Tuesday, August 10th, 2010

Help Stop Metra From Destroying Part of Chicago’s Transit Infrastructure

Important Update: Do not follow the instructions in this document to contact Metra’s Board. The Board is already revisiting the project. Thank you so much for all of your help on this issue.

“Sustainable Development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” – United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development (Bruntland Commission)

I am going to make a rare foray into direct advocacy because of something very important to Chicago’s transit future. Others may also be interested as some element are not uncommon.

As incredible as it sounds, Metra, Chicago’s commuter rail agency, is planning to spend part the region’s precious transit capital funds for the benefit of road users – and do it in a way that permanently destroys a piece of Chicago’s transit infrastructure. If this sounds as crazy to you as it does to me, read on.

If you are in the Chicagoland area I’m asking for your help. Please read at least the first part of this post, then write to Metra using the links I’ve supplied and tell them to stop and re-evaluate this project. Then spread the word to all your friends to do the same.

The project in question is on the Union Pacific North Line. Metra is undertaking a project to replace 22 bridges and rebuild the Ravenswood station at a cost of $185 million and a timeline of eight years (?!). The bridges are 100 years old and there’s no question they need replacement. However, as part of this project, Metra is using transit dollars to raise the grade of the railroad to increase vertical clearance on the streets below it, and permanently destroying fully one third of the transit right of way in the process.

The UP-North line runs on an elevated embankment through the city. The bridges along the route do not meet current standards for vertical clearance. Here’s an example of a 13′ bridge on Belmont Ave that is among the lowest clearances on a major street.

This isn’t ideal, but isn’t terrible either. Virtually all trucks can navigate even Belmont Ave. without issue, though a couple times a year a truck does get stuck there. I don’t philosophically object to raising the grade, but doing so dramatically increases the cost and complexity of the project. Metra is paying for that exclusively out of transit capital funds. One hundred percent of the value of raising the rail grade is for trucks. It has nothing at all to do with transit. Yet trucking and road funds aren’t even chipping in one cent.

I’m all in favor of an integrated transportation system without all these funding stovepipes but this is ridiculous. It should be a fundamental principle of planning that transit dollars should be for transit, and that transit projects undertaken for the exclusive benefit of roadway users should be paid for with highway funds. Greg Hinz over at Crains documented how Illinois had a record highway construction season while transit hadn’t gotten a dime from the state’s capital plan. After this was exposed, the state coughed up $500 million for transit, but it is still underfunded versus roads. Yet here we see a project that de facto siphons off transit funds for the benefit of road users and trucking subsidies.

If it were just a matter of money, I could probably forget about it, particularly since this type of thing is all too common. The real problem is how this grade raising is being accomplished. The UP-North Line embankment originally had three tracks, though only two are in service today. Here’s a photo showing the right of way:

Metra’s redesigned bridges will consume the entire right of way for just two tracks. So the third track of right of way will be permanently destroyed. Why is this important? The north side is the city’s strongest growing area, particularly among the middle and upper class professionals the city has worked hard to attract. This population explosion of people who work in the Loop put a ton of pressure on transit. The Brown Line L, which runs in the vicinity of the UP-N line, was so overcrowded, the CTA implemented a $550 million project to lengthen platforms to enable longer trains. But now the Brown Line is maxed out. There is no further way to increase L capacity if ridership increases even more.

But the UP-North Line runs through the area too. This provides the only real option left for expanding rail transit service in that area of the city. As the city grows in the future, and demand warrants, the city could build a number of new stations on the UP-North Line, add the third track back, and run high frequency shuttle service, at least at rush hour, while allowing suburban trains to run express. This is conceptually similar to the “Gray Line” idea on the South Side.

Also, the UP-North line terminates at Northwestern Station in the West Loop. The area from Wacker Dr. west is what has seen the most office tower construction and most of the vacant land for new development is there. The center of gravity of the Loop employment base is clearly going to shift west over time as this area fills in. The UP-N actually serves this area much better than the L does. And there’s a multi-billion plan to build a consolidated West Loop Transportation Center that would dovetail with this perfectly.

Will we ever need this line? I don’t know. I certainly hope the city keeps growing so that it does. I do know that if Metra does their project, if we do need it down the line, it won’t be physically possible except at ruinous expense. Thus it does not meet the definition of sustainability above, because it takes away the ability of future generations to provide for themselves.

It should be another fundamental principle of planning that the city will not permanently impair an irreplaceable piece of transit infrastructure unless there is no feasible alternative. Even then, it’s a decision that should be, like the Jackson Park L removal, made at the highest political levels and after extensive public consultation. That didn’t happen here.

I raised my concerns at the highest levels at Metra. They say that nothing can be done. It is very clear their project team does not believe preservation of the third track right of way is important. What’s more, they say doing so would be very expensive because, due to the nature of raising the grade for trucks, it would require extensive retaining wall work, and they don’t have any money. Also, they say that the right of way is too narrow to work with.

Having spent many years dealing with transportation agencies, let me put together a translation table:

We Don’t Want to Do It = There’s No Money, or It’s Impossible for X, Y, and Z Reasons
We Do Want to Do It = Money Is Available, and It Has to Be Done Exactly Per Our Current Plan

In this case, Metra clearly went out and found the money to pay for raising the grade for trucks, a part of the project with no technical requirement. Also, Metra’s new Ravenswood station is a Taj Mahal palace that far exceeds the standards of almost any existing commuter station. They found money for that.

What we need is an independent analysis. I am calling for Metra’s board to put the project on hold until an outside review can be performed. This review should be chartered with finding a cost-effective way to save the third track right of way, and re-examining the necessity, scope, and funding structure related to raising the grade for trucks. This will require the Board to politically engage with outside stakeholders, particularly around the funding issue. This review needs to report directly to the Board, not management, and should be conducted by someone independent who does not have future consulting dollars at risk if they give the “wrong” answer. If anything, the consultants should have a financial incentive to find a way to save the third track and either take cost out or find non-transit funding sources. And there should be a public involvement process.

When I spoke to Metra they said, “Don’t you trust us?” Trust has nothing to do with it. In fact, I do trust that Metra’s management undertook the project in good faith and have made the decisions they legitimately believe are correct. I also understand that they operate in a world of many constraints and pressures.

However, I trust my doctor too. But if he tells me we’ve got to amputate, you can believe I’m going to go out and get a second opinion from someone totally independent before I get anything lopped off. That’s not mistrust. That’s simple common sense. You’d be crazy not to.

Similarly, Metra is proposing to amputate one third of the ROW and spend precious transit funds on trucking subsidies. That might be the right answer. But it deserves a second opinion.

Other Reasons for an Outside Review

Even if you don’t believe me or share my concerns, there are clearly other reasons why this project should get an independent review. Among them:

1. Phil Pagano, Metra’s executive director for the last two decades, killed himself earlier this year after it was revealed he paid himself an improper bonus. Other similar types of matters then came to light. Reports commissioned by Metra’s Board subsequent to this found various controls and procedure issues and a number of reforms were made. While perhaps not related to any projects or transit operations, these items certainly do give reason for pause. The review I’m suggesting is very similar to what Metra did on more purely administrative matters, and I think it is entirely appropriate given the circumstances.

2. While Metra is justly famed and should be praised for its operational reliability – as they say, you can set your watch to Metra – it is also an agency also justly famous for its resistance to change and innovation. Metra only started accepting credit cards last year, and then only after being forced to by the threat of legislative action. Megabus might have wi-fi on its coaches, but Metra doesn’t and says it has no plan to install it. Heck, even Amtrak is rolling out wi-fi. Metra conductors still punch paper tickets the way they did back when those bridges were first built a hundred years ago while the CTA is looking at an ambitious open fare media project.

Given the historic “can’t do” mindset at Metra, I think there’s reason to push a little bit when we hear a No from them. After all, Metra said it couldn’t afford to take credit cards. But wouldn’t you know it, after legislative threats, they could. And the world didn’t end.

3. The ROW elimination was never vetted outside of management. When I brought this matter up to a Metra board member, it was news to him. So clearly the aspects of the project around removing the third track were not discussed with the board. And while I admittedly did not attend all the public hearings for the project, I googled extensively looking for evidence that this had been part of the public discussion and didn’t find anything. I only learned about it myself when told by my friends at the Transit Riders Authority. I don’t think it’s nefarious, I just think Metra’s management never really gave this aspect of the project much thought. We need to change that.

A Call to Action

If you think it’s a bad idea to spend transit funds on trucks instead of trains, and if you think it’s wrong to permanently destroy a piece of Chicago’s transit infrastructure, I need your help. Metra will go forward with their current plan unless they hear from enough people that this is unacceptable to the public.

So I’m asking you to email Metra and tell them to pause the project to conduct the review I discussed. They are already familiar with my arguments, so feel free to reference this blog post if you’d like.

Please email Metra’s Board of Directors at: metraboard@metrarr.com and also copy Noe Gallardo, Metra’s Community Affairs Specialist on the project, at: ngallardo@metrarr.com.

And again, please spread the word to your friends and ask them to write Metra too. If you run a mailing list, please distribute this link to it and encourage people to take action. Thank you so much.

For those who are interested, I will go into further details around various aspects of this project.

Raising the Rail Grade Reconsidered

Why is Metra raising the grade on the tracks? They didn’t come up with the idea on their own. The city asked them to. I would be interested to know at what level this was discussed within the city, especially since the city is on its sixth transportation commissioner in five years. Still, it’s worth noting this idea didn’t originate inside Metra.

Again, I don’t philosophically object to improving clearances, but let’s consider the need. Metra raised the grade on the UP-Northwest Line, but that route runs directly parallel to the Kennedy Expressway, a major truck route. The UP-North line runs along the Lakefront. It is never more than two miles from the lake and is often less than one mile. And the area east of the tracks is not a heavy industrial area that would drive large amounts of truck traffic. Also, the CTA Red and Brown Line elevated structures also have limited clearances in this area. So what is the actual need? How many truck movements will be facilitated and at what cost?

As I said, the major commercial arteries already have clearances already that are, if not ideal, adequate for the vast majority of vehicles. Irving Park Rd., a four lane arterial of the type that should carry truck traffic, has a 14′ clearance, for example. There are heavy truck routes in the city with less clearance than that.

One of Metra’s objections around the third track was that if more trains ran, that would be more noise and vibration in the neighborhoods. But trucks cause noise and vibration too. And unlike added trains, which would be mostly at rush peak periods, trucks are around all the time. I live on Belmont Ave. right at the UP-North bridge and I would certainly rather see more trains than more trucks.

Also, many of these bridges are on residential streets that have very low clearances such as 10′ that make them impassable to trucks today. If the grade is raised, this will actually open up many residential streets to trucks that don’t have them today. That’s not good.

Maybe the grade actually doesn’t need to be raised, or a much more limited effort should be undertaken only at a couple major crossing points.

Also, the funding for this shouldn’t come out of transit. Apart from highway funds, the city of Chicago is sitting on $1.2 billion in cash in its Tax Increment Financing districts that it has broad latitude to shuttle around the city through a process called “porting.” Infrastructure projects are exactly what TIF money is for. If the city really wants to raise the bridges, perhaps it can chip in some TIF money.

Every dollar that can be taken out of this project, either through reducing the scope of the grade raising, or getting outside money, is a dollar than can be put towards preserving the third track right of way.

Perhaps the city really does prioritize trucks over trains. That’s a decision that can be made, but it should be made by elected officials. If Mayor Daley is willing to say, “Yes, I agree we should raise the grade and destroy the third track using transit funds” then, while I might not agree with that, I would be willing to respect that the guy we elected to make the tough choices is the guy who made the call.

Cost of Bridge Replacements

One interesting question to consider is how much cost is added by the inclusion of the grade raising component to the project. I can’t say for sure, but I speculate that the amount is substantial. Let me explain.

Replacing a railroad bridge can often be a surprisingly easy process. Consider that many active rails lines only have one track, so taking it out of service for any length of time is problematic. The solution is to assemble the bridge superstructure adjacent to the track, then cut over by removing the old span and hoisting the new one into place. This sometimes only takes a couple days. You can do it on a weekend. For example, a company called Fenton Rigging cites several case studies of this. In one case they floated a span out into the middle of a river on a barge, and hoisted it onto the existing piers.

The Metra bridge abutments clearly require work, but there are also examples here. For example, when the CTA needed to replace steel piers on the Brown Line L during the station project, they put temporary bracing in place to support the elevated tracks, then poured a new footer and erected a new pier underneath it. All while keeping the tracks in service.

I can’t promise these techniques could be used here since I’m not an engineer, but when I see things successfully done in one place, it seems an indication that it’s at least not impossible. There’s plenty of room for construction staging because the majority of this rail route runs in the median of a city street. Perhaps temporary bracing could be used to support the existing bridge while the abutment is repaired and a replacement span assembled next to the track. When that’s complete, the old bridge is removed and the new one hoisted into place and the track rapidly replaced.

Of course that would be a lot tougher to do if the grade is being raised significantly. That’s a much more complex undertaking and is one reason that this project is going to involve eight years of service disruptions from reducing the line to only one track for an extended distance. (Yes, the right of way is for three tracks, but it is permanently being reduced to two by an eight year project that temporarily reduces it to one).

I don’t know how much extra cost this grade raising is driving, but it is surely tens of millions of dollars, in addition to the vastly increased construction complexity.

Ravenswood Station

As part of this project, Metra is also replacing the station at Ravenswood (Lawrence Ave). Here’s a photo of the rendering of the proposed station (via Flickr/vxia):

The current station has, as virtually all Metra stations do of simple asphalt platforms. There is no station house. As you can see, this is quite an upgrade. It has completely enclosed, sheltered platforms, a ticket office, and even a decorative retaining wall.

I haven’t been to every Metra station on the UP system, but I’ve been to most of them and I can’t name a single other station that has full canopies like this. If Metra can find the funds to build the most lavish platforms on the entire UP network, it is difficult to plead poverty when it comes to saving the third track right of way. Also, notice that this station consumes the entire embankment, thus it is another design element that has the effect of precluding restoring the third track to service at a future date. This design should be changed.

The Right of Way Issue

As I noted earlier, Metra previously replaced bridges on the UP-Northwest line, which dates from the same era. This one still had three active tracks and wouldn’t you know it, all three tracks were preserved during reconstruction, even as the grade was raised. To me that, along with the fact that the UP-N line used to have three active tracks itself, is prima facie evidence that three tracks can be preserved on this right of way.

According to Metra, the Northwest line had a wider right of way than the North line, 100′ versus 66′. I have no reason to doubt them. However, the North line also has ROW advantages. As I noted, the majority of the route is in the median of a city street that features low to moderate traffic. This provides significant opportunity for construction staging and temporary ROW encroachment that the Northwest line does not. That line cuts diagonally across the city grid and is directly adjacent to the busy Kennedy Expressway to boot.

Here’s an example on the UP-N line at Irving Park Rd. showing the width of Ravenswood Ave, the street whose median the train runs in. It’s wide enough for angled parking on both sides of the street. The rail line is on the left past the parked cars out of the photo, and there’s another side to Ravenswood just like this one on the far side of the tracks.

Not all segments are this wide, but there’s generally some space to work with, often quite a bit of it.

While construction in a urban environment always provides challenges, I still believe an outside review is warranted to examine the specifics of this and other potential issues. Every project has issues that must be mitigated. I think there are significant opportunities to examine the parameters of this one to look for creative solutions to meet the project needs while saving the third track right of way.

Topics: Transportation
Cities: Chicago

49 Responses to “Help Stop Metra From Destroying Part of Chicago’s Transit Infrastructure”

  1. Alex B. says:

    Maybe this is just me getting hung up on jargon, but right of way refers to land that the railroad owns or controls. Increasing the height of the bridge clearances will not change the size of the ROW at all, just how it is used. It’s not like they’re selling off bits of the ROW to private landowners. Characterizing this as ‘saving’ the ROW is somewhat confusing.

    That said, keeping the option to add a third track is important, and I’d agree with the cause.

  2. Steve B. says:

    @Alex B. – the ROW will be changed due to the grade change requirement with this project. When they increase the height of the bridges, there will not be room for three tracks anymore. As Aaron mentions, to accommodate three tracks with the increased bridge height, Metra would have to include retaining walls. Each of these retaining walls would add a huge expense to the project.

  3. brian t says:

    Silly question time: instead of raising the bridge and the rails, why not lower the road? That would offer the required clearances at a fraction of the cost. Too obvious?

  4. It’s difficult to dig down roads in Chicago because of the terrain. Many neighborhoods actually had their sewers, water, and gas lines laid on top of the original grade, and new fill and roads were laid on top of that. This was to try to lift the city out of the swamp it was built on. That’s also how the “garden level” of many houses came into being. What was the first floor, built basically on the original ground, ended up half a story below the new streets and sidewalks. Because it’s more prone to flooding, they instead made the former second floor the new main floor, resigning the garden level to cheaper apartments or a basement.

    Anyway, to try to dig a road down further under the railroad bridge could put the road BELOW the sewers. To remedy that would require pumps, and even that might not be enough. It’s the same problem you see on the Edens Expressway where the underpasses routinely get flooded in heavy rains. So I suspect that’s why this has not been considered, but it could still be cheaper for all I know.

    Regardless, it’s certainly not appropriate for Metra to be incurring such an expense that will not improve its own service AT ALL. Seriously, if clearances for trucks are such a problem, they should be the ones footing the bill for this. Still, I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s some sort of franchise agreement, and centuries old legal concessions on the part of the railroad that holds them responsible for this kind of thing. Remember that roads and trucking were, back in the day, viewed as the savior of the public against the evil railroads and their corporate robber baron owners. That might be coming back to bite us in the ass now, especially since that rail line is still owned by Union Pacific, and not the RTA (at least as far as I know).

  5. Isaac says:


    I’ll probably sound like lazy bum for this, but can you put together a form letter or some sort of synopsis for writing Metra as you requested. Can I reference you and your post specifically, or will that weaken the whole idea of drumming up support?

  6. John H says:

    An excellent analysis. Makes you wonder where the incentive for raising these bridges came from? There should be a cost-benefit analysis done. If the facts are as laid out in the article, the benefit side of the equation will be very low.

  7. PeterXCV says:

    I agree with this opinion wholeheartedly. Down here in St. Louis a bridge for our Metrolink Light Rail system was replaced. The previous bridge had two active urban rail tracks and a third track currently unused. They reconstructed the bridge with space for the unused track despite there are no plans to reuse it. http://www.nextstopstl.org/1664/vandeventer-bridge-is-open-for-metrolink-service/

  8. Fred Ash says:

    An excellent take on Metra’s plans, Aaron, but their brush-off may not be what it seems. I suggest that the issues are simply more complex that they let on. First, the most cost effective way to increase rail route capacity is to improve signaling and new federal regulations will require that soon anyway. Second, most railroads are increasing the distance between tracks. This allows better use of mechanical track equipment than that formerly needed by the gandy dancers of yore. Increased spacing provides a better safety buffer between tracks. Thus, a derailment on one track is less likely to foul the opposing line. Finally, there is the matter of funding. In your words Metra is using scarce transit dollars to benefit the road system. True, but its mostly federal funding and to get a good score on a grant proposal each project must claim many benefits. Perhaps if they didn’t “raise the grade” their project wouldn’t have “made the grade.” In any event, if the project is rescored, they potentially risk losing an already awarded grant. So I can see why they might view your comments as threatening.

    To my cynical mind, the biggest benefit is to local contractors. Not only does the increased elevation raise the price tag, but it makes the project almost an annuity. And it may not help truckers. What do you bet that the next time any of these streets are repaved their clearance will diminish by three inches?

    So do we risk losing allocated federal funds? Given your persuasive arguments, my vote is yes.

  9. Alon Levy says:

    Fred, the track centers on the existing lines are fine for a modern railroad. The problem is that UP likes undermaintaining tracks to the point that derailments are common. But on well-maintained track, a track center of 14 feet is enough not only for perfectly safe operation, but also for high-speed trains to run at 220 mph.

    Aaron, while I agree with your general criticism of Metra here, including of their dismissive attitude toward you, I’m not sure that the UP-N line will ever need three tracks. The reason is that two tracks have a lot more capacity than you think; if there are no freight trains (and at rush hour there shouldn’t be) and if all passenger trains travel at the same speed, then modern signaling can squeeze 24 tph out of a two-track line. If the required capacity is higher, then three tracks would create a large imbalance between peak and reverse-peak service, which is more than what the terminal could handle. For good regional service, three tracks don’t help too much; the operator would use either two or four.

  10. Thanks for the comments, everyone.

    Alon, there’s basically no freight on the line. My rationale for three tracks is to provide local vs. express service, such that suburban trains could bypass in-city stations if several were added. Incidentally, more such stations used to exist until they were abandoned some time ago. Several Metra lines use three track setups for local and express.

    Terminal capacity can be an issue as you note, but Chicago has a plan (unfunded a present) to completely rebuild and expand the terminal infrastructure along Canal St. That’s the “West Loop Transportation Center” I mentioned. Schedule, capacity, and operations should be arranged in that project to support this type of demand.

  11. Steve in Chicago says:

    Good analysis, but I’m not convinced the loss of a 3rd potential line is a huge problem. Could a line be added back later with marginal amounts of added right of way in specific places? It’s not as if Metra is tearing up the tracks to move them 10 feet now.

    My rationale largely concerns changes in traffic patterns and technology over time. It’s hard to predict what transit needs will really look like in 20 years, or what new technologies will achieve to meet them.

    So I think your concern is overblown, however, the equal point you make about stewardship of capital funds is very apt. Is any part of this project more pressing than work that could increase rail capacity or improve safety? I am sure the answer is no.

  12. Lynn Stevens says:

    I’m with Steve, even if 3rd track is never needed, to spend transit money on road problems is a waste.

    A couple of times a year trucks get stuck at Kimball and Belmont under the Kennedy too, but I don’t know of any plans to raise it.

    I believe this is one of the reasons for the expense and drawn out process of the Bloomingdale (bike) Trail too, that the city wants to raise the bridges.

  13. Alex B. says:

    @Steve B.

    “Right of way” generally refers to property and land, not what’s on it. The land isn’t changing hands, so arguing that Metra is ‘losing’ ROW is inaccurate. You can make the case that their plans will mis-use it.

    As you note, they can still easily fit 3 tracks in that right of way with the increased bridge heights, they just need to add retaining walls. That’s precisely why saying Metra is losing this land is inaccurate.

    Again, this is just me getting hung up on the wording, but that’s not a trivial difference.

  14. Alex, I suppose you are correct that the property itself isn’t going anywhere. But the alignment of the tracks will not permit three tracks to run on the existing embankment. I have a document that explicitly says restoring the third track to service in the future under Metra’s scenario would require extending the retaining walls – a very expensive undertaking they put in the nine figures.

  15. david vartanoff says:

    It would be EASIER to do the bridge replacements one track at a time employing the long traditional RR method called a “shoo-fly” This is the construction of a bypass which in the case of the missing third main track means restoring it for some distance either direction from the bridge and building the replacement span to the new specs. Once the new span is fit for service then sequentially one replaces each of the other spans. In this scheme, there is barely any net downtime for service over the route as there are always two tracks in service.

    So, once this has been done for several of the bridges, the third main in effect is being restored anyway. The key to some of this may well be a change in state real estate taxing schemes to reward RRs for multiple mains at higher FRA Tier standards rather than increasing the assessments.

    Sadly, the three decades of the Staggers Act while touted as saving the railroads, have resulted in the loss of thousands of miles of multiple mains as well as routes. Slowly Virginia Railway Express is paying CSX to restore segments of the Richmond to Washington mainline to three main tracks as it had been 50 years ago.

    About stations on the former C&NW now UP. When Ben Heineman took over there was a program of bulldozing stations within Chicago. Many closely spaced local stops were abolished and the few retained got the “pneumonia platforms” which you describe.

    As to throughput (TPH) I disagree w/ Alon. A third main with enough crossovers can facilitate a far more fluid mix of locals and expresses. Not as perfect as 4 but much better than 2. The BNSF “racetrack” is a fine local example.

  16. Alon Levy says:

    David, Aaron, there’s another way to do local/express: keep the line at two tracks, but add four-track passing sections at select stations. It allows express service in both directions, and has not much less capacity than running all trains at the same speed on two tracks.

    It’s easier to have three tracks throughout, but bear in mind that three tracks are only useful for a very limited range of express services – namely, those that are only in the peak direction, or those that have relatively few express trains. There’s only some range of ridership in the middle at which three tracks are useful. Arguably, UP-N will never be in this range – in the current configuration it will always be below, whereas if Metra combines it with another line to form a north-south express commuter route, it may well exceed it.

  17. Wad says:

    Steve in Chicago,

    Transit systems generally don’t have to worry about the state of the art in the way that the technology industry does.

    Transit ridership on a built-out system will have gentle-curved waves over a long period of time. Ridership on a well-designed system shouldn’t have dramatic shocks of swiftly declining or increasing ridership.

    This is because waves of ridership can rise or fall within a set range, yet service is kept stable. The ridership shouldn’t fall to the point where services have to be cut. Also, you don’t a transit system that’s caught with so much ridership that there aren’t resources to expand service.

    Plus, technology is only as good as the people using them. Transportation has been one of those fields that hasn’t bent to technological winds, for bad and for good.

    Transportation won’t see a “killer app,” some gadget that needs to created from scratch to change the way people move from one place to another. BART in the Bay Area was designed by rocket scientists who felt all prior knowledge of transportation was a burden, so they ignored the practice and reinvented the wheel. All BART had proved was not to dabble in novelty. (BART hasn’t inspired any other metros to be built to BART standards.)

  18. Steve B. says:

    @Alex – As Aaron says, yes, the actual ROW is not being decreased; however, the amount of usable ROW is being limited by the grade change. Sorry if my original comments did not make that entirely clear.

  19. Alex B. says:

    Steve, your comments made that clear. I also was able to understand that from the original article just fine after reading it. My point is that ROW is land. This should be seen as mis-use of the land, not a loss of the land.

    Again, I think the wording is minor, but not entirely unimportant.

  20. I’m assuming that the ROW in question is owned by the railroad outright, as opposed to being an easement–and that these proposed actions, even though making it technically more unlikely that a third line will re-open, aren’t likely to result in a forced abandonment of part of the ROW.

    At any rate, even if the bridges can only accommodate two tracks; there’s also the possibility of using the third tracks ROW for constructing sidings, or of shifting trains over to the unused portion and using the center tracks as a pocket track, should service benefit from this. But there’s a far bigger gain in going from 1 track to 2 or from 3 tracks to 4, then there is in going from 2 tracks to 3.

  21. Claire says:

    I would like to echo Isaac for a form letter…

  22. John says:

    This is a surprising post. I had heard that Metra was building the station to allow a third track to be added in the future, but perhaps that’s only the station and not the entire line. Nevertheless, adding retaining walls and fill someday in the future would be expensive, but doable if the stations are designed with a third track in mind.

    I wouldn’t get too upset about the quality of the station design. Ravenswood deserves a nice station. It’s the 11th busiest non-CBD station in the Metra system and the busiest on the UP North line. It also serves a huge reverse commute market.

  23. MRN says:

    From the looks of it, years of neglect have already permanently destroyed the third track.

  24. david vartanoff says:

    Here in the west when Southern Pacific was nearly insolvent, much infrastructure was wrecked for cost cutting purposes including many passing sidings and second or third main tracks. In
    one local commuter agency outlines efforts to restore capacity on part of the greater UP.
    “Under previous ownership with Southern Pacific, a great deal of track infrastructure in the
    Reno to Sacramento territory was removed to reduce maintenance costs. In the short term,
    these actions may have made economic sense; however, as passenger rail and freight rail
    traffic has grown in the interim, the prior actions to remove track infrastructure has restrained
    freight usage and, as a result, impacted the ability of Capitol Corridor to increase service east
    of Sacramento.”
    Capacity restoration/expansion is a nationwide issue. Despite all of the whiz bang techno innovations of recent decades, US rail transit achieves fewer TPH than in the 1950s. This is true both in NYC and Chicago. BART has NEVER achieved the 90 second headways promised in the pre-construction agit prop even though CTA had that capability in the State St Subway. If we believe(hope?) that transit will grow significantly as the anti climate change dinosaurs die or retire, we will need increased transit throughput as long as we insist on office centers.

    In the instant case, I reiterate, the third main restoration as step one of the bridge work will be money well spent because it will reduce service outages for riders during the project.

  25. Involved says:

    Mr. Renn,

    I fully understand and respect the position that you are coming from. I agree that the City, through TIF, and the Trucking/Highway interests should be bearing a large portion of the financial strain for these projects.

    You also admit that you have not done your research for this project.

    The first problem that I have with this blog post is the picture that you have chosen to feature of the third track right of way. Yes, for much of its North Chicago run, the UP-North Line has a right of way for a third track. However, by the Evanston-Central street stop (the 6th out of 26 stops) this right of way is gone. There is absolutely no space for another line North of this point. Now, in a perfect world, this right of way could be used for the shuttle service you have mentioned, which I agree would be a boon to the rapidly growing North Side neighborhoods, providing quick access to a growing business center, and reducing travel times for the line overall.

    However, as you mention later in the post, even that (South of Evanston) right of way is too narrow by current Federal Standards to run a third line, even if money could be found for both the reconstruction of that third line, and for the expanding of the current bridge building plans to include the third line. It’s a moot point if you could find the money for both those projects, which would probably have to be Federal (and in violation of their own right of way requirements). Expanding the right of way would either require the demolition of a massive amount of real-estate and roadway in the previously mentioned rapidly growing neighborhoods.

    You also seem to forget that these bridge replacements, which have to happen soon, will allow more capacity along the two current lines. The 8 year disruption (?!) has been allowed for by adjusting the train schedules by a matter of minutes. Lines will only be out of service along the bridges which are currently being replaced. Public hearings to discuss the proposed changes to the schedule wrapped up last week (I believe the last hearing was August 4).

    As you mentioned, there are ways to provide a temporary track while construction occurs. However, that was for a MUCH lighter CTA train, and I’m sure (now it’s my turn to admit ignorance) at a greater expense.

    My last point of contention with this post is your argument against the “Taj Mahal Palace” planned at the Ravenswood station. The Ravenswood stop is the busiest stop on the line. The new station will feature shops (which would generate much needed revenue), expanded facilities, and be ADA compliant (something which the current station is not).

    The upgraded station would not have any larger footprint than the current station does because, as I have mentioned before, the right of way is already very narrow. To say that you could put another PLATFORM to serve the third line in a space which is ALREADY not wide enough would involve major encroachment into the surrounding neighborhood (and would cost a whole lot more than $185 Million).

    Unless you know a billionaire who’s feeling generous, and are confident the local population (who blocked earlier plans to move the Ravenswood Station across the street) would agree, I don’t think this plan would work at Ravenswood, not to mention the Five other stops which would be affected.

    I would love to live in a Chicago with as many Transit options as possible. I have often wondered while on the UP-North line why the third line is not used. Unfortunately, now that I know the situation, I know that this really IS the best option available. It sucks, but it’s the world we live in.

  26. Alon Levy says:

    David, the lower frequencies in New York today stem from longer trains. When trains are short, frequencies can be shorter, because the headway equals a safe stopping distance plus the length of a train. I know of only one place in the world where long trains on a line with stations arrive more frequently than once every two minutes: Moscow.

  27. david vartanoff says:

    @ Alon. Actually that is NOT the issue. IND Division trains on Queens Boulevard were 11 cars in the 50s, now 10. The issue was the deliberate neutering of both the acceleration and braking systems. This was done both in the shops and by mass deployment of timer circuits enforcing slower speed on long express segment such as 59th to 125th. Some of this relates to the accidents in the 70s and 80s caused by workers abusing drugs, and the sabotaging of safety devices–coat hangers used to defeat trip arms. Some of it is designed to prevent injury to riders in a “Vrakes in Emergency” instance. The net result is longer travel time from terminal to terminal thus requiring both more labor and equipment expense to move a given number of passengers, and that they leave home earlier or arrive later.
    So, in the instance of the UP-N (former C&NW) travel times will be degraded if no shoo fly trackage is deployed and bottlenecks are created at bridge locations.

  28. Roland S says:

    I’m not a professional engineer either, but Metra’s argument makes perfect sense to me. Since the tracks run on an embankment with sloped sides, those sides cannot go above a certain angle, the “angle of repose”. This angle depends on the materials used (gravel, soil composition, use of geotextiles).

    I’m guessing that C&NW used the maximum angle possible, then planted trees and bushes to help retain the soil.

    If Metra plans on pushing the grade of the tracks higher, then the embankment would have to get wider to avoid increasing the angle. But since the embankment is constrained by the city’s right-of-way for Ravenswood Avenue, this isn’t feasible. So Metra is instead making the flat top of the embankment narrower, to keep the taller embankment from encroaching on the neighboring streets. This means the loss of the third track.

    If Metra decided not to raise the grade, then keeping the third track would only be a matter of adding one more bridge girder and deck at each overpass. If the grade has to be raised, then Metra either needs to widen its ROW by buying land from the city, or add retaining walls at the base of the embankment along the entire length.

    Your suspicions are correct that the third track elimination is a direct consequence of the grade raising.

    BTW – Greg Hinz has picked up on this. I’m not sure what kind of pull he has, but you can rest assured that at least some of the North Shore movers and shakers who read Crain’s are now aware of the issue.

  29. Jill says:

    One element you also seem to have missed is that there are a couple of spots where the 66′ ROW has been encroached on by condos (very near Ravenswood). It is a bit late to undo that.

    Making the Ravenswood stop ADA accessible is a laudable goal in my book.

  30. Aaron Brown says:


    I want to sincerely thank you for raising this issue. You’re right that preserving rail ROW is critical for the city’s future, and this particular line through the North Side will definitely be among the most important over the next few decades. It would be a huge loss to squander an asset we have today.

    I’ve contacted Metra on this, but also have a few additional questions for you:

    – Can you respond to some of the questions / criticisms in the comments here? I’m particularly interested in whether the potential for a 3rd track has already been destroyed by condo encroachment / ROW elimination.
    – Your suggestion of a potential North Side “Gray Line” is intriguing, and I’d be interested in hearing more about how you’d see that working, particularly with only one track to operate on. Also, if more capacity is needed in the future, it seems to me that there would be a possibility of adding tracks on the Brown Line. The L structure obviously will need to be replaced at some point, and it seems like the CTA could run a 4-track line throughout, allowing express/local service before Belmont and after Armitage.

  31. Aaron, thanks. I will be the first to tell you that all construction projects in the city have issues. So adding back the third track would be no exception. However, I am not aware of any condos that have been built inside the actual railroad property, though no doubt many condos have been built very close to the tracks.

    I don’t think four tracking the Brown Line is feasible. All of the stations that were just rebuilt with a target lifespan of decades would have to be demolished and replaced. There is limited capacity for new trains on the Loop L. There would be an issue with storing trains, and a lot of right of way would have to be acquired.

  32. John H says:

    Regarding corridor expansion (for whatever purposes), from Google Earth the R/W seems pretty narrow for Class 1 RR standards, necking down to 60-70′ especially to the south. UP probably wants to keep at least 15′ side clearance for signal/maintenance purposes, 15′ centers are OK, meaning a 3-track section would consume 60′. Thus new retaining walls, loss of “community gardens”, resident concerns, etc. There also appears to be a great deal of new development (last 5-10 years) abutting the R/W. 2 tracks and bi-directional signalling should work in most instances since we are not talking about rapid transit headways. Passing sidings at stations are a good guideline (where they can be had). A principal should be to maintain the future 3 or 4-track envelope through the stations (i.e. not build any station “structure” within that envelope), even if it means acquiring R/W.

    The schedule shows about 70 trains/day. Anecdotally, over the past 10 years Caltrain (SF Peninsula) has gone from 60 to nearly 100 trains per day. They are blessed with wider R/W (100′ in many long stretches), and chose to expand from 2 to 3 and 4 tracks where they could (the 4-track sections are generally at the stations, thus could more appropriately be called “passing sidings”). But Caltrain has much more bi-directional demand than Up-N, i.e. a major attractor on each end, thus squeezes every ounce of capacity through tiered express service, etc., otherwise it wouldn’t work. As some may know they are also pursuing full electrification which would also add capacity through better accel/decel characteristics.

    So unless Metra foresees much more bi-directional demand, capacity should be available given prudent use of the current R/W.

  33. david vartanoff says:

    @ John H Reverse commuting has been growing in several metros other than the SF-SJ example. Metro North in NYC passed the reverse = inbound number in the last year or so, Chicago has been talking about a suburb to suburb outer belt line for over a decade. VRE and MARC experimented with a reverse commute through fare discount recently. Given all of this and the ROW constraints on the CTA’s Red/Purple/Brown lines, preserving the third track option on the UP-N is a smart plan. Letting that option wither because it isn’t critical yet is short sighted. Given the amount of brouhaha that will accompany the bridge project this IS the time to do the fuller project.

    It is long past time for Metra routes to add CTA compatible faregates within ciy limits to offer riders another option for a quick ride to work.

  34. John H says:

    David, agreed on most points. As part of any project of this magnitude, Metra as the project sponsor should be modeling ridership to some horizon year using a regionally accepted model, and feeding future ridership into Railsim or whatever rail capacity software it’s using to verify future year track capacity. The feds won’t (and shouldn’t) help finance a project designed to an unspecified year of service or ridership level.

    Caltrain had nothing more than a 20-year old policy in place that any new project “not preclude” a 3rd track (of course they later out-did themselves), they were especially wary of 3rd party projects that might encroach on the future 3rd track. They had the advantage that their R/W is publically-owned (by a 3-county board), which as I understand is not the case here.

    And as much as we question the wisdom of the grade changes, I don’t think the project will preclude a future return to a wider track bed. From what I can gather the wingwalls (retaining walls right under the bridges) will be modified to seat the new bridges, but not the long walls parallel to the tracks. It’s precisely these longitudinal walls that can be rebuilt in the future to provide a 3-track cross-section. But that would be a much more expensive (and disruptive) project.

    As I stated, I am all for keeping the R/W intact. An earlier poster said something about a third track not helping much, and I’m not sure why because it clearly adds capacity. And I reiterate my statement that the policy should be to keep the R/W free of permanent structure, i.e. stations should be designed for the future track (if that is warranted). On the other side of the coin, I think I understand Metra/UP’s desire to not have their new bridges bashed into every so often.

  35. Alon Levy says:

    David, do you have a reference for the claim that Metro-North has more reverse than inbound commuters? It’s inconsistent with both the schedules, which still have many more peak than reverse-peak trains; ridership data for inbound commuters, in which the sum of inbound boardings per station is close to half the total ridership (i.e. nearly all commuters are inbound); and American Community Survey data on travel to work based on workplace geography, which says the edge cities still have a 5-10% transit mode share.

    On another note, Metra doesn’t need faregates. Arguably, neither does the CTA. A proof-of-payment system with free transfers to the CTA should work just as well, at a vastly lower collection cost.

    Aaron Brown, a North Side Gray Line would have two tracks, not one. I would propose that Chicago bite the bullet on this and spend money on electrifying and building a tunneled connection to Metra Electric (or possibly an electrified BNSF Line), to be able to run a north-south commuter line. This would make it much easier to access both the University of Chicago and Northwestern by rail, for one; those are both strong job centers and have large captive markets of students.

  36. John H says:

    Alon, I realize Gold Line North is somewhat off-topic but this is a great place for the dialog. I think it is high time we start making BIG plans as the great cities in Europe did decades ago. I’ve long advocated a spanking new N/S transit line in Chicago, akin to NYC’s 2nd Ave. Subway. We posted some possibility maps showing such at http://www.ctiassoc.com/vision (comments welcome). Not so sure I can endorse the idea of utilizing Metra Electric equipment as some advocate.

    As to UP/N reverse commuting, I have to agree that the potential does not seem as great as in other corridors. I can say with confidence that the SF Peninsula corridor is an entirely different animal, with comparable length to UP/N but a blurring of urban/suburban and jobs/housing from end to end. I am not as familiar with Metro North but think it has similar characteristics. The North Shore (Chicago) lakefront suburbs are largely built-out and residential in character, and I just don’t see the reverse commute potential.

  37. Alon Levy says:

    Using Metra Electric equipment would be horrible – it’s FRA-hell. But requesting a waiver like the one Caltrain just got, and running lightweight EMUs, would work well. In general, getting waivers and electrifying commuter lines is important, because there are so many rail lines that would already provide most of the extra service Chicago needs.

    I like the Ashland line plus Pink Line rerouting in your plan. But on the South Side, I’d send this line east on Garfield to serve the university and provide extra east-west service. But beyond that, I’m not sure Chicago needs more L service; strategic connections between the L and Metra (for example, extending the Red Line one stop north to meet an infill UP-N station) and between Metra lines should be enough.

    Metro-North is actually similar to UP-N: at one end there’s a dominant CBD, and further out on the lines there are moderately big secondary centers. Metro-North has White Plains and Stamford, UP-N has Northwestern.

  38. Alon Levy says:

    By the way: I just looked at the CTI Blog, and you got the FRA compliance thing very wrong. Amtrak is in fact FRA-compliant; the Acela locomotives weigh 33% more than TGV locomotives, 80% more than Europe’s high-speed export trains, and 100% more than Shinkansen trains. The compliance isn’t about diesel/electric, but about a buff strength law: on every shared line without absolute time separation, which could be provided by positive train control or by a freight-at-night-passengers-in-the-day rule, a lead car needs to resist 900 tons without deformation and an intermediate car 345 (the UIC only requires 200, Japan 100).

  39. John H says:

    Alon, thanks for the visit to our blog. Regarding Amtrak Acela FRA compliance, I realize the issue is about carbody strength but did not realize the Acela equipment was fully FRA-compliant. Thanks for pointing this out. I did a bit of research and found this post describing the hardships with FRA as a result of this FRA edict. I’ll make the correction.

    So I guess Caltrain will be the first instance of FRA approval for mixing non-compliant with compliant equipment (passenger-only, since time separation must still be employed for freight). I haven’t researched equipment choice for Denver’s commuter rail program (including East Corridor to the airport), and frankly don’t even know if there is shared trackage. Shine some light on this if you’re in the know.

    The point of the blog article really had to do with FRA’s inflexibility, even in the face of proven success elsewhere in the world. It tries to raise the hope that Caltrain’s example will encourage more creative thinking going forward.

    Also thanks for commenting on the vision plan. I agree that we generally don’t have the density in Chicago (outside downtown and the lakefront) to do full-on rapid transit. The plan that accompanies the map explains that it relies on increasing density at station nodes, ala what Toronto did in the 50’s (or what Vancouver BC is doing today). Also Chicago has tons of underutilized industrial parcels, particularly to the south and west. Several of these would be ripe for redevelopment. In the last 10-20 years I have seen a dramatic shift in mentality regarding the desirability of city vs. suburban living which in some ways mirrors the experiences of great European cities for centuries.

    Controversial, sure (I hope so), but it is depressing for me to contemplate Chicago’s infrastructure future continuing to be subservient to “hub and spoke” mentality.

  40. david vartanoff says:

    First, @ Alon, Though I specifically remember an NY article my search of their archive has not found the data. mea culpa.

    Second, as to faregates on Metra Elecric, POP is fine w/ me, but current CTA is faregates on the L and FWIW the Electric had faregates for years just not compatibles.

    As to EMUs and FRA, This is going to resolve as PTC is deployed. The FRA buff strength requirement was IMHO an intensely stupid response to poor signaling on CSX resulting in a particularly ugly wreck near Silver Spring MD in Feb 96. In detail, one of the necessary upgrades at Kensington is restoration of South Shore Line’s second main access to Metra. If this is done with grade separation, as it should be, once South Shore Freight is restricted to off hours or PTC protection, then Metra and SS can turn the Highliner IIs and the single level SS cars over to Metra to be used as trailers elsewhere as they acquire lighter weight EMUs.
    Running trains through downtown rather than terminating is vastly superior.

    A word about density. As petro/auto use needs to diminish, the minimum density becomes less of an issue in my view.

  41. Alon Levy says:

    The buff strength is way older than the 1990s – it began as an ICC ruling in the 1930s. Part of it was a long-term attempt to make the railroads adopt PTC by overregulating non-PTC lines, just like the 79 mph speed limit (instead, the railroads just reduced service levels); part of it was the US Post Office demanding more protection for its personnel, as the mail car was the one just behind the locomotive.

    The more modern issue is that Amtrak just assumed that it would get to run lightweight Acelas, and the FRA wouldn’t allow it as the Northeast Corridor’s PTC was not yet fully developed.

    The Chicago relevance is mostly that the city needs PTC for its commuter lines. This is a good thing, regardless of FRA regulations. Lines without automatic train protection get into accidents, which can be severe if there are many passengers. On one of the PTC-less lines in Osaka, a train running too fast derailed and went into an apartment building in 2005, killing a hundred people.

    “Full-on rapid transit” isn’t really the point. When there’s an existing railroad to poach, rapid transit is very cheap to construct; there are a couple of outer subway lines in New York that were bought from commuter railroads in the 1950s but would have never justified greenfield construction. In Chicago there’s enough ridership to justify the extra connections between the lines, even some connections under downtown, hence the point of a north-south line. It’s also good to build some high-quality east-west lines, starting with BNSF and UP-W, again leveraging existing railroads for nearly the entire way.

  42. david vartanoff says:

    @ Alon. While you are correct that the general trend is older, the 1996 wreck did indeed engender an increased buffing requirement. The FRA allowed the Class 1s to continue ignoring signaling deficiencies until the Chatsworth incident which got Congressional attention.
    I should point out that several of the better RRs responded to the 79 MPH regs by implementing the required upgrades–cab signals or Automatic Train Stop so as to continue 90 to 100 MPH operations.

    As to “capturing” under used mainline routes, since all of these operations are government operations anyway, I am much less concerned about whether they are “subways” or mainline RR operations as long as the fare systems are integrated so that riders have the widest route selection available.

  43. John H says:

    Alon, David:

    I am grateful for the dialog. The problem I see with utilizing existing railroad R/W for “full-on” rapid transit is that these corridors seldom have the density (or the potential for such) as do the main arterials, let’s for a moment visualize North Ave as an example. NYC may have been able to acquire cheap R/W through historical convenience, but cities I consider progressive have bitten the bullet for long-term success. In the 50’s, Toronto acquired corridors an alley’s distance from Yonge and University, tearing down 60′ wide swaths of parallel housing (in order to avoid street disruption during cut/cover construction). Today these corridors thrive and hum with nearly 24-hour activity. This is the kind of long-term view Chicago needs to take. The problem seems to be that our planning process (lauded as it may be elsewhere) leans heavily to the land developer’s viewpoint, disregarding the transportation/land use nexus. At the very least there is a disconnect between the two.

    Alon – regarding the history of the draft/buff strength requirements, I didn’t realize it was tied to PTC (and that PTC was actually contemplated as early as the 30’s). This is a good example of unfettered bureaucracy at work. FRA is not inherently obstructionist, but has no incentive to relax it’s requirements and in fact it’s nature is to pile them on. A train wreck, infrequent as it may be is usually calamitous and makes for big news plus a spike on the fatality chart, the last thing a regulatory agency wants, why take the chance? No matter that the net result from a more transit-centric system (when considering the auto accident rate, overall much higher but less “spikey” since it only takes 1 or 2 lives at a time, continuously) is fewer lives lost. This is the argument Caltrain was able to make, and apparently it registered with FRA. IMHO it is the more holistic viewpoint we as engineers, planners and advocates should also take as stewards for an important and tremendously relevant cause.

    The cost is consequential but not the way it was in the days of Yerkes, IRT, BMT, etc. Now we know (from successful examples elsewhere) that with a dynamic public sector, it can be done. As a result Chicago will not be like NYC, Paris, Singapore, Toronto or any other place on earth, but more like Chicago, with a strong emphasis on neighborhoods ahd human interest, and with added vibrancy and mutual awareness among those neighborhoods based on greater connectivity combined with appropriate (and sometimes substantial) increases in density.

  44. Benjy says:

    As somebody who worked next to the Metra overpass on Fullerton for a couple years and saw/heard just how often semi trucks hit the overpass, I definitely think they need to raise the clearances. Trucks scraped the underpass at least 3-4 times a week, and probably twice a month one got stuck. I saw a few where the trailers literally split in half and the road was blocked off for hours as the merchandise had to be loaded onto a new trailer. If millions are going to be invested in an infrastructure project like bridge upgrades, then make them compatible with modern requirements. While you mentioned not wanting more trucks in your neighborhood, there are plenty of businesses who need access to their inventory — e.g. Clybourn corridor, which is accessed by low clearance viaducts at both North Ave. and Fullerton. I’ve also seen moving vans damaged. It’s one thing if a palette of shampoo destined for Walgreen’s is ruined, but imagine somebody’s household furniture. At the very least, alternate routes for paid-by-the-hour movers can add up for an individual. And with regards to Metra safety, how many impacts before it affects the structural soundness of the bridges?

    I do agree with you, however that they should keep the third track right of way in place because it might be needed for future mass transit expansion.

  45. david vartanoff says:

    The Trib says the Taj Mahal will be re thought as the NIMBYS got noisy.

    In the Metra response they hint they will be “centering” the two replacement tracks. That PRECLUDES a third track without further ROW acquisition or repositioning them again.
    Short term thinking. The $80 million figure for doing the job right will be money well spent in potential increased capacity, and as I suggested earlier by building the third track first, make the subsequent work less disruptive thus saving construction time (money) and lessening delays to riders over the next decade.

  46. Alon Levy says:

    John, the Toronto model of building subways is just one model, and a rare one at that. It comes from the fact that Canada has the same steam-era regulations on mainline rail as the US, precluding running modernized trains except on separate track. Thus Canadian cities are compelled to build subways or light rail, and have learned to build them well. They avoid upgrading commuter rail, even when in the presence of better regulations, it could be very successful, as in the case of Toronto’s Lakeshore lines.

    The Caltrain waiver argument is more than just “Overall, trains are safer than cars.” It’s not that crass; instead, it uses simulations to show that FRA-compliance does not make a train any safer in crashes, except in an implausibly narrow range of relative speeds. Conversely, FRA compliance makes trains so heavy they topple more easily and can crash into each other with more force: the Chatsworth accident would probably have killed fewer people if the locomotive hadn’t been so heavy as to crumple half of the first car. And nowadays, due to regulatory capture by the freight trains, the FRA has become obstructionist, believing that its system is safe when in reality US mainline rail has several times the accident death rate of French, German, or Japanese rail. Fortunately, the PTC mandate is going to change some (but not all) of the most egregious practices.

  47. PointSpecial says:

    I have two contrasting thoughts…

    On one hand, I wonder how much of this $500 million would be better served to be spent elsewhere in Chicago’s massive rail system to build NEW grade separations where they do not exist. Building new ones is much more expensive than rebuilding one… but there are still lots of crossings that exist that SHOULD have grade separation. That the ROW is above street level in Chicago is key… but there are many busy roads in the suburbs that are not grade separated that ARE heavily traveled, by individuals and trucks alike.

    On the other hand… I wonder how many of these viaducts are nearing the end of their useful life. Two weeks ago was the 3 year anniversary of the I-35 bridge collapse in Minneapolis. We just saw 9 months ago the train derailment in Northbrook at Shermer Rd. There were no injuries or deaths with this… but the underpass was blocked for a few days and the rail line for several months. We certainly can’t afford for the UP-N line to close down for months if something would happen at any of these viaducts. I simply don’t know when these were originally built and I don’t know the bridge ratings on these compared to, say, the bridges of the highway system that have been rebuilt since the Minneapolis tragedy. The Tri-State (especially north) was rebuild when the highway ROW was widened to account for the extra width needed for the 4th lane, and they’re rebuilding the Edens Spur bridges with the current repave project.

    The fact of the matter is that our infrastructure is old… really old, and it needs to be replaced. Increasing the clearance makes sense if they’re going to be rebuilt.

  48. Norb Tatro says:

    As I wrote in response to Greg Hinz’ blog entry:

    Several important points need to be made about issues this retired producer/editor would raise with a reporter:

    1. The Brown Line is not yet maxed out. The [recently completed] reconstruction project created the capacity to handle an additional 33 percent in ridership by replacing six car trains with eight. One problem: no additional cars. Until new cars, now in the pipeline but not necessarily earmarked for the Brown Line, are delivered, the Brown Line will still have the potential to handle significant increases in ridership.

    2. There is no loss whatsoever in right of way (ROW). The Union Pacific will still own a 66-foot-wide swath through the city’s north side neighborhoods. In raising the bed for the tracks, Metra has chosen, I think wisely, a less expensive construction method that will lead to a narrower two-track corridor. Retaining the ROW makes it possible to restore triple tacking, if that ever becomes wise.

    3. Unless it has changed policy in the last five years or so, Metra only pays for basic stations. Upgrades, like the “Taj Mahal” proposed for the busiest station on the North Line at Ravenswood, are funded by the communities. Has anyone checked if Metra has changed this policy, or asked Ald. Eugene Schulter, in whose 47th Ward the station is located, about the actual sources of funding for this station?

    4. Aaron Renn, in his Urbanophile post, shows a lack of appreciation for the needs of truckers to service the area east of the Union Pacific ROW. A token improved underpass at Irving Park Road only leads to additional congestion as trucks are forced to detour aroud what amounts to a barricade. Renn may not be aware of it, but this is not a new issue. The 13′ 0” Belmont Avenue underpass, which he singles out, should be 14′ 0,” equal to the clearance under the CTA’s rebuilt station a few blocks east.

    5. Finally, when the increased use of EJ&E tracks by the CN railroad through Barrington and other wealthy suburbs was a hot button issue, one of the bones of contention was who would pay for new underpasses, [that might be] in the interest of public safety and access to emergency medical care. Federal policy, as I recall some of the stories, is that underpasses are a convenience to motorists and communities and highway interests should pay for the bulk of these costs. Not the railroad – or Metra. That’s the fair point raised by Renn.

    Just a few pesky questions from the copydesk.

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