Amtrak train rolls through the Midwest

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Kevin Brubaker

Improving Chicago’s Union Station is a Win for the Whole Midwest

Union Station Access Project will have region-wide benefits. It’s just one of several projects to improve passenger rail across the Midwest thanks to new federal infrastructure funds.

This summer, Senator Durbin, Mayor Lightfoot, Representative Garcia, Amtrak President Gardiner, and other Midwest rail advocates gathered in Chicago’s historic Union Station to announce their support for the Union Station Access Project.

Senator Durbin speaks at Chicago's Union Station

Senator Durbin speaks at Chicago’s Union Station, ahead of Amtrak CEO Gardiner, Representative Garcia, Mayor Lightfoot, and Transportation Secretary Osman

The $418 million project is a joint effort by Amtrak, the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT), the City of Chicago, Metra, Cook County, and Michigan’s Department of Transportation. The project partners recently applied for $251 million in federal funding from the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act’s new MEGA grant program, which provides federal funding for large projects of regional significance. And just last month, the Biden administration and USDOT announced $233 million in grants awarded to upgrade intercity passenger rail service out of the State of Good Repair Program, including $3 million for Chicago’s Union Station.

This is very good news for Chicago, for the Midwest, and for the planet. Union Station is the hub of two transportation wheels.  Locally, spokes radiate out from Union Station to suburbs served by Metra.  Regionally, Amtrak passenger rail lines radiate out to the entire nation and provide the hub for the Midwest regional rail network and its plans for expansion.

This is very good news for Chicago, for the Midwest, and for the planet.

But the station itself is old and crowded, and approaching tracks are convoluted.  The Concourse receives over 120,000 daily visitors, including passengers from 60 Amtrak trains and 300 Metra commuter and intercity trains.

Enter the Access Project, a $418 million proposal to strengthen the hub of these vital transportation networks.  The work would include:

  • Repurposing old mail platforms under the old Post Office to create additional space for passenger service lines – a creative idea first advanced by our colleagues at the High Speed Rail Association back in 1996;
  • Expanding passenger capacity in Union Station by taking out unnecessary walls and re-aligning tracks and platforms;
  • Rebuilding rail access to Union Station through Chinatown to eliminate a 3-point turn that all trains to Champaign/Carbondale currently make, moving Michigan and East Coast trains off congested freight lines, and providing the missing link for a route between McCormick Place, Union Station, and O’Hare Airport.

Longer term improvements not funded by this project would include improving the connection to the CTA Blue Line and improving ventilation in the station.

Eleven Midwestern train routes depicted around southern Lake Michigan will see improvements with Union Station Access project

The Union Station Access Project will facilitate train travel throughout the Midwest

In short, this project is key to realizing the benefits of the Midwest high-speed rail network. We are heartened to see the strong coalition in local, state, and federal leaders committed to moving this forward. By providing a fast, clean, and attractive alternative to driving, improved Metra and Amtrak service will reduce air pollution and climate change pollution and strengthen Chicago’s economy.

Union Station is just one of several pieces of good news for passenger rail in the Midwest. After a drop in ridership during the pandemic, Amtrak is now seeing booming demand. Service is rebounding on several lines, including Missouri’s River Runner from St. Louis to Kansas City and Maple Leaf service to our Great Lakes neighbors in Toronto. Thanks to track and signal improvements, we’re seeing higher speed trains in Illinois and Michigan. And the agency is also preparing for even more growth thanks to new federal infrastructure funding. A proposed train from Ann Arbor to Traverse City, Michigan just received funding for a second phase of study, and several more cities and states will see new trains coming soon.

As we told DOT Secretary Buttegieg in our formal support of this project, “Growth of the national rail network is paramount to addressing the urgent needs of the climate. This project directly addresses climate change by encouraging transit mode shift away from carbon intensive automobiles and airplanes to rail at the local, regional, and national level by making rail the preferred mode of travel by improving user experiences and by increasing capacity.”

Kevin Brubaker,

Deputy Director

Kevin Brubaker is the deputy director of ELPC, with chief financial management and organizational administrative responsibilities, and leads the organization's transportation work.

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