The Metra Board of Directors today highlighted the need for a $1 billion project that aims to untangle a knot of railroad tracks on the South Side of Chicago that causes significant delays for Metra, Amtrak and several freight railroads.
The project, known as the 75th Street Corridor Improvement Project (CIP), is a major component of the Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency (CREATE) Program, a public-private effort to increase the efficiency of the region's passenger and freight rail infrastructure and enhance the quality of life for Chicago area residents. Members of CREATE include the U.S. Department of Transportation, the State of Illinois, City of Chicago, Metra, Amtrak, and the nation's freight railroads.
In a resolution that it approved today, the Metra Board affirmed its support for the 75th St. CIP and urged officers, legislators and agencies of the state and federal government to work to promote and fund the CREATE project. The resolution noted the project will support “greatly increased efficiency in Metra’s commuter rail operations, Amtrak’s intercity services and freight movement through the Chicago rail hub.”
“Now that we are essentially finished with the Englewood Flyover – another CREATE project – we need to turn our attention to the 75th St. Corridor Improvement Project,” said Metra Chairman Martin Oberman. “By fixing this tangle of railroad tracks, we can reduce delays to Metra trains and freight trains and help ensure Chicago retains its position as the nation’s railroad capital.”
Several different freight rail lines, including Norfolk Southern, CSX, Belt Railroad and Union Pacific, converge in an area just north of 75th Street roughly between Kedzie and the Dan Ryan Expressway. There are three rail-rail crossings in the project area that are significant choke points for Metra trains and/or freight trains. The project proposes to unclog those choke points with a combination of realigned tracks, new tracks and new bridges.
The project will be particularly beneficial for 30 trains each weekday on Metra’s SouthWest Service Line, which traverse the area on freight tracks on their way between Chicago Union Station and the Will County community of Manhattan. Those trains must pass through two of the rail-rail crossings – known as Belt Junction and Forest Hill Junction – and often see significant delays due to freight interference. Untangling Belt Junction, the most congested rail choke point in Chicago, and Forest Hill Junction therefore will greatly benefit SWS riders.
Two other components of the plan will address other choke points for SWS trains. The project would add a second track to a nearly 2-mile section of the SWS that now has only one, sometimes forcing inbound and outbound trains to wait for each other.
And it would build a bridge connection between the SWS and Rock Island Line near 75th Street so SWS trains could get downtown via the Rock. That accomplishes two things: First, SWS trains no longer would conflict with freight trains between 75th Street and downtown. Second, SWS trains would terminate at LaSalle Street Station instead of Union Station, which would free up some capacity at Union Station.
“Many Metra commuters don’t know that we share tracks with a significant amount of freight traffic,” Oberman said. “The good news is that freight traffic brings jobs and economic vitality to the region, but the challenge is delays when this traffic clogs up the system. This investment is expected to go a long way in reducing commuter delays while maintaining the important freight movement in and out of the Chicago area.”
For almost 150 years, Chicago has been the nation's rail hub due to its critical location at the nexus of the North American railroad network. Six of the seven largest rail carriers access the region: the eastern railroads, Norfolk Southern (NS) and CSX; the western railroads, BNSF Railway (BNSF) and Union Pacific (UP); and the two Canadian railroads, Canadian Pacific (CPR) and Canadian National (CN).
The rail lines built more than a century ago were not configured for the volumes and types of freight being carried currently, and Chicago has become the largest U.S. rail freight chokepoint. A train that may take as little as 48 hours to travel the 2,200 miles from Los Angeles to Chicago spends an average of 30 hours traversing the Chicago region.
Over the next 30 years, demand for freight rail service in Chicago is expected to nearly double. That means more jobs for Illinois workers and increased economic opportunity for Illinois businesses, but only if we can meet the growing need for rail service. Delays in rail freight threaten the economic vitality of the region, lead to increased traffic congestion on roadways, generate unnecessary levels of air pollution, raise safety concerns and adversely affect the reliability and speed of rail passenger service.
CREATE, which was launched in 2003, is the first program in which so many competing railroads have come together as partners to increase the efficiency of an urban rail network.