece of transportation infrastructure


We can build the core of our high-speed network from infrastructure that already exists.
Linking existing assets to meet many needs
CrossRail Chicago connects the Metra Electric and the south side to Union Station, O'Hare and the northwest side. Click for larger.

CrossRail creates an amazing opportunity to build a strong coalition for railroad funding by uniting multiple constituencies around a single program.

At the same time that Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel advocates an express train from the Loop to O’Hare, a coalition is pushing for better transit on the city’s south side, and communities in northwest Indiana want new and expanded service. This could result in multiple multi-billion dollar ventures that compete for funds and fail to serve the region as a whole.

The Midwest High Speed Rail Association proposes a unified, cross-jurisdictional planning effort that would unite these constituencies into a strong coalition that is capable of securing the necessary funds. The result would be a rail line allowing higher speeds and much more frequent service for a variety of trains. It would lower overall cost, yet have a greater benefit for the Chicago region and the Midwest.

CrossRail Chicago would link together the Metra Electric Line and Metra’s Milwaukee District West and North Central Line. The program would consist of four major initiatives that eliminate bottlenecks and upgrade the entire route to modern standards with overhead electrification. It would separate passenger rail traffic from freight traffic, providing fast, seamless travel on clean, quiet electric trains.

Looking for a PDF to print or share? Download our 16-page CrossRail Chicago booklet.

Direct access to O'Hare

Better train service to O'Hare could begin soon with an upgraded station at the new rental car facility.

O’Hare International Airport is the Midwest’s connection to the world. It’s one of the world’s busiest airports, but not because it's one of the easiest to get to.

Everyone wishes getting to O'Hare was easier: bankers in downtown Chicago, students in Champaign, orthopedic device designers in Warsaw, Indiana. They’re all fed up with long drives, traffic jams, and cramped regional jets. They all want a fast, easy train ride to their plane.

O’Hare’s global peers boast train stations that serve all types of trains: not just local transit or subway trains, but also regional commuters and intercity expresses. CrossRail can make O’Hare globally competitive by offering this same easy access.

CrossRail is a fast and cost-effective way to bring express trains to O'Hare because it takes advantage of existing infrastructure. Rather than being a single-purpose project, the upgrades necessary to create airport express service would also allow for improved Amtrak and Metra service throughout the region.

The new Terminal 2 planned for O’Hare should include a station for the easiest connection from planes to trains.

There’s an immediate opportunity to build a better train station as part of the airport's new consolidated rental car facility. Metra's North Central Service already runs right past it, and the under-used O'Hare Transfer Station is just outside. A new station connected to the rental car facility would let travelers hop off a train and onto the airport transit system to go directly to their terminal.

As Chicago plans to rebuild and expand Terminal 2, it should include a station inside the terminal that allows trains to pass through. This would put travelers just steps away from their plane, whether they came from downtown, McCormick Place, or Minneapolis.

CrossRail the best way to bring express trains to O'Hare. The infrastructure investment will also improve other Metra and Amtrak service.
Trains let the airport focus on what it does well
A Midwest high-speed rail network would put 45 million people within an easy 3-hour train ride of O’Hare.

A good deal of the flights that make O’Hare one of the busiest airports in the world are short, regional flights in small jets. These “puddle-jumper” flights are incredibly inefficient for both passengers and airlines. Replacing these short flights with fast trains would open up capacity for O’Hare to focus on routes that make more sense to fly: cross-country and transoceanic trips. They would also offer travelers a more reliable and comfortable way to reach their main flight.

Imagine you’re in St. Louis and need to get to O’Hare for an international flight. A regional jet from St. Louis might only take an hour in the air, but once you figure in traveling to the airport, going through security, boarding the plane, taxiing, and all the other incidental parts of flying, a 2-hour train trip starts to sound pretty attractive. The flight has lots of “wasted” time where passengers are captive in their seats and unable to be productive, but the entire time on the train is yours to enjoy as you please. To the airline, this “extra time” is very costly for the fuel burned and crew time spent on it.

In marginal weather or light passenger loads, these regional flights are the first to be cancelled. It’s common for business travelers to rent or hire a car to get to O’Hare, instead of risking missing a connection because of a cancelled regional flight. Trains would be a much more cost-effective, comfortable and reliable way of getting to the airport


Upgrade and expand Union Station

Photo by Jim Bauer

Chicago Union Station has long been a focus of the Midwest High-Speed Rail Association. Thanks in part to our efforts—and the support of our members!—we’re beginning to see progress toward renovating and expanding our historic station

Amtrak plans to develop real estate above and around Union Station to generate revenue.

The Union Station Master Plan identifies a number of immediate ways of increasing the station’s capacity. Amtrak is already working on these near-term improvements. The plan also suggests a longer-term vision for dramatic new additions to the station, and it’s these big, bold ideas that we must focus on now.

Amtrak owns the station and several adjacent parcels, and plans on exploiting real estate development to create revenue. Past development over the station is partly to blame for the station’s cramped nature today. We must ensure that the bold plan for Union Station’s future is driven by its role as the heart of the region’s transportation system, instead of becoming another new high-rise that happens to have a train station in its basement.

Plan a dramatic new future for the station
Union Station's original concourse, now demolished, was a beautiful and functional place to reach trains.

Union Station was built to be a dramatic statement. Chicago was the center of the nation’s railroad system, and Union Station was a monument to that status. This statement was erased in the 1960’s as train travel declined and the station’s soaring, spacious concourse was torn down and buried under an office building.

As the station reclaims its importance in the region’s transportation system, it needs an equally important architectural statement. The design of the station, both its appearance and its function, must be fitting of a station used by more than a hundred thousand people every day.

Redevelopment of Union Station should recapture the station's original grandeur and ease of use.

In the long term, Union Station will require more capacity for trains than can be squeezed into the station’s current footprint. The Master Plan calls for expanding the station to the west, under Clinton Street. This new, multi-level tunnel could accommodate high-speed trains, commuter trains, or local transit trains.

Any redevelopment or new development above and around the station must preserve and enhance the light and space available to the entire station footprint, including the planned expansion under Clinton Street. It should also create new vertical access points into and out of the station

We must make bold plans for Union Station’s future as the heart of the Chicago region’s transportation system.
Near term: Make it easier to get around the station
A new entrance on the west side of the station at Clinton Street would be part of creating a continuous east-west flow through the station.

Amtrak has already begun improving flow through Chicago Union Station by moving certain passenger-related functions out of the cramped concourse and into the spacious Great Hall. The station Master Plan identifies a number of additional ways to improve the flow of people, and Amtrak is working on designs to implement these ideas.

Redesigning space within the station should create a continuous, open flow from west to east. From a new western entrance to the Great Hall from Clinton Street, this central axis continues through the Great Hall, under Canal Street, and through the concourse to the train platform access

Near term: Improve track capacity and add through tracks
Reconfiguring the platform layout would create larger platforms and allow for some trains to pass through the station.

The Master Plan suggests removing some of the mothballed baggage platforms, opening up space to widen the commuter train platforms. This will improve comfort and safety for the thousands of commuters that arrive and depart on Metra trains.

Union Station desperately needs platforms that allow trains to pass through. The station’s current stub-end design means all trains terminate there. Through platforms would let trains from the south continue north, and vice-versa.

The Master Plan calls for converting mail platforms under the old post office building, just south of the station along the river, into passenger platforms. These platforms are connected to the only tracks that pass through the station, next to the Chicago River.

As the post office is redeveloped, we must ensure that we retain access to these platforms and allow them to become a viable part of Union Station

A new route from existing tracks

CrossRail would link existing rail lines with strategic upgrades. Click for full diagram.

CrossRail Chicago would link together the Metra Electric Line and Metra’s Milwaukee District West and North Central Line. The program would consist of four major initiatives that eliminate bottlenecks and upgrade the entire route to modern standards with overhead electrification. It would separate passenger rail traffic from freight traffic, providing fast, seamless travel on clean, quiet electric trains.

Metra Electric

The Metra Electric District is a wide, elevated rail corridor extending 30 miles from the southern boundary of Cook County into Millennium Park Station east of the Loop. It is already electrified and completely separate from the freight network. When the line was built nearly 100 years ago by the Illinois Central Railroad, it was designed to host many types of trains, from all-stop commuter trains to non-stop express runs.

Rebuilding this line to modern standards as part of Metra’s state of good repair mandate would create the capacity for the initial phase of high-speed rail while creating a new transit service for the city’s South Side. There is room for additional track as passenger volume grows.

The Milwaukee District and North Central Service

The Milwaukee District West Line runs northwest through the city starting from Union Station west of the Loop. Metra’s North Central trains branch off the West Line in Franklin Park. Dedicated passenger tracks could be built in the existing rights-of-way to create a high-volume link between downtown and O’Hare. In the process, several dangerous highway crossings would be separated. Rail flyovers at two key junctions would allow uninterrupted passenger operations.

16th Street Connector
The 16th Street Connector uses existing rail lines to join the Metra Electric to Union Station.

CrossRail’s biggest challenge is that Millennium Station, the end of the Metra Electric, and Union Station, the end of the Milwaukee West/North Central line, are one mile apart from each other across the Loop, the densest part of the city.

Luckily, these two railroads can be joined via the St. Charles Air Line, an elevated rail right-of-way that provides the only east-west rail connection in downtown Chicago. The line spans about a mile of the South Loop parallel to 16th Street, connecting the south side of Union Station near the Chicago River to the Metra Electric along Lake Shore Drive.

Rebuilding the St. Charles Air Line as the 16th Street Connector, with two or three electrified tracks and direct access to Union Station, would provide the essential link between north and south. It would not only link O’Hare with Union Station and McCormick Place, but connect the city’s south and north sides and allow service from Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio to continue through to Wisconsin and Minnesota.

One route, many trains

Photo by Mike Goss

A modern, electric railroad can serve many types of trains and every type of traveler.

Regional commuter trains (Metra)

The tracks that form CrossRail already serve a number of Metra commuter train routes. CrossRail would allow for faster, more frequent service on these routes. Modern, electric commuter trains accelerate and stop faster, are less expensive to operate, and are cleaner and quieter than the heavy diesel trains Metra uses today.

CrossRail would make O’Hare an easy stop for commuter trains from around the region. Some Metra trains already pass by (and even stop) at O’Hare, and the new connections created by CrossRail would allow trains from all parts of the region to pass through downtown then continue on to O’Hare.

Airport Express

Many of Chicago’s global peer cities offer a high-end, non-stop express train from downtown to the airport. These trains usually offer comfortable seating and plenty of space for luggage, at a premium fare. CrossRail is the best way for Chicago to offer express service to O’Hare, because the necessary infrastructure is largely in place. The investment in track, signal and station upgrades would also benefit other types of trains, including daily commuters.

Intercity trains (Amtrak)

Amtrak trains already connect more than 50 Midwest cities to Chicago Union Station. CrossRail would let these trains continue on to O’Hare, or be an easy cross-platform transfer away from an Airport Express train. This would immediately provide better travel options to hundreds of thousands of people. Most Midwest cities served by Amtrak have no air service at all. In others, Amtrak is more frequent than existing feeder flights.

Beyond creating connections to O’Hare, CrossRail would improve the speed and reliability of Amtrak trains by moving them from slow, congested track shared with freight to a dedicated, high-speed passenger line.

High-speed trains

CrossRail is the critical link that lets high-speed trains access the Chicago region, the hub of the Midwest network. New, dedicated high-speed lines will let trains travel across the Midwest landscape at 200 mph. These new high-speed lines then connect to existing, upgraded tracks—CrossRail—to finish their journey to downtown Chicago, O’Hare, or other points in the region.