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Metra sets aim at South Side rail bottleneck

Metra board members Friday endorsed a $952 million project that would dramatically reduce freight delays on Metra’s SouthWest Service line while also allowing 30 more BNSF, Heritage Corridor or Amtrak runs into Union Station.

With the new $142 million Englewood flyover now addressing what had been one of the nation’s worst rail choke points, Metra Board members Friday set their sights on their next major rail bottleneck target.

The 75th Street Corridor Improvement Project would attack South Side rail delays involving tracks shared by Metra, Amtrak and seven freight carriers between Pulaski Road and the Dan Ryan and from 63rd to 99th Street.

Metra SouthWest Service trains that rumble over those tracks can face freight interference at “Belt Junction” — described as “the most congested rail choke point in Chicago” — and Forest Hill Junction. Plus, within one two-mile stretch of the corridor, some SouthWest trains now must wait on a single track for other trains to pass.

The large number of freight trains — some two miles in length — running on the same tracks with Metra and Amtrak passenger trains has created “the most congested corridor in Metra,” Metra Board member Norm Carlson said during Friday’s monthly Metra meeting.

“You’d probably have to go to Russia or China to get similar congestion,” Carlson said.

The 75th Street Corridor Improvement Project would separate tracks at three locations — in two cases with a “flyover” bridge — and add or realign other tracks.

It would reroute SouthWest Service trains onto Rock Island tracks after the SouthWest Service’s current Wrightwood Station stop. As a result, 30 SouthWest Service trains that currently terminate at Union Station would instead wind up at La Salle Street Station.

That means room for 30 more trains each weekday would be available in the south concourse of Union Station. Those slots could be occupied by Metra’s BNSF or Heritage Corridor lines, or by Amtrak trains — including the higher speed rail Amtrak line from St. Louis to Chicago, officials said Friday.

Metra Board members Friday passed a resolution endorsing the 75th Street Corridor Improvement Project and urging state and federal lawmakers to contribute funding to the plan.

The cost was estimated at $952 million, with $75 million needed immediately for project design. Officials said the design alone would take two years and construction could last at least five more years.

If the improvements had already been instituted, they could have eliminated 34 of the 59 freight or signal delays that SouthWest Service suffered in November, Metra Chief of Operations Peter Zwolfer said Friday.

SouthWest had the worst performance of any of Metra’s 11 lines in November, with an on-time rate of only 87.1 percent, Metra data showed.

However, Zwolfer conceded, November happened to be a particularly tough month for SouthWest.

The 75th Street project would build a connection between the SouthWest line and Rock Island tracks at 75th Street that would allow SouthWest trains to transfer to Rock Island tracks and avoid the current freight interference on their way downtown.

In addition, said Metra spokesman Mike Gillis, the change would add one stop to the current SouthWest trip downtown — at 35th Street. That would allow SouthWest riders to take Metra to Cellular Field for White Sox games, Gillis said.

Amtrak Assistant Vice President Mike Franke noted that an “immense” amount of money is being poured into a higher-speed rail project connecting Chicago to St. Louis.

But Franke warned, “This won’t go anywhere without fluidity.” Riders don’t want to travel at 110 mph part of the way, and then hit “stop and go, stop and go” traffic for the last mile into Chicago, Franke said.

At a recent Chicago rail forum, rail analyst Anthony Hatch of ABH Consulting described Chicago as the site of the “biggest rail problems in the country.” Some 25 percent of all U.S. rail traffic touches some part of Chicago, so delays in Chicago have ripple effects for miles.