It's time to build a stronger Illinois with fast, frequent and reliable trains

Illinois is a great place to live and work. Our central location, combined with a large and well-trained workforce, make our state the ideal place to start or grow a business. World-class universities and research centers make our state’s potential even greater.

But long distances and congested highways are slowing us down. If Illinois wants to attract the most dynamic businesses—all around the state—we need convenient, affordable and reliable ways to get around.

Illinois needs a statewide plan for a robust network of fast, frequent and reliable trains. This network would make our state and our communities more convenient and competitive. It would also be more cost effective for travelers and taxpayers than expanding our highways and airports. Trains offer convenience, comfort and affordability that other ways of travel simply can’t.

Illinois is already the nation’s railroad hub. A new high-speed line through the state, connected to our existing railroad lines, would make same-day round-trips possible between all our major cities and destinations.

Tell your Illinois reps that we need to begin by crafting a bold statewide rail plan.

What do we need?

What would we get?

  • Same-day round-trips possible by train statewide
  • Trip times that are competitive with driving or flying
  • Connect all major cities to Chicago and Springfield with early morning arrivals and late evening departures
  • Fast, easy access to O’Hare, the Midwest’s gateway to the world
  • Revitalize small- and mid-size towns around the state with easier access
  • $13.8 billion annual increase in business sales in Chicago alone
  • $1.9 billion annual time savings (instead of driving or flying)
  • 6.4 billion reduction in annual vehicle miles traveled (because of 32 million fewer car trips)
  • 43 fewer fatal road collisions each year—and 2,615 fewer non-fatal incidents

Download a PDF of the Illinois Fast Track Initiative for printing or sharing.

Networks offer many paths to success

Illinois should take a big picture approach to rail development, planning for a web-like network, to be built in phases.

Moving away from the limited thinking of single routes or corridors will let us plan a dense network that serves more destinations with convenience, flexibility and speed. This makes trains more useful to a broader range of people—and political constituencies.

One segment of tracks between two points serves a variety of trains, from high-speed, non-stop express service to local commuter trains. Each of those trains serves a mix of travelers, including families, college students and business travelers.

Illinois already has a dense railroad network. Strategic upgrades to existing tracks, combined with a new 220-mph high-speed line, will create a robust network for fast, frequent and reliable passenger trains around our state. Read more about successful high-speed rail networks and how they are built incrementally.

Capital projects to build the network

Although this network is built from existing railroads, it relies on a number of strategic upgrades and expansions:

  • Major projects of statewide importance, such as CrossRailChicago and modernizing Chicago Union Station 
  • Track and signal upgrades to existing Metra and Amtrak corridors, plus lines that are currently freight-only
  • New stations and station upgrades around the state

See the full list of capital projects around Illinois.

The 220-mph high-speed "backbone"

A 220-mph high-speed line would dramatically shorten travel times to St. Louis and throughout Illinois.

The heart of Illinois' railroad network should be a 220-mph "high-speed" backbone.

In 2013, the University of Illinois conducted a feasibility study for the Illinois Dept. of Transportation about true high-speed rail connecting Chicago, St. Louis, and Indianapolis. The network would also serve O’Hare, Champaign-Urbana, and Springfield, among other destinations.

The study found that 220-mph trains leaving every hour, making the trip from Chicago to St. Louis or Indianapolis in just under two hours, would attract more than 10 million riders every year. That’s more than 10 times current ridership, with trains traveling at up to 110 mph and needing more than four hours to reach St. Louis.

In effect, doubling the speed makes the service 10 times more useful!

This high-speed backbone connects to the conventional railroad network in many places. Trains to and from many destinations can seamlessly switch to the high-speed line for part of their journey, improving trips all around the state.

Read the executive summary or full U of I report—or any of our past research—on our Studies page.

Fast, frequent, easy travel—and economic benefits
  • Trains every half-hour at peak times, and hourly at other times
  • Limited-stop express trains that stop only at Champaign-Urbana and Springfield, plus trains that also serve destinations like Kankakee and Decatur
  • $767 million in savings for travelers every year, compared to driving or flying
  • 16,115 construction jobs and 13,820 operations jobs in the first 10 years
  • Reduced CO2e emissions of 3.3 million metric tons per year
  • Operations generate a surplus: no operating subsidy required
  • Construction can be partially financed by operating surplus
Twice as fast, ten times the riders
The University of Illinois study team believes that their ridership analysis was conservative and recommended a more detailed study.
Operating surplus partially funds construction

The cost of the full system shown here was estimated at $30 billion. The Illinois portion only is $24 billion. These are high-end estimates.

The U of I study assumed the maximum possible construction cost of all-new infrastructure from Chicago to St. Louis and Indianapolis. Their proposed right-of-way is fully elevated and grade-separated from roads and other railroads.

Their estimate includes some particularly expensive segments, like new tunnels and platforms under Chicago Union Station and a new bridge over the Mississippi River. These segments are not immediately necessary and could be built in later phases, as discussed below.

The study performed an initial analysis of 12 potential financing scenarios using the Simple Discounted Cash Flow method. All scenarios generated operating surplus. None would require an operating subsidy.

The portion of capital costs that could be privately financed from this surplus ranged from 8% to 21%.

Build in segments and take advantage of existing infrastructure

The U of I study cost is based on building the entire system at once, but working in phases would prioritize low-cost, high-impact segments first. These segments can be placed into service as they are completed, allowing gradually improved service before the network is complete.

This phased approach is how successful high-speed rail systems around the world have been built. The first segment of high-speed line connects to and extends the existing railroad network, immediately improving all service that travels over that segment. As additional segments are completed, more  trains get faster to more places.

This strategy, called the Phased Network Approach, allows high-speed trains to serve established downtown train stations via existing tracks. It also means cities not on the high-speed line still benefit from it. Trains to Carbondale, for example, would make the trip from Chicago to Champaign at 220 mph, then finish the run to Carbondale on existing tracks at up to 90 mph.

California’s revolutionary rail plan is a model for Illinois

California has just completed a draft of a bold statewide rail plan that makes public investment in trains a priority, instead of an afterthought. Beyond being more cost effective than expanding highways or airports, trains are the best way to meet the travel needs of a growing state. Illinois should craft a similar plan.

California is integrating planning between many agencies to create a single network for passengers. This will not only make it easier for people to get around, it makes it possible to collaborate on investments with shared benefits.

Tell your elected officials that Illinois needs to begin crafting a statewide rail plan that's just as bold as California's.

New network makes trains the best way to get around
California’s proposed network will dramatically increase train travel volume around the state, shown here from county to county. Notice how end-to-end travel between major metros like San Francisco and Los Angeles are just a small fraction of the overall travel volume. Adapted from California 2018 State Rail Plan draft.

California’s plan will make fast, frequent, reliable trains a part of everyday life for people around the state.

Trains will travel quickly on the new high-speed line, then connect seamlessly to upgraded existing tracks to reach destinations around the state. Smaller destinations will be served by connecting trains and buses. Connections will be timed to be seamless, and one ticket will cover the entire trip.

Just like our proposal for Illinois, California’s new high-speed line acts like a backbone that dramatically shortens travel times around the state, making the entire network more useful. The high-speed line is about far more than trips between San Francisco and Los Angeles. In fact, trips between those two famous cities are just a small fraction of the trips the network is expected to provide.

Today, California’s intercity rail system serves about 110,000 riders every day. With this new network in 2040, that will grow more than 10 times to 1.3 million daily riders. That’s the same 10-fold ridership growth that the University of Illinois study found a high-speed line would bring to Illinois.

Whether in California or Illinois, providing frequent service at up to 220 mph makes trains 10 times more useful.

Phased construction and coordinated investment

California’s plan lays out a phased and coordinated approach, starting with immediate tasks like electrifying and upgrading commuter tracks. As parts of the new high-speed line are finished, they are connected to the existing network, providing improved travel immediately.

The plan coordinates investments among multiple agencies. For instance, commuter rail upgrades and extensions will be built ready to host high-speed trains. Not only will this make more destinations accessible to trains from around the state, it will also offer high-speed trains a route to the Bay Area before the new high-speed line is completed.

Illinois could use this sort of coordinated planning and investment to build CrossRail Chicago. With several key upgrades to existing Metra corridors, we could create a route for high-speed trains through Chicago and to O’Hare. Local commuter trains would also benefit from the upgrades, becoming faster and more frequent.

Coordinated investment creates a robust network by 2040
The 2040 vision for Northern California's rail network, from the California 2018 State Rail Plan draft.

A number of upgrades to existing commuter rail services in California are being planned and built to be an integral part of the state's high-speed rail network. Read more about how these coordinated investments could bring high-speed trains to more places sooner.

Caltrain Electrifcation and RER

Already under construction, this upgrade to tracks from San Francisco to San Jose and Gilroy will not only allow for high-frequency, rapid-transit service, it will give high-speed trains a route into downtown S.F.

Altamont Corridor Express Expansion

Upgrading existing commuter tracks from San Jose to Stockton and extending them to Merced will give high-speed rail an earlier route into the Bay Area and also shorten trips to Sacramento from the south.

San Joaquin Upgrades

Shifting the San Joaquin's Sacramento branch to a little-used freight corridor would create a dedicated passenger route, allowing more frequent San Joaquin trains linking Sacramento to Bakersfield and intermediate cities. This would open up Sacramento as a destination for high-speed trains sooner.

 

The 2040 vision for Southern California's rail network, from the California 2018 State Rail Plan draft.

First segment of high-speed line

Already under construction, this brand-new, 119-mile high-speed line through the Central Valley creates a fast link between the mega-regions of Southern and Northern California. It connects to and extends the existing railroad networks on both ends.

Metrolink Electrification and RER

Los Angeles’ commuter rail agency plans to add electrification and improve tracks to allow high-frequency service. This will also create a route for high-speed trains into downtown L.A. from the north and the south.

But first, we need modern trains

It’s time for Congress to fund a nationwide replacement of intercity and commuter trains. The coaches and locomotives used by Amtrak and our commuter railroads have seen a lot of miles. Some Metra coaches are so old they would qualify for Medicare.

New train designs are safer, protecting passengers better in a crash. They are strong yet light, allowing them to accelerate quickly and remain stable at high speeds. They have a low center of gravity and sophisticated suspensions that allow faster running through curves. Whether on dedicated high-speed corridors or conventional branch lines into small towns, modern trains maintain higher speeds and reach destinations faster.

Modern trains are also more comfortable and offer a greater array of the amenities that make trains the best way to travel. Read more about modern trains, and then send a message to your elected officials.

Take action

Tell your elected officials it's time to build a stronger Illinois

Illinois needs a statewide plan we can use to coordinate and prioritize investment in a network of fast, frequent and reliable trains. This network would make our state more competitive, and it would be more cost effective for travelers and taxpayers than expanding our highways and airports.

Illinois should model its plan on California's, which makes public investment in trains a priority, instead of an afterthought. The plan should encourage and enable coordination between state agencies, railroads, municipalities, and neighboring states.

Tell the governor and your elected officials to begin working on a bold plan for a statewide network of trains, anchored by a 220-mph high-speed backbone. Send a message now!