Railway gridlock fix should equal better service for Metra riders

How will railroad bridges and new tracks in Chicago get Naperville and Lisle riders on Metra's BNSF Line to work and home faster?

By removing 9,600 passengers and 30 trains a day from Union Station - and that's just a fringe benefit of the Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency Program, planners say.

CREATE takes an incremental approach to fixing rail gridlock in the suburbs and Chicago, the nation's busiest rail hub.

One overpass here, two extra tracks there, and eventually freight trains will be chugging along instead of noisily idling in your neighborhood while emitting diesel fumes.

The downside is the cost - a staggering $4.4 billion to fix the region's outdated rail infrastructure.

Despite funding challenges, 29 out of 70 CREATE projects in the region have been completed with $1 billion spent, Association of American Railroads Chief Engineer for CREATE William Thompson explained during a recent tour.

Standing in a South Side railroad yard on a torrid July day, Metra Chief Engineering Officer Bruce Marcheschi pointed to a gnarly tangle of tracks. "It's like a clogged funnel," he said.

The site is miles away from many of Metra's Northwest and West suburban commuters. Yet, fixing the funnel is the key to better conditions at Union Station and avoiding situations like a June 2016 meltdown when Amtrak switch failures delayed afternoon rush-hour trains on the BNSF line to Aurora.

Amtrak, Metra and freight trains will be separated once two flyovers are built as part of CREATE's 75th Street Corridor Improvement Project.

That allows Metra to add tracks and a bridge channeling SouthWest Service trains into the LaSalle Street station instead of Union Station. For BNSF riders, "that provides less congestion coming out of the south side of Union Station," Marcheschi said.

"If there's a service disruption, there are better options to get (trains) out of Union Station in case of some type of a switch or signal failure," he said.

The move should also free up platforms and ease sardine-like conditions at Union Station. It could even mean expanding BNSF service eventually, officials said.

The 75th Street Corridor Improvement Project is estimated to cost more than $1 billion.

A pot of $474 million in federal, state, Cook County, Metra, Chicago and Amtrak funds will design the entire 75th Corridor, plus build the two freight flyovers and additional track and signals. There's still a funding gap of about $560 million overall that includes $228 million needed for Metra's SouthWest Service improvements.

CREATE leaders point to structures like the Englewood Flyover on the South Side. At one point, money seemed doubtful. Now the flyover is relieving traffic jams on local streets and moving trains faster.

"We don't know when there will be federal capital or state capital or local capital," Chicago CREATE Program Manager Jeff Sriver said. "We like to get things lined up ... so when opportunity does strike, we're there and ready to jump on it and get things built."

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Your voice

After a column about a stopped train that delayed ambulances and traffic in Barrington June 12, reader Marcia Chester had this reaction. "Why has no one considered putting up communication boards (like Amber Alert signs) along Northwest Highway well before entering Barrington to alert that a CN train is approaching and at what direction of travel?" she asked. "A detour route could also be posted if no one wants to wait at a train crossing."

Gridlock alert

Allow plenty of time if you're buying Swedish meatballs at the Bolingbrook IKEA. The Illinois tollway is repairing ramps at I-355 at I-55, Boughton Road and Army Trail Road now through the fall. Expect lane closures.

Choo-choo on this

The Chicago region handles a whopping 25 percent of freight traffic in the U.S. That means almost 500 freight trains and 760 Metra and Amtrak trains pass through the region daily. Completing the Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency Program that builds bridges and new track will mean the metro area can host 50,000 more freight trains a year by 2051.

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  These rail "diamonds" mark a crisscross of freight and passenger tracks that cause conflicts and delays for trains in Chicago. A coalition of Metra, Amtrak, freight railroads, IDOT and local partners will build a flyover bridge at this location to move trains faster. Mark Welsh/
  Metra Chief Engineering Officer Bruce Marcheschi stands near a convergence of freight and passenger rail tracks that causes conflicts and delays for trains. A new bridge at the location near 75th Street and Western Avenue in Chicago will reduce train delays throughout the region. Mark Welsh/
Metra commuters exit their train at Union Station in Chicago. Daily Herald File Photo, 2015
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