New details and support has been revealed for proposed upgrades to Union Station in West Loop Gate and regional rail infrastructure. The historic headhouse at 225 S Canal Street just west of the city’s financial district has seen extensive upgrades in the last few years, including having the glass roof of its grand hall restored and sealed. Now it will be the centerpiece of the Midwest’s future rail strategy which is seeking funds from the recently announced $1.2 trillion federal infrastructure bill, led by Amtrak and the City of Chicago.
In recent years, Amtrak has seen a resurgence in popularity as the national rail carrier, with millions across the nation demanding a state-of-the-art rail system up to par with that seen abroad. The demands also call for high-speed rail, with the closest currently being Amtrak’s Acela on the East Coast which reaches a max speed of 150 mph for small periods, compared to Europe where similar routes reach up to 198 mph for extended periods. While this is due to a variety of reasons including the amount of roads crossing tracks in the US, a large part also ties back to lack of funding and ridership.
However Amtrak and regional supporters see a new era of intercity passenger train travel on the horizon with Chicago at its heart as it has been for decades as America’s rail capital. More tracks pass through the city than anywhere else in the nation with numbers predicting up to 40 percent of all rail cargo in the nation touching the greater area. This is coupled with access to global airports, recreation, and general tourism to create the regional document requesting $251 million from the grant to go towards an $850 million project that includes upgrades as far as Michigan.
Split into two phases, the first will utilize the full $251 million which will be supplemented by two equal payouts of $81.7 million from Amtrak and local governments, with the second phase requiring a similar amount. Although the station has seen platform upgrades, a new lounge, restoration of historical halls, and now an upcoming food hall, it still needs more to help relieve back-ups and delays. This will begin with a complete rebuild of the station’s outdated engineering system which is in dire need of a replacement and would ease the staff’s stress during daily operations.
Another $30 million would go to redesign the internal flow of the station which often misguides passengers between Metra and Amtrak trains with poor signage and tight corridors. Another major aspect will be the conversion of the old mail platforms into passenger platforms with sidings in order to accommodate four trains at a time and cut down arrival delays. Departing the station will be major rail re-alignments with new tracks and upgrades to the St.Charles Air Line Bridge in the South Loop, allowing for Metra to run southbound trains on using their own rails rather than the CN freight tracks.
Perhaps one of the main gains of the new tracks in all directions is that they will allow for direct service from O’Hare International Airport and McCormick Place via Union station, a key to the future of high-speed rail according to Crain’s. The first phase will also see engineering work start to doubletrack 11 miles of rails in southwest Michigan which are often congested, allowing for easier and faster travel to Detroit. Further information on the project’s second phase have not been revealed aside from the construction of the aforementioned tracks, but we can speculate it might skew more towards high-speed capabilities.
While it’s not the first city project to apply for a piece of the federal pie, it is the most supported with a letter from Mayor Lori Lightfoot being sent to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg this week. The letter which talks about the upgrades allowing for better transportation across the Midwest was signed by 56 city chief executives from Madison, Wisconsin and Minneapolis, Minnesota to Topeka, Kansas and Lima, Ohio along with both Metra and Amtrak as well as regional high-speed rail organizations. No dates have been revealed of when the first round of winners will be announced, but it could be as early as end of the year.