GO TO 2050 takes hard look at future of transportation in Chicago

Are you concerned about how you will get to work tomorrow? Or next week? Maybe not. But how about how you will get around in five or 10 years? According to the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP), rapidly evolving technologies are making for an uncertain, albeit promising, future.

After all, not many people thought 10 years ago that ride-sharing via Uber and Lyft would be as prevalent, convenient, and competitive, price-wise, as taking a CTA bus, train or Metra.

Meanwhile, the transit agencies themselves — CTA, Metra, Pace, and the umbrella Regional Transportation Authority — say billions of dollars in public money is needed over the next 10 years just to keep existing equipment in good operating condition.

And what about our expressways and tollways? The Illinois Department of Transportation doesn’t get anywhere near the state and federal dollars it once did. Meanwhile, the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority is the only game in town when it comes to building new highways because it is awash in toll cash. 

CMAP has developed a new comprehensive regional plan for Northeastern Illinois called ON TO 2050. The plan is divided into five chapters, which are further divided into goals and recommendations. ON TO 2050’s three principles of Inclusive Growth, Resilience, and Prioritized Investment run through all of its recommendations. The plan puts forth goals for community, prosperity, environment, governance, and mobility.

The chapter on mobility is subtitled Achieving…

Martin Oberman named to U.S. rail oversight board

President Donald Trump has nominated former Chicago alderman and Metra chairman Martin Oberman to a Democratic seat on the U.S. Surface Transportation board, the independent regulatory agency that resolves railroad rate and service disputes and reviews proposed railroad mergers.

The likelihood of the nomination was first tipped locally June 27 by the Chicago Transportation Journal.  The nomination was officially posted Thursday on the White House website.

If approved by the Senate, Oberman will fill the remainder of a five-year term expiring Dec. 31, 2023. The open Democratic seat was voluntarily vacated in 2017 by former Chairman Dan Elliott.

Oberman  emerged from a group of at least eight Democrats who were being considered for the last vacancy on the five-member regulatory board, which is the successor to the Interstate Commerce Commission. The agency also has oversight of certain trucking, intercity passenger bus and pipeline matters.

Oberman’s nomination got a strong push last month from the Rail Customer Coalition, an association of trade groups representing major freight rail users.

Oberman, 73, an attorney who built a reputation as a reformer while an alderman on Chicago’s City Council, was named to Metra’s board by Mayor Rahm Emanuel in September 2013. He was elected chairman in 2014, serving until last October, when Norm Carlson took the post.

Oberman also also serves on the board of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP).  Previously, he served as general counsel to the Illinois Racing Board.  Oberman graduated from Yale University and earned his J.D. with honors from the University of Wisconsin Law School, the…

Critics outnumber fans of Union Station plan

Who’s a fan of the proposed “vertical addition” to Chicago Union Station? Except for DePaul University transportation expert Joe Schwieterman, almost nobody. Here’s a sampling of the critics from my story posted today on TRAINS magazine’s News Wire:

Since developers announced plans to remake historic Chicago Union Station on June 25, the critics of the proposal have outnumbered the fans by an overwhelming margin.

In newspaper pages, on blogs, and on social media, the public has generally savaged a design by Chicago-based Riverside Investment & Development and Convexity Properties to top the neoclassical head house, completed in 1925, with a modernistic, seven-story steel and glass addition.

The proposed glass structure would contain 404 apartments. Below, in the existing building, 330 hotel rooms would be built.

Architecture critics say the two designs are incongruous. Writing in The Architect’s Newspaper, Elizabeth Blasius described the addition as “a self-inked address stamper.”

“The proposed addition is not only an imbalance in terms of design, it’s also condescending to the station itself, the architectural equivalent of a head patting, or worse,” Blasius wrote.

Blair Kamin, Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic for the Chicago Tribune, followed up on his initial criticism of the design in the newspaper by saying in an interview with Chicago’s WTTW:

“The architects are trying to create a design that they say would be compatible with, yet distinct from the addition. But in this case, the addition is not compatible in the least with the existing Union Station. It’s top heavy. It is a grid,…

Rail summit topic: death on the tracks

What can be done about death on the tracks? While the number of fatalities from vehicle/train collisions at crossings has dropped significantly in recent decades, deaths involving trespassers on railroad tracks, including people who attempt to commit suicide by train, have risen.

Railroad safety advocates, industry representatives and other officials will meet in Chicago on Thursday, March 22, for a summit on ways to reduce trespass incidents and lower risks at grade crossings.

The session is being organized by the Illinois Commerce Commission, which oversees rail transportation in the state, and is intended to give commission members feedback on options to improve safety, according to Michael Stead, ICC’s rail program administrator.

“We hope that this will be a great opportunity to educate the commission on the issues,” Stead said.

The policy session will feature three panels intended to provide an overview of current railroad engineering education and enforcement strategies.

The first panel, entitled “The Challenge of Pedestrian Safety/Trespass Prevention,” will feature Norman Carlson, board chairman of Metra, Chicago’s commuter rail agency; Dr. Richard Jorgensen, DuPage County coroner; and Paul Piekarski, from the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen.

The second panel, “Pedestrian Safety at Highway-Rail Grade Crossings — Engineering Solutions and Personal Testimony,” will feature Adrian Guerrero, Union Pacific; Elliot Ramos, Illinois Department of Transportation; Dr. Lanny Wilson, chairman of the DuPage Rail Safety Council; and Derek Zook, a sergeant with the Naperville, Ill., Police Department.

The third panel, “Trespass Prevention — What Can We Do?” will feature Scott Gabree, manager of the Grade Crossing Safety and Trespass Prevention Program at…

Metra to ‘break silence’ on suicides

Reposted from Trains Magazine:  Officials at Metra say it’s time to tackle a topic that many in the rail industry have long considered taboo: death by train.

The commuter rail agency, in partnership with Amtrak and the DuPage Railroad Safety Council, sponsored a daylong symposium entitled “Breaking the Silence.” The Sept. 27 session at Union Station was intended to coordinate a strategy to prevent suicides along the tracks.

The agency gathered nearly 100 mental health experts and community members to help in its campaign to install suicide prevention signs along its 11 lines by the end of the year.

Metra Board Chairman Norman Carlson said the agency wanted to develop a collaborative regional strategy to address the problem.

The primary goal “is saving human lives,” Carlson said. “That is our principal objective.”

The event coincided with Rail Safety Week. September was also National Suicide Prevention Awareness month.

Metra announced the campaign in July after a spate of suicides in the Chicago area. So far this year, Metra said it has tallied 21 suicides or suspected suicides, more than in each of the previous five years.

The problem of suicide by train is particularly acute in the Chicago area, experts say, because the city is the nation’s railroad hub, served by six Class I railroads and Amtrak. Metra itself runs more than 700 trains a day.

The agency said it has so far trained more than 700 engineers, conductors and other employees to recognize individuals in despair and to intervene.

Although this program has been successful, Carlson said the agency needed to do more to “break the silence”…

Use caution with Union Station redevelopment

IMG_0043Guest commentary: Union Station is key element in Crossrail plan for unified, regional rail service

By Alan Mammoser

Historic Union Station, with grand columns and Great Hall, stands solemnly in the West Loop as is has for nearly a century. But the old station is in the news a lot lately. Recently, Amtrak and Mayor Emanuel announced a $1 billion plan to redevelop this relic of railroading’s golden age. They foresee a new hotel and condos atop the Great Hall, and new towers on adjacent blocks.

It’s an impressive plan that should generate revenue for the city and Amtrak. But it misses the big picture. The big picture for Union Station is much more than a real estate deal. The big picture includes not just the Great Hall but extends across Canal Street to the Concourse. It’s there, in the tracks beneath a nondescript 1960s-era office tower, that the key to revolutionizing Chicago-area transit lay.

Any plan to enhance Union Station’s real estate values should also recognize that its redevelopment can transform Chicago-area transit. Done properly, this plan will give Chicago a world class rail system, one fit for a global city. Done improperly, it could compromise the irreplaceable transportation jewel that Union Station is.

The plan announced in May shows no sense of the need to upgrade the rail network beneath the streets, where Amtrak and Metra face limited space to serve a growing ridership. Worse, its massive scale actually threatens future transit improvements, because its big towers sit directly…

Death by train: Railroads, Metra and suicides

One morning last January, Metra foreman Robert Tellin was startled as he peered out the window of his office at Elgin’s commuter station. There, Tellin saw a man standing in the center of the tracks, just as the PA announced an approaching train.

Hurrying outside, Tellin asked the man what he was doing on the tracks. The man responded: I want to die.

Quickly, Tellin grabbed the man and safely pulled him from the rails, seconds before the train arrived.

It was a heroic effort on the part of Tellin, whom Metra’s board of directors honored with a resolution in March.

Unfortunately, for every moment of heroism there are many more moments of tragedy across the Chicago area’s vast network of railroad tracks. It seems every few weeks a Metra line is shut down due to a “pedestrian accident.” One just incident occurred last Thursday when a woman was struck in Northbrook by an Amtrak train, which shares the same tracks.

Indeed, death on the tracks is a problem that is particularly endemic to the Chicago area.

According to the Federal Railroad Administration, in 2015 there were 32 suicides-by-train in Illinois. That’s one-tenth of the national total. And as the Chicago Tribune reported in 2014, the metro area itself has a higher incidence of suicides by train than the national average.

Research by Northwestern University professor Ian Savage found that 47 percent of railroad-pedestrian fatalities in the Chicago area were apparent suicides, versus 30 percent nationally.

One reason, Savage explained, is simply…

Metra adding service to Heritage Corridor line

By Richard Wronski / Chicago Transportation Journal

After years of complaints about scant train service, riders on Metra’s Heritage Corridor line are finally getting a break: One new daily train.

Starting March 14, Metra will add a 2:45 pm departure train each weekday from Union Station, Metra Executive Director/CEO Don Orseno announced Wednesday.

The additional train will boost the number of Heritage Corridor runs from six to seven: three inbound morning runs and four outbound runs each weekday. The line has no weekend service.

The Heritage Corridor is Metra’s least-used line, with only 2,400 weekday riders. By contrast, the Electric District line has 170 weekday trains carrying 33,500 riders, and the BNSF Line operates 94 weekday trains, with nearly 64,000 riders.

The new 2:45 pm train will make stops at Summit, Willow Springs, Lemont and Lockport before arriving at its final destination in Joliet at 3:50 p.m.

Orseno said the additional train will provide more convenience and options for southwest suburban customers.

The new service is the result of years of effort by Metra and elected officials along the route to bolster the Heritage Corridor, Orseno said. The new service required agreements from the Canadian National Railway Co., which owns the tracks and operates freight service on the line, and Amtrak, which owns Union Station.

U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski, whose district includes much of the Heritage Corridor, has pressed CN for years to allow Metra to add service. In 2013, Lipinski said he was so frustrated with CN that he considered introducing legislation to force the railroad to allow more Metra trains.

On Wednesday, Lipinski said…

Metra: No PTC safety system until 2020

By Richard Wronski

Chicago Transportation Journal

Metra has told federal regulators that it doesn’t plan to have a high-tech safety system installed on its commuter trains until 2020, five years after a deadline that was originally imposed by Congress in 2008.

The safety system, known as Positive Train Control, uses GPS, sophisticated software and equipment to automatically slow or stop speeding trains and prevent the kinds of derailments that occurred on Metra’s Rock Island Line in 2003 and 2005 that resulted in two deaths and dozens of injuries.

Most recently, federal safety experts say, PTC would have prevented the May 12 derailment in Philadelphia of an Amtrak train that was traveling at twice the speed limit. Eight people were killed and more than 200 injured.

In the face of a threatened national railroad shutdown on Jan. 1, Congress in October approved an extension of the PTC deadline until the end of 2018, with some exceptions.

The Federal Railroad Administration on Wednesday released a list of dates by which the nation’s freight and commuter railroads said they planned to have PTC fully implemented.

Metra and Boston’s Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority were the only two big-city commuter rail agencies that said they would need until 2020 to have PTC ready.

Metra said Wednesday that the 2020 timetable it filed with the FRA was a “realistic schedule” and met the “legal deadline” for PTC implementation as outlined in the extension legislation Congress passed in October.

The legislation allows railroads to file an “alternative schedule” for PTC by the end of 2018, Metra said. That schedule calls for acquiring radio…

Something new for Chicago

Hello, Chicago. This marks the debut of a new source of information for the millions of Chicago area residents and businesses who must get around the metropolitan area each day, whether by car, bus or train (and bike, too). Just a few years ago, there were at least five reporters working for Chicago newspapers and radio stations whose “beat” was transportation and who provided this information. Not any more.

While those beats have disappeared, the news has not. Chicagoans still need to know the best ways to get around. They need to know how their expressways and tollways are being managed and maintained. They need to know if their buses and trains are operating properly and on time. They need to know who runs the transit agencies, and why those officials make the decisions they do. They need to how their tax money and fares are being spent. They need a watchdog.

The Chicago Transportation Journal’s goal is to address those needs. We’ll do so by providing in-depth coverage of issues unavailable elsewhere. For example, if your bus or train is consistently late, we’ll tell you why and what’s being done to fix the problem. We’ll delve into the decision-making behind the policies and actions taken by transportation agencies. We’ll also provide a forum for transportation users, providers and experts. We welcome other voices.

Transportation is a multibillion-dollar industry, and Chicago is the transportation hub of the nation. All the major freight railroads, Amtrak, and many of the key interstate highways pass through the region. We have two of the nation’s busiest airports, O’Hare and Midway. This site also hopes to keep an eye on the freight rail, trucking and aviation industries, areas not covered by other media.

The Chicago Transportation Journal is making a…