U.S., What If – Another View: Thinking about the future of the Midwest through Chicago and Louisville

(Editor’s Note ― In another What If look at the future, William Lindley of Shelbyville, Kentucky shares his thoughts about the future of passenger rail designed around Chicago Union Station and Louisville, Kentucky. This is Mr. Lindley’s first offering on this platform. ― Corridorrail.com Editor)

By William Lindley, Guest Commentator; February 18, 2022

“Nothing ever changes until it all does.” Yogi Berra probably never said that, but after over fifty years of overall reduction in American intercity passenger trains, what positive steps could be taken toward a flourishing intercity network? Here are some starting points:

• The encouragement, by legislation, financing, and regulatory relief, of cities, regions, and states to bring the host railroads, shortlines, and local transit into more unified long-term plans.

• Interconnection with airports, and better coordination with local bus and rail lines, while emphasizing downtown stations for pedestrian access.

• Reductions and improvements to grade crossings; preservation of rights-of-way for improved rail lines, and re-engineering tracks and operations within existing alignments.

• Designing passenger trains which expedite small-container freight. Instead of waiting for “self-driving trucks,” standard air containers (“ULDs”) can be handled with available or retrofitted equipment, between an airport, downtown, or outlying stations with minimal effect on passenger train schedules.

Operationally, long-distance trains should be considered as car-lines (groups of cars to and from various places), rather than as fixed trainsets. As one railroad veteran put it, “Real Railroads Don’t Fear Switching.” Routes should be not hub-and-spoke but as Gateway Cities, in a wide national grid. Trains can stop at a suburban station at each side of major cities. In other words, trains are not airplanes, and need to be run to build on their strengths.

How would this work in practice? Consider two Midwestern examples:

Case in point: Chicago and Milwaukee gateways

• Redesign and rebuild Chicago Union Station with almost entirely through platforms, retaining lower-level baggage area with enhancement for handling small containers.

• The historic structure sits alongside platforms; the original headhouse was replaced years ago by a steel-and-glass mid-rise. That modern structure to be refitted with a concourse over the new through platforms.

• CUS to be closed during reconstruction, except for the single existing through platform; the second through track (adjacent to the river) to be reconstructed in place, with current truck access lane replaced with alternate arrangement.

• Concourse connections to Blue and Green line CTA stations to be included in CUS reconstruction.

• Former CUS Post Office building platform and service areas and should be reserved for future package-handling use, even as most of building above finds new uses.

• METRA trains to be redirected to a combination of Ogilvie (Chicago & North Western Station), LaSalle and Millennium (Randolph) stations during Union Station reconstruction. Improved or new multi-track crossovers along Kinzie Street (west of Union Station) and near McCormick Place will permit revised movements between stations. Possibly move historic brick building at southwest corner of Canal and Kinzie Streets to put Union Station north throat trackage on former C&NW grade-separated right-of-way, eliminating most ― if not all ― grade crossings (would require closing Canal Street between Fulton and Kinzie).

• Trains from Aurora, after stopping at Halsted, to either terminate at LaSalle station with reactivation of the second lift bridge and rebuilt/new connection, or through McCormick Place as a combined route with one of the south-side METRA lines.

• Eventually, Ogilvie could be mostly phased out. Fewer total tracks and platforms would be needed with most METRA services running through rather than reversing, while making it possible to ride through the city.

• At Des Plaines, new connection to be built if possible at Northwest Highway to permit trains calling at O’Hare Airport Station to continue north to Milwaukee, rejoining current passenger line via existing junction south of Northbrook station.

• In Indiana, combine all passenger trains onto South Shore line. At Michigan City, all trains to use one station; rebuild or replace connecting tracks and electrification as required.

• In Wisconsin, rebuild junction to permit C&NW-North-Line METRA trains to continue to Milwaukee via Kenosha and Racine. A new suburban station north or west of the city would be the terminus of trains from south and east.

Empire Builder to use the through platform at Chicago Union Station to continue south/east, possibly as City of New Orleans.

Southwest Chief and most intercity trains from the East to continue north of Chicago, serving O’Hare Airport via new junction (see above), and terminate at north/west suburban Milwaukee.

Hiawatha services to be handed to METRA, running from north/west Milwaukee through Chicago to a south/east suburban station as intercity service. (Similar to San Diego services being combined with Metrolink and Coaster.)

Case in point: Future Louisville gateway

• Future Ohio state-sponsored segment from Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton, and Cincinnati to continue as intercity service via La Grange, Kentucky, with station at Baxter Avenue (at site of historic station potentially at East Market terminus of future Market Streetcar), and a terminal to be built at the Louisville Muhammad Ali international airport (regrettably skipping the historic Union Station which is stub-end and whose connection to this line has been replaced by University buildings), thence to Elizabethtown, Bowling Green, and Nashville, eventually to Birmingham, Alabama, Mobile, and New Orleans.

• Future train from Saint Louis via New Albany, Indiana, to have a station on west side of Market Streetcar, also serving the new Louisville airport station; via upgraded existing freight bypass to serve Jeffersontown and Shelbyville; new junction to use mostly existing right-of-way to connect to R.J. Corman leased CSX line, then serving the state capital of Frankfort, then Lexington; Winchester; Oak Ridge, Tennessee; Knoxville; Dalton, Georgia; Atlanta; Macon; Valdosta; and Jacksonville, Florida, terminating at Orlando with connection to Brightline.

Such thinking can be applied to your city, to your region, as has been done here with Louisville. You are invited to think positively about what legacy we leave to the future.

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