Metra dreams big for Rock Island line’s future, but money’s an issue

As COVID funds are set to expire, Metra seeks ways to keep services attractive to a ridership increasingly different from the 9-to-5 Loop commuters that once formed its base.

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The P2 project would build a flyover at 73rd Street to connect Metra SWS and Rock Island lines.

The P2 project would build a flyover at 73rd Street to connect Metra SWS and Rock Island lines.

Metra handout

Metra has big plans for its Rock Island line to Joliet, but they could all be derailed unless the commuter transit agency can come up with cash to realize them.

Renovated stations, a bridge to bypass freight trains and speed up service, a third track to minimize interference with Amtrak.

Executives and board members mused about nearly a dozen projects they would like to complete along the corridor as they toured prospective project sites aboard a vintage train car to Joliet on Wednesday.

These projects will help keep Metra relevant and convenient for its customers in a post-COVID era, Metra officials said, but stagnant ridership and a lack of funding could hold it all up.

Metra board members and executives tour potential projects along the Rock Island line in a vintage BNSF business-class observation car on May 17, 2023.

Metra board members and executives tour potential projects along the Rock Island line in a vintage BNSF business-class observation car on May 17, 2023.

Dave Struett/ Sun-Times

“These are just ideas. We would love to do it all. But, of course, funding is an issue,” Metra board Chair Romayne C. Brown said. “Until we get sustainable funding, there’s no way we can do any of this.”

Metra has been using federal COVID funds to balance its budget, but those expire in 2025, and the transit agency needs to find ways to keep services attractive to a ridership that’s increasingly different than the 9-to-5 Loop commuters that made up the core of Metra ridership for decades.

“We’re targeting the 9 o’clock, the off-peak riders. We want to be their ride of choice,” Brown said.

The projects they want to complete aren’t just about keeping up with renovations, but increasing overall reliability and convenience:

Metra Board of Directors Chair Romayne C. Brown on a tour of potential projects along the Rock Island line on May 17, 2023.

Metra board Chair Romayne C. Brown on a tour of potential projects along the Rock Island line on Wednesday.

Dave Struett/Sun-Times

  • 16th Street tower relocation and diamond crossings expansion: Already in progress, this South Loop project would replace an aging control tower and expand the freight crossings from six to eight. The new crossings will allow Metra trains to triple their speeds from 10 to 30 mph.
  • Rock Island Amtrak project: Adding a third track from the Gresham stop to 17th Street would boost train capacity along the line. Along with Amtrak, Metra is also planning to upgrade five rail crossovers. The project is not yet in the design phase.
  • Root Street Wye connection: A rail bridge over the Dan Ryan Expressway at 40th Street, a bridge as old as the expressway itself, could link north and south Metra areas, allowing service equipment to bypass downtown rail traffic. Metra doesn’t own the bridge, which is in disrepair. “Just a concept, but a big concept,” says Kevin McCann, chief operating officer.
Photo of the 40th Street Wye connection that Metra hopes to one day connect its north and south areas of service, bypassing downtown.

Photo of the 40th Street Wye connection that Metra hopes to one day connect its north and south areas of service, bypassing downtown.

Metra handout

  • 51st Street Yard expansion: Adding more tracks to this rail yard near the Dan Ryan would improve efficiency of the center that services and cleans all Metra trains serving the Rock Island and Southwest Service lines.
  • 75th Street corridor program: Possibly the largest endeavor, which is actually 75 individual projects, seeks to untangle the notoriously congested confluence of trains from Metra, Amtrak and four other freight companies. The P2 project would build a Metra flyover at 73rd Street to connect Southwest Service and Rock Island lines, allowing Metra to direct Southwest Service trains to the La Salle Street Station, freeing up space for Amtrak trains at Union Station. “It really untangles the freight network, says Metra CEO Jim Derwinski. About half of the 75 projects have been completed.
A concept drawing for a new Auburn Station in Chicago. Metra broke ground on this new station in June, but the project has been held up by permitting issues with the city. It’s one of several projects that Metra would like to complete to keep its rail system up to date.

A concept drawing for a new Auburn Station in Chicago. Metra broke ground on this new station in June, but the project has been held up by permitting issues with the city. It’s one of several projects that Metra would like to complete to keep its rail system up to date.

Metra

  • Auburn Station: Metra broke ground on this new station last June, but the project has been held up by permitting issues with the city, Derwinski said. “We’re in the city of Chicago. Sometimes things don’t go as fast as you like,” Derwinski said. Hoping to start by the summer, the project would take two years to complete.
  • Vermont Street Station in Blue Island: A rehab in progress, this station makeover improves accessibility and would allow Amtrak to use it as an intercity station.

Other board members and executives offered their thoughts on the future of their business, which was hit hard by declining ridership during the COVID lockdown.

Ridership is back up, but not to the same level. Will it ever return to levels seen before the pandemic?

“It’s hard to say. It really depends on what happens in urban areas,” said John Milano, Metra’s deputy executive administrator of administration.

Metra’s fate may be entwined with the Loop’s, which has struggled with lower office occupancy rates.

“That’s the bigger issue, where we can only drive so much change,” he said.

Commuter rail lines became popular in the 1950s and were a solution of convenience for new suburbanites who still needed to travel downtown but wanted to avoid the hassle of driving.

Commuter rail was a solution of convenience then, Milano said, but now the public could view Metra as an environmental solution to the modern era.

“Will society want to keep investing in environmental solutions [like Metra]? I think the answer is yes,” Milano said.

A BNSF business-class observation car that Metra executives road along the Rock Island line on May 17, 2023.

A BNSF business-class observation car that Metra executives road along the Rock Island line on May 17, 2023.

Dave Struett/Sun-Times

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