A new vision for the Black Hawk corridor

How to create thriving passenger rail in northern Illinois

The Illinois Department of Transportation is planning a modest new service to Rockford, the fifth largest city in Illinois. It’s also funding a feasibility study for an extension to Dubuque.

Unfortunately, IDOT’s piecemeal approach leaves a lot of revenue on the table and misses a lot of great opportunities.

A unified plan for the entire corridor would yield a bigger payoff.

The Rockford area is an important center for aerospace components.
An integrated plan would:
  1. Allow IDOT to implement “tiered” service, which would make the whole line much more usable and multiply its power to revitalize communities.

  2. Create convenient access to O’Hare Airport via Franklin Park station.

  3. Give Metra a path to expand and maximize its current services.

Grant's Home in Galena—just steps from the railroad station—is the 12th most visited tourist site in Illinois.
Current Status

The route has three tiers:

  1. Chicago - Elgin is served by frequent Metra trains.
  2. IDOT has construction money for the Elgin - Rockford segment but plans to offer just two daily roundtrips.  Marengo and Huntley seek Metra service.
  3. IDOT has funded a feasibility study for the Rockford - Dubuque segment. We believe that Waterloo should be included in this tier.
Chicago - Rockford vs. Chicago - South Bend

The distance from Chicago to Rockford is about the same as Chicago to South Bend. So it’s useful to compare the train service between the cities.

The South Shore Line features a tiered approached. That is, it offers more departures as you get closer to Chicago:

Tier 1) 18 daily departures from Gary to Chicago

Tier 2) 13 daily departures from Michigan City to Chicago

Tier 3) 5 daily departures from South Bend to Chicago.

The South Shore Line is moving forward with upgrades that will speed up the trains and allow more daily departures.

There should be at least 5 daily trains from Rockford

Today's South Bend to Chicago schedule allows passengers to:

  1. Arrive in Chicago at the beginning of the business day
  2. Depart South Bend at a reasonable time for personal trips
  3. Travel mid-day
  4. Depart just before dinner
  5. Depart after dinner

Running 5 daily trains from Chicago to Rockford would be a great start.

Another relevant example is the Hiawatha line, from Chicago to Milwaukee, which has seven trains each day, each way, and is one of Amtrak’s busiest corridors.

The South Shore offers 5 daily trains from South Bend to Chicago, serving key travel needs.
2 or 3 daily roundtrips are needed for Galena, Dubuque and Waterloo

The cities west of Rockford should have two or three daily roundtrips.  This will allow day trips in in either direction.

The Fourth Ave. Elevator in Dubuque. Photo: Dirk_DBQ_Flickr
The opportunity with Metra

Metra is reworking its schedules to respond to COVID-19.

One option is to implement a "regional rail" model. Frequent service to further-out cities would attract passengers throughout the day, as opposed to Metra’s near-total focus on suburbs-to-downtown jobs.

This is an opportunity to create a true, "tiered" schedule for the entire route. And it’s a great opportunity for Metra to experiment with new strategies.

For example, high-performance train designs that slash operating costs could make lower-volume services financially feasible.


TexRail uses modern DMUs to link Fort Worth with DFW airport with frequent departures.
A potential schedule

The following trip times should be feasible based on historic timetables and advances in lightweight trainsets:

Rockford to Chicago: 2 hours
Dubuque to Chicago: 4 hours

We have created a sample schedule to illustrate what we think is the minimum service level needed to attract substantial passengers.

For simplicity, it shows only the trains going west of Elgin.  Those trains should be timed to allow easy transfers to Metra's local trains at Elgin.

To be clear, this schedule is intended to illustrate the concept.  It is not yet known what improvements are needed to make this schedule work.

But, you can help make it a reality by getting involved.

Get Involved

It’s critical that IDOT make a plan for high-frequency service—now.

Why? Because the number of daily trains is a key factor in driving success.

And, unlike roads, railroad tracks are designed to match the number of trains in an operating plan. So it’s difficult to add trains later.

Your action—right now—is critical.

Let Governor J.B. Pritzker and Governor Kim Reynolds know: We deserve much better than tweaks to the status quo.

A charter train stopped in Galena on October 08, 2005. It is time to make this a thrice-daily occurrence. Photo: Thomas Johnson