Jeramey Jannene
Transportation

Illinois Wins Grant That Will Benefit Amtrak Hiawatha Expansion

Wisconsin and Illinois transportation departments collaborating on expansion plan.

By - May 29th, 2020 05:43 pm
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An Amtrak Hiawatha Service train crosses N. Plankinton Ave. near the Milwaukee Intermodal Station. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

An Amtrak Hiawatha Service train crosses N. Plankinton Ave. near the Milwaukee Intermodal Station. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

A new federal grant to repair a railroad junction in Illinois will improve the on-time performance of the Amtrak Hiawatha Service and support its expansion from seven to 10 daily round trips.

Wisconsin and Illinois have been jointly working since 2013 to expand the passenger train line, which connects Milwaukee and Chicago.

Metra, the Chicago commuter rail system, received a $12.5 million federal grant to support its $26 million project to repair and improve three different track junctions.

One of those junctions, the Rondout Interlocking, is the site of one of 10 infrastructure projects identified as necessary to increase the number of daily Hiawatha trains. Located in northern Cook County, the interlocking controls train traffic where Canadian National’s freight tracks cross tracks used by Canadian Pacific freight trains, Metra and Amtrak.

“The three interlockings were originally constructed before Metra was formed in 1984 and were last rehabilitated in the late 1990s and early 2000s, but there are still some components dating back to the 1930s,” said Metra in a press release.

In addition to improving compatibility with the Positive Train Control safety system at each of the three interlockings, a new track will be added between the double-track, north-south mainline and the single-track Fox Lake branch at Rondout removing an operational bottleneck. That improvement will ease scheduling for Metra, reduce delays and allow more throughput in a corridor that sees over 100 trains per day.

“This is a very important project and Wisconsin DOT congratulates Metra on the successful grant application. These improvements help facilitate further improvements at the Rondout interlocking and on the Fox Lake subdivision that would be required to increase the Amtrak Hiawatha Service to 10 daily round-trips in the future,” said a Wisconsin Department of Transportation spokesperson to Urban Milwaukee via email.

WisDOT has secured three grants to address the necessary projects in Wisconsin, including a signaling project in downtown Milwaukee, a second passenger platform at the Milwaukee Airport Station and a freight-rail bypass of the Milwaukee Intermodal Station via the Menomonee Valley.

But a sticking point remains in Illinois, where the Illinois Department of Transportation pulled out of a plan to build sidings (holding tracks) for long freight trains in Glenview and Lake Forest after each municipality spent money opposing the project.

“Wisconsin and Illinois are working with the host railroads on railroad capacity simulation modeling to determine a revised program of railroad infrastructure projects needed to increase the Hiawatha Service to 10 daily round-trips,” said WisDOT.

Prior to the change, the project had a proposed cost of $195 million much of which would be paid for by the federal government. Hiawatha riders pay for 75 percent of the line’s operating expenses, a percentage far higher than most public transit systems.

The Hiawatha Service set a new ridership record in 2019 with 876,356 trips, more than double 2003’s total when the system began providing seven daily roundtrips. The route is the busiest non-coastal route in the Amtrak system.

The number of round trips has been temporarily reduced as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Amtrak also operates a single Empire Builder train in each direction over the corridor. That route connects Chicago to the Twin Cites and then on to the Pacific Northwest. Minnesota and Wisconsin are studying adding a second daily train in each direction and recently secured a federal grant to advance the work.

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