Chicago’s antiquated commuter rail system has been in the news a lot lately, from its long-running patronage scandal that included the suicide (by one of his own trains) of one CEO and the resignation of another under political pressure to a rough performance during one of the worst winters in memory. Now, though, Metra is attempting to turn a corner, with a process underway for creating the agency’s first strategic plan, and long-overdue fare hikes planned to pay for a new capital plan.
Metra is certainly attempting to shore up its public image. But the strategic planning process that is underway is sadly lacking in ambition and vision. As Daniel Kay Hertz writes in NextCity,
Service innovations like increased frequency don’t yet appear anywhere in the strategic plan, and a Metra spokesperson confirmed that the agency has no plans to move in that direction. In August, Streetsblog Chicago reported that one board member flatly rejected that kind of service expansion, claiming that running a single extra train during rush hour would cost over $30 million. (Aikins, however, reports that GO Transit spent just $7.7 annually to adopt half-hourly frequencies on its two biggest lines.)
And Metra is, famously, paralyzed in its ability to act on any ambitious projects because of a governance structure that incentivizes suburb-on-city warfare:
There are also structural barriers: Metra doesn’t own all of its tracks, and some carry freight trains that would interfere with frequent service. But even on the lines it does own — including South Chicago — Metra’s governance structure makes regional, big-picture planning difficult. Unlike GO Transit, which is run by the province of Ontario, a controlling share of Metra’s board is appointed by suburban officials, who have historically shown more interest in competing with the city for dollars than collaborating on a regional transit strategy.
Paralyzed Metra may be. But it’s all the more sad, because the Chicago area actually has a rich set of assets that could make setting up the nation’s premier regional rail system a relative snap, certainly easier in degree of engineering difficulty than equivalent situations in Boston or New York.
In short, advocates of turning “commuter” rail systems into “regional” rail argue for turning infrastructure currently used mainly for peak-hour commuting into rapid transit, with more-frequent service across a greater span of time. Imagine trains coming on your local Metra line every 10-15 minutes throughout the day. Chicago has long been recognized as having unequalled assets for such an approach; although many of Metra’s lines do, as Daniel pointed out, share tracks with long, slow freight trains, there are several that do not; the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning’s map of freight trains per day in the city area is a very useful asset for envisioning this.
The line currently known as the Metra Electric District has attracted the most attention in terms of rapid transitization, and for good reason. The passenger tracks are fully separate from freight tracks; there are at least four tracks for passenger trains all the way out to 111th Street; the line is already fully equipped with high-level platforms, a necessity for getting people on and off the train quickly; and within the city of Chicago MED runs through poor, mainly African-American neighborhoods with poor transit access.
Plans for turning the MED (usually the mainline as far as 67th and then the South Chicago branch) into a rapid-transit operation have come from various sources, including the amateur, the governmental, the academic, and the advocacy world. Most recently, a rapid-transitized MED has been incorporated into Transit Future and into the Midwest High Speed Rail Association’s plan for a CrossRail Chicago. The latter plan brings in the element of using the St. Charles Air Line and a new bridge to connect the MED to Chicago Union Station. From there, trains would use renovated platforms on CUS’ two run-through tracks and proceed over newly-electrified tracks currently serving Milwaukee District-West and North Central Service trains to a connection with the O’Hare Airport People Mover.
These proposals are a useful starting point for envisioning the future of Metra, the last one in particular. Though excessively focused on the needs of white-collar Chicago (promotional literature touts it linking “O’Hare to the Loop, McCormick Place and the University of Chicago”), the CrossRail Chicago proposal shows a kind of vision—moving large numbers of people across a very large city, rather than forcing them to transfer or otherwise navigate the congestion of the Loop—that a full-scale Regional Rail system would need. Though the benefits of through-running trains through downtown Chicago itself may not be great, it is operationally easier than using the numerous dead-end terminals that currently plague Chicago, and does open many potential crosstown commutes. And though I’d rather see a tunnel under the Loop to connect MED to the rest of the system in the long run, using the SCAL and CUS run-through tracks is significantly more realistic in the short term.
That being said, I’m not convinced that the CrossRail proposal is the best place to start. It would involve electrifying some tracks that are shared with freight trains; the MD-W right-of-way varies between 3 and 4 tracks wide, and reconstructing the line for electrification, fully separating freight and passenger traffic, and installing high-level platforms, while doable, would be fairly expensive. There are two other North Side Metra lines that are entirely or nearly entirely freight-free, UP-N and UP-NW; why not start with them?
The UP-N line carries zero freights per day south of Lake Bluff and runs through dense North Side neighborhoods desperate for more transit service, making it initially an attractive candidate for the first wave of rapid transitization. There are however, a few challenges. While the UP-N ROW has room for three tracks as far as Evanston, one of the three trackways is currently unused and built over by stations in several locations (including the brand-new Ravenswood station), making restoration of the third track somewhat challenging and pricy. Adding in rapid-transit locals with frequent stops would tax the capacity of the existing two tracks at rush hour. In addition, there is currently no direct track connection between the CUS run-through tracks and the UP lines, which terminate at the ex-Chicago & Northwestern Ogilvie Transportation Center. This isn’t as big a challenge as might be imagined, as there’s really only one building standing in the
way of linking the CUS approach to the tracks that once led to the C&NW Navy Pier Branch, which could be (with some work) re-purposed to carry trains up to the UP lines. Altogether, there are enough challenges with the UP-N line that it’s not the lowest-hanging fruit for North Side regional rail.
That title, in my opinion, falls to its sister operation, the UP-NW line. It checks off all the boxes. Zero freight traffic? Check. More than two tracks? There are three or more, meaning one could be reserved for peak-hour diesel expresses. Currently runs through an area in need of rapid transit? Once it leaves the path of the Blue Line at Jefferson Park, certainly. Transit-supportive land use? The neighborhoods and towns along UP-NW aren’t as dense as most of the North Side closer to the lake, but they were originally railroad suburbs, and retain a decent degree of walkability. There’s even an opportunity for supporting local bus service, with Northwest Highway running parallel to the tracks. I would argue that UP-NW is the natural Phase 1 North Side partner for a regional rail system incorporating MED and CUS run-through tracks.
There are, in fact, two options for connecting CUS to UP-NW; one is a direct connection via the aforementioned demolition of the Cassidy Tire building; the other involves sending trains first west and then north on tracks used by Milwaukee District-North trains to Mayfair (adjacent to Montrose Blue Line station) where they’re rejoin the UP tracks. I favor the second approach for two reasons: 1) with the provision of several infill stations, it holds the promise of bringing rapid transit service to an area of the city currently without it, whereas UP-NW runs mostly parallel to the Blue Line and 2) it would begin the infrastructure work for a Phase 2 buildout of the O’Hare branch. There are challenges; the line is only double-tracked in parts, and it does host occasional freight, so clearances for infill stations might be an issue. But I think these are much more manageable than the challenges on other lines.
Time for some maps? I think so. Here’s my proposal in Google Maps. Toggle through the three layers (button at upper left) to see what I’m proposing for phases 1 and 2; I’ve also included an expanded version of the Mid-City Transitway concept, a more elaborate project that I think would be crucial to any future re-orientation of the Chicago transit system away from its Loop-Centrism, but which I’m not discussing here.
- Institution of rapid-transit style service on Metra Electric at least as far as 111th Street.
- Blue Island and South Chicago branches to be run as shuttles, with South Chicago probably having direct service to Randolph Street at peak hours.
- MED-CUS connection via St. Charles Air Line and a new bridge over the Chicago River, including a new infill station in the South Loop, possibly with L connections (this is the most expensive part of the whole project).
- New Northwest Rapid Transit Line, including electrification and high-level platforms via MD-N tracks to Mayfair and UP-NW to Des Plaines or beyond (Arlington Heights is a possible terminus).
- Service pattern would be through trains from Des Plaines to 111th Street. Expresses from suburbs would continue to downtown stub-end terminals.
Here’s what Chicago’s rapid-transit system could look like after Phase 1 (I’m bringing back the old Chicago tradition of west-facing transit maps!). Click on this and the following images to embiggen:
- Reconstruction of UP-N with three tracks and high-level platforms as far as Evanston; demolition of Cassidy Tire building to provide direct access to CUS.
- Reconstruction of MD-W and NCS tracks, including isolation of passenger service from freight as far as Franklin Park, electrification, and high-level platforms.
- Service patterns could take any number of forms, with three northern and three southern termini.
Here’s what the system could look like after Phase 2:
And with the Mid-City Transitway (which, if it is ever built, will probably be an L line) providing a belt line:
At this point, with three lines feeding in from the north, and a large amount of traffic from the south, the poor two run-through tracks at CUS would probably be verging on a capacity breakdown, so this seems like a logical place to stop. How much would this plan transform Chicago? Well, it could provide easier commutes for thousands on North Siders to the South Loop, Hyde Park, and the like; and it would likely make service jobs on the North Side more accessible to disadvantaged South Side communities. It would also mean expensive L expansions like the Red Line extension to Roseland aren’t necessary; indeed, I think it’s likely that both initial phases could be completed within the anticipated budget of the Red Line extension. That being said, dollar-for-dollar Chicago’s best transit investments probably lie in improving bus service, whether that’s re-prioritizing local buses or a transformative bus rapid transit system.
A rapid-transit conversion of these lines, though, is low-hanging fruit; it’s cheap, easy, and could be very quick. The essential problems, as always, are political. Metra’s skewed, paralyzed governance structure would need to be convinced to go along with a project that primarily benefits city-based riders. Transit unions would need to accept one-person operation of trains on the new service for it to be affordable–a common practice in Europe, but one an insurmountable barrier in the US thus far. In many ways, though, I think that building political momentum for this kind of a system could be easier than improving Chicago’s buses; it’s a cost-effective fix that doesn’t involve taking road space away from drivers or investing in (much) fancy, expensive new infrastructure. Let’s get Metra moving.
A Few Notes
- Other than the SCAL-CUS connection, the most expensive part of this plan would likely be buying rolling stock. Metra’s new MED gallery cars, identical in most respects to the ones in operation on the diesel lines, have only one set of central doors–not ideal for rapid-transit operations.
- The “other” low-hanging fruit on the Metra system for rapid-transitization is the Rock Island district; I think it’s a lower priority because it runs parallel to the Red and Green Lines for much of its length. It’s possible future target for this kind of conversion, though.