1 track ready, 1 track to come: Elgin rail bridges will help commuters
Metra Milwaukee West District riders are halfway to a superior commute despite high rains, threatened mussels and other challenges.
A sturdy new railway bridge spanning the Fox River in Elgin supported its first loads of passenger trains Saturday.
And next fall, a second bridge will open giving Metra and freight trains double, not single, tracks over the river.
It's a life-changing shift from the existing one-track 1880s-era structure that bottlenecks rail traffic coming from the two tracks on either side of the river.
Although Metra and its freight partners synchronize operations, "if you get one little problem … it can knock down about 10 trains in rush hour," Chief Engineering Officer Chris Krakar explained.
The $34 million project adds two 547-foot bridges that should significantly reduce delays on the line that serves population centers like Schaumburg and numbers 21,000 passengers daily.
Krakar has handled multiple Metra construction sites but this project provided some surprises and quirks.
For starters, the discovery of a state-threatened species -- spike mussels under the bridge -- caused some delays as the mollusks were relocated.
Also, the Fox River streaming 11½ feet below made life interesting.
"The big thing was the river," Krakar said. "You can shut a street down, you can't shut down the river."
Workers piled rocks into the Fox to create temporary platforms for cranes while permitting water to flow through. Then crews excavated 35 feet below the river bed to install pier foundations for the bridge, which stretches about 65 feet from the top rail to the bottom of the pier foundation.
Powering through January's polar vortex and heavy rains in late winter, workers have built a structure that consists of three massive concrete piers that hold up four spans with a closed floor or deck. hat's an upgrade from the original 138-year-old bridge that boasts an open deck with a clear view to the river below, providing a unique experience for maintenance workers.
The new closed deck allows Metra to put ballast rocks between the tracks, which stabilizes the rails and cuts down on repairs.
There's also a new interlocker, or railroad traffic signal, with intricate wiring that required testing by the Federal Railroad Administration.
What's next? Workers will soon start tearing down the old bridge and begin constructing the second track that will be completed by October 2020. The project, which has received federal, state and local funding, also could lead to additional trains.
"It depends on passenger loads we're currently carrying and need, but it would give us the option for expanding capacity," Metra spokeswoman Meg Reile-Thomas said.
Big picture, "it's not going to be a bottleneck any more," she added. "If one little thing goes wrong it's not going to take down the railroad."
Good news from the gnarly Jane Byrne Interchange reconstruction where the Eisenhower, Dan Ryan and Kennedy expressways merge. IDOT just opened up a new ramp from the inbound Dan Ryan Expressway to inbound Ida B. Wells Drive. Also completed is the second lane of the flyover ramp from the Dan Ryan to the outbound Eisenhower Expressway, which means the Morgan Street exit ramp can open to traffic.
Reader Wess Rouse of Round Lake is tired of traffic jams. "I think the Route 53 north right-of-way land that has been purchased over the last 50 years should be used for the Route 53 (extension) as originally proposed. The road has never been more needed for north/central Lake County than it is now," Rouse wrote.
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One more thing
Remember that awesome train that whisked you from O'Hare International Airport's parking lots to the terminals? The one out of commission and replaced by buses since January? It's returning, the Chicago Department of Aviation promises. The train system was being remodeled and expanded to include a stop at a new car rental/parking facility but hit a snag as the city and its builder negotiated. Now, "every indication is that the People Mover will be back online prior to Thanksgiving," officials said.
A fine point
After years of falling below optimal air quality, the metro region now meets federal standards for fine particulate matter, the Chicago Area Clean Cities group reports. What's that? Particles of air pollution from chemicals such as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides typically emitted by vehicles. The change comes after a concerted push for fuel-efficient vehicles, Clean Cities said. To learn more about green rides, go to chicagocleancities.