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Metra UP-N & High-Speed Rail

July 09, 2021

Metra upgrades and the new HSR commission are laying the groundwork for high-speed rail in Chicago and the region.

Public transit and high-speed rail rise or fall together.

When transit systems and high-speed lines are planned together and integrated—and fast, frequent service is the norm for both—ridership across the whole system increases exponentially.

That’s the core truth of HSRA’s Integrated Network Approach. Investments in one sector drive investments in the other. More ridership on one leads to more ridership on the other.

The Bay Area’s commuter rail system, CalTrain, is the best U.S. example of this. As HSRA has noted before, it will soon be the nation’s gold standard for commuter rail systems. Ongoing upgrades include electrified tracks and state-of-the-art trains that will run at 110 mph, with departures every 15 minutes. When the work is completed next year, CalTrain will be the first domestic commuter-rail system that’s on par with state-of-the-art regional express networks in Europe.

And the CalTrain upgrades are being driven by—and planned in coordination with—California’s high-speed rail network.

All of which means the recent move by Metra, Chicago’s commuter-rail system, to increase the frequency of service on its UP North Line is great news.

The line runs from downtown Chicago to Kenosha, Wisconsin. Starting Monday, it will offer expanded service that includes half-hour departures, at minimum, throughout the entire working day between Chicago and the relatively near-in suburb of Winnetka. Prior to the pandemic, the service was hourly.

Why is this important?

To achieve maximize value, commuter rail must be much more than just a way to get to and from work during rush hours. It must be convenient for multiple kinds of trips throughout the day, and for getting to multiple destinations along the line.

That’s why Metra’s move toward higher frequency departures (at all hours) is important. It will make commuter rail a vital part of everyday life. People will use it for not only getting from their home to a job but for lots of different social, entertainment, and other outings in lots of different towns along the line.

Metra has announced similar service upgrades to its Rock Island District Line. The new schedule takes effect July 19. Metra is also taking part in a new, three-year pilot program that offers reduced fares on the Metra Electric and Rock Island Lines. The broader aim is to create seamless transfers between all transit operators on the south side of Chicago and in south Cook/north Will counties.

Big-picture, these recent moves by Metra add up to a major step forward for fast, frequent commuter rail service in Chicago. Which means that Metra is not only improving its own service. It’s laying the foundation for high-speed rail in the region.

Creating the momentum and political will for HSR means changing people’s expectations of what train service should be. When you raise the bar for one system, people expect more from trains in general. Metra’s upgraded service will help accomplish that.

IL High-Speed Rail Commission

But more frequent service isn’t the only impact of these upgrades. They also improve transportation planning and coordination in Illinois. And they add to the momentum created by the Illinois General Assembly’s recent move to establish a High Speed Rail Commission.

As HSRA observed in Crain’s Chicago this week, the Assembly’s bill gives the commission the authority to develop a statewide plan for a high-speed line and feeder network that connect Chicago and St. Louis. Part of its mission (once Gov. J.B. Pritzker signs the bill) will be to review how existing systems—including Metra and Amtrak trains, as well as intercity buses—will fit into the network.

As HSRA recommends with regard to Metra, the commission should move beyond the status quo model of primarily transporting people to and from bedroom communities during peak hours. “A different model would run Metra trains much more frequently—think every 15 minutes—and could even include new lines that connect suburb to suburb, instead of relying on a central hub model with Chicago at its center. This would dramatically increase ridership."

Upgraded service on the UP North and Rock Island lines, along with the new HSR commission, are just the first steps toward a transformed Metra—and a high-speed rail network that links the entire Midwest.

But they are critically important nonetheless. As everyone knows, the first step is often the hardest.

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