Building urban rail lines has always been expensive, and one of the consequences of this is that many more lines have been proposed than built. The shelves of Northwestern University’s excellent Transportation Library, for example, contain approximately 75 books or reports in which rail lines for Chicago are proposed; only something like a dozen of these lines have actually been constructed1. Of course, numerous proposals have been made for building lines that have never even made it to the books and government reports that are collected by libraries. Here’s a 1913 proposal on a map at the University of Chicago Map Collection that was only published in cartographic form. None of the proposed new lines was actually ever implemented.
The Internet of course has been a perfect home for proposals to build new urban rail lines. Numerous “fantasy-transit” sites discuss these. Alon Levy’s Pedestrian Observations, which features long cost-benefit analyses of proposed lines, may be the best of these sites. It has quite a lot of competition2. Other sites that deal with urban transportation issues in general, like Yonah Freemark’s The Transport Politic and Jarrett Walker’s Human Transit, have also often discussed potential new lines.
I’ve enormously enjoyed reading the posts on these sites—if you like urban rail, then contemplating new lines is a simple pleasure—but I don’t know how much effect they’ve had on actual public policy. To take just one example, if the politicians and government officials who actually decide what to build had paid much attention to what gets written on these sites, thousands of additional kilometers of “heavy-rail” transit lines would have been added—while most of the numerous short, slow, infrequent, and expensive street-running streetcar lines that have been constructed or started in the United States over the last decade would never have been considered worth building.
Discussions of new transit in Chicago in recent years have been very much like discussions of new transit elsewhere. There have been hundreds of proposals to build new lines, hardly any of which seem to have much chance of actual implementation. One example is TransitFuture’s proposal to create a grid of new CTA lines mostly to the west of the existing lines.
There have also been numerous proposals to make better use of the rail lines now run by Metra, the commuter rail agency. Many of these lines run through dense areas of the city and inner suburbs but have few city stops and infrequent service. Adding stops and service, and instigating fare integration with the city transit agency, the CTA, would seem like a no-brainer, but, despite all the proposals, nothing ever happens. The chief reason may be institutional. Metra clearly feels that longer-distance commuters constitute its major market (although many of the city stations do a great deal of business). It also fears anything that could lead to a loss of revenue.
The model for making more intensive use of suburban rail lines is of course Western Europe, where numerous cities have to a large degree integrated their rapid transit and suburban rail systems. Paris, London, Berlin, Munich, Frankfurt, and Oslo are perhaps the cities that have moved furthest in this direction. In all these places, suburban lines have been brought through the inner city in tunnels; the lines run as often as subway lines typically do; and one fare lets you ride on both the subway system and what was once the suburban system. This arrangement solves several problems at the same time. Frequent service on the suburban lines brings genuine rail rapid transit to numerous areas that did not have it and (often) express subway service to areas already served. Inner-city tunneling brings the suburban trains from peripheral stations to places where travelers actually want to go. And, even if the suburban trains themselves don’t take you to your destination, improved connections with the existing subway system enormously increase the range of easily reachable destinations. Furthermore, fare integration encourages full use of the entire system. In addition, the reduced role of stub-end stations at the edge of the CBD allows much faster service and eliminates the need to store trains on expensive land close to the city center. And (in some cases) electrification of suburban train lines (required for passage through tunnels) has made the trains faster and quieter.
Similar arrangements are rare outside of Western Europe, but they do exist. In Asia, Tokyo and Osaka have joined their suburban and urban rail systems by allowing subway trains onto the suburban railways and making through fares available. In the Western Hemisphere, only São Paulo has set up a system somewhat comparable to those in Western Europe (although without any new tunneling): subway lines and the old and much improved suburban lines have been joined into one gigantic system (see my earlier post on this system). There are some moves in this direction only in a small number of cities in North America. Denver’s brand-new suburban rail lines have fare integration with the rest of the transit system, and Philadelphia built an underground line connecting its two suburban train stations that opened in 1984, but there is no fare integration with the subway system. Furthermore, both Toronto and Montréal are planning an enormous increase in service levels on certain suburban train lines (although apparently with no fare integration in Toronto).
There have been proposals to set up “through-running” of a sort in Chicago, of which the most serious is probably CrossRail Chicago. This proposal avoids the need for downtown tunneling by suggesting that lines be joined via the St. Charles Air Line south of downtown. CrossRail comes much closer to being a thoroughly worked-out scheme than just about anything else proposed by members of the public. If it were actually built, I have no doubt that life in Chicago would be improved enormously, but it does need to be said that the line would have the peculiarity of not serving the central Loop at all, much less its northern extension. It also would have poor connections with the CTA, which does not have any rail line to Union Station, or, in fact, to most other Metra stations in Chicago and its suburbs3. The fact that CrossRail in one form or another has been around for a decade without acquiring significant government support could be interpreted in any number of ways. Maybe it just isn’t quite radical enough to excite very many people.
Perhaps I’ve missed something obvious, but I’ve never actually seen a completely worked out proposal for through-running Chicago’s suburban trains that included service to the Loop proper and to its northern extensions4. The geography is, indeed, a bit awkward, since service from the north now ends up in stations west of the Loop. Pedestrian Observations blogger Alon Levy, a supporter of through-running in New York (where the geography is also awkward), in a discussion of through-running in Chicago, seems to have just given up. But I wonder whether this is not rather premature. It is true that new downtown tunnels would be fantastically expensive and that the cost would have to include electrification of the lines passing through them. In a city and state with a structural deficit of billions of dollars a year, it might seem absurd to imagine that money could be found. But let us imagine that the federal government does indeed get into the business of building infrastructure on a large scale in the next few years and at least fantasize what might be done with it.
One obvious problem with rail transit in Chicago is that it (inevitably) tends to focus on the central business district as it was some decades back, when it was largely confined to the Loop proper. But the most prestigious retailing in Chicago’s CBD moved north, up Michigan Avenue, many years ago. There is only one rail station in this area now, the Red Line’s Chicago stop, and it’s three blocks from the major retail establishments at, and near, Water Tower Place. This area, in fact, is not just a retailing center. Numerous hotels and densely built-up residential districts are close by, as are Chicago’s most prestigious hospital, Northwestern Memorial Hospital, and its neighbors, the highly regarded Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago and Chicago Children’s Hospital. There are also numerous offices in the area, and even more closer to the River, a few blocks south. Setting up through-running of suburban train lines would ideally solve the problem of poor rail transit in this area.
As it happens, Metra’s major north-south line (UP-North) is roughly 2 km west of Water Tower. Why not run this line east from just south of the Clybourn station over to Michigan Avenue (or just east of it)? Passengers wanting to travel south to Ogilvie Station (formerly the Northwestern Terminal) could change at Clybourn, which is served by two UP lines. There would be connections with the Red and Brown Line stations on Chicago Avenue. The tunnel would turn south somewhere around Michigan Avenue (or maybe Columbus). It would need to be very deep, partly because the area is so built up, and partly because the turn near Water Tower Place would only be possible with a radius large enough to require passing under some existing buildings. The tunnel would join with the already electrified Metra Electric at Millennium Park. There would have to be another east-west tunnel somewhere south of this, perhaps under Monroe Street, that would have connections with Red and Blue Line stations as well as with those on the Loop. Again, a very deep tunnel would be required, partly so that it could pass under the existing subways and other infrastructure and partly because large-radius turns to and from Metra Electric and the tracks to Union Station would require going under some existing buildings. The tunnel would join with the existing tracks north of Union Station (and, in an ideal world, with the Rock Island tracks as well).
Here’s what this looks like on a map:
Central Chicago showing proposed new Metra lines as well as existing CTA and Metra lines. The filled circles are stations. The large green circles mark both new stations and existing stations that would presumably acquire new underground tracks. Most of the base data come from the City of Chicago’s data portal.
And here’s the larger picture: a view of Chicago and its inner suburbs showing the relationship between CTA lines and Metra rapid transit lines:
CTA lines and the five Metra rapid transit lines mentioned briefly in the text. Assumes that rapid transit is extended only to inner suburbs. There are of course many other possibilities.
This arrangement would permit many different service patterns. Perhaps Metra Electric (“IC”) trains could be rerouted through the east-west Loop tunnel and end up in O’Hare (thus providing the express service to O’Hare that Mayor Emanuel has been supporting). Trains from Evanston (or further north) might pass via Water Tower and the Millennium Station to the east-west tunnel, and turn south at Union Station to, say the Burlington Line (although there is more city demand on the Rock Island Line, which now terminates at the LaSalle Station). Additional suburban lines could be joined in eventually.
Service on the Chicago and inner-suburban portions of the main suburban lines might be every 15 minutes all day and every 7.5 minutes through the east-west tunnel (since two lines would share it), and could, of course, be even more frequent during rush hour. If more suburban lines were brought into the system, service on the shared tunnel stretches could become even better. Chicago and its inner suburbs would thus gain an enormous amount of new rapid rail transit that would in fact be much more rapid than the existing lines. Suburbanites would find it much easier to get where they wanted to go, either because the trains would actually take them there or because connections would be easier. The elimination of noisy diesel engines on the affected routes would improve the environment. And fast-accelerating electric trains could make a few additional city stops without increasing their total transit time unreasonably. The trains would also no longer have to crawl into stub-end stations at 10 kph, since the stations would be through stations.
Altogether something like 5.8 km of tunneling and several new stations would be required. This construction, along with electrification, might cost something like ten or fifteen billion dollars, a huge amount but not an unimaginable sum in an urban area of perhaps eight or nine million people if there were a generous federal subsidy. The Chicago urban area is only a little smaller than the Paris and London urban areas where much larger rail building plans have been completed, and where even larger and more expensive projects are under way. Construction would of course take several years but would not have to be enormously disruptive, since the new tunnels would generally be so far beneath the surface.
Of course, all this is just a fantasy!
- Figure based on a quick perusal of titles with subject heading “Local transit—Illinois—Chicago (or: Chicago Metropolitan Area)–Planning” or having a call number beginning with HE4491.C4. I didn’t look at every item. ↩
- See blogroll on Pedestrian Observations for a very partial list. ↩
- I acknowledge the exceptions, Irving Park, Main Street Evanston, Oak Park/Harlem-Lake, 35th-Lou Jones/Sox-35th. Downtown, the LaSalle Street and Millennium stations are within a block of CTA lines. ↩
- “Itinerant urbanist” Sandy Johnson once proposed an east-west Loop line, but it misses the Near North Side. ↩