My Bio and This Blog's Purpose

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With a new administration in D.C., it's time to think outside of the box because passenger rail's survival just may depend on it

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Station Issues Part 2: Fixing Chicago's Congestion Woes

In 1950, Chicago had at least eight major train stations that were centrally located. Half of those stations remain in place today. 

Union Station: Amtrak consolidated service here on March 5, 1972. While it may be a major landmark, Union Station has major overcrowding issues. Unless Amtrak wins bidding for every single route passing through Chicago and the station undergoes further renovations, Union Station would be very unsuitable for more than 400 trains a day since METRA commuter trains (and the bulk of its lines) also use the facility.

Ogilvie Transportation Center (was North Western Station): The Madison Street facility currently holds four METRA lines and almost 200 trains daily.

Millennium Station (was Randolph Street Station): Two agencies call this station home--METRA and the South Shore Line. Both companies operate electric train routes.

La Salle Street Station: METRA's Rock Island Line serves the facility. The Rock Island called this place home until it went out of business three decades ago. 


Current Plans
There is some talk of a
West Loop Transportation Center that would combine Union Station and the OTC. The issue that I have with this is that such a move would only be a short-term solution. I mean, what if HSR gets so popular that more trains need to be added but the facilities quickly reach capacity? And I haven't even mentioned the possibilities of METRA expansion and long-distance service by entities other than Amtrak.


A second proposal would result in an entirely new HSR station being built just blocks southeast of Union Station. The station would be located next to an old post office. This location looks too small for high speed service and could easily run into the same crowding issues as Union Station.
 
Sensible Alternatives
The MWHSR needs to come up with something better. As a result, I'm recommending that O'Hare be turned into a second main Chicago station alongside Union Station with the other three playing major roles in intercity rail travel as well. Why not have a stop at one of the world's busiest airports? It would provide air travelers and locals another option.


SNCF seems to understand the possibility of an alternative station in the Windy City as they propose the airport as one of the city's two stations and it's time that commissions like MWHSR understand it as well. Instead of trying to consolidate all intercity train service into a cramped facility and relocating METRA routes to less crowded locations, MWHSR should spread the trains around. Here's how it can be done:


1) Union Station: Amtrak would keep all of its routes here as it revamps the facility. The only catch is that the other four stations listed here would be homes to new operators so once any existing routes move out of Union Station, Amtrak would no longer operate them!


2) O'Hare Airport: This would be the only brand new station to be built at a new facility. SNCF (or whichever foreign entity) operates Express HSR would run the trains here. Furthermore, express trains would enable passengers to travel between Cleveland/Detroit and the Twin Cities, Cincinnati and St. Louis either directly or with an easy connection.


3) Ogilvie Transportation Center: Alternative service to Milwaukee, the Twin Cities and Green Bay. Also, another operator could choose to serve alternate stops between Chicago and Milwaukee like Kenosha and Racine.


4) Millennium Station. The new home for Illini and Saluki routes would also be the home for Express HSR service to St. Louis, Detroit and Cleveland. Also, on the long-distance front, The City of New Orleans would be relocated here if Canadian National shows any interest in operating passenger service. Trains to Florida would also be an appealing choice for this location.


5) La Salle Street Station: Quad Cities/Iowa/Omaha service if another company were to outbid Amtrak. Conventional or Regional HSR Cleveland service would call this station home. The Lake Shore Limited and the Capitol Limited would be relocated here and would be joined by a Florida-bound train that would follow the latter route to D.C. before being extended southward.


To alleviate the problem of changing trains and operators, HSR authorities like MWHSR should work out a special transfer program for passengers if they have to transfer from one station to another operator at a different station in the same city. That would guarantee passengers a connection. Unlike the Grand Central Terminal-Penn Station transfers of the past, these transfers would be free.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Station Issues Part 1: Handling Multiple Operators

Based on the controversies over station locations in Florida and Cincinnati, it's worth evaluating the sensibility of having two primary train stations in the same city. In the pre-Amtrak era, such stations existed due to multiple railroads stopping in different parts of town. Now, some states will select new operators for high speed service. The location of where these trains will stop should depend on the operator, whether the station provides any connections to local transportation and other intercity trains and whether these three criteria can be met:

1) Distance. Separate stations exist to handle corridor and
long-distance trains. In the July 27 TWA, Mr. Lindley provided an
example of what could happen in the future when he brought up Phoenix.
If everything played out as he described, a new Airport Station would
serve commuter trains, intrastate express trains, and intercity trains
while Union Station would remain in place for commuter and express
trains;

2) Size or Company. Overcrowding forces a company to move to a less crowded station or to a new location. In big cities like Chicago (I'll address the city in my next entry), this means that there are multiple major stations. For other locations like growing Sun Belt communities, this may result in the company outbidding Amtrak building a new train station at a whole new location;

3) Speed. Different stations are set up to handle fast and
conventional train speeds. The stations between Tampa and Orlando
would be examples of such a unique experiment. The older facilities
would handle Amtrak and intrastate service while the new buildings
would cater only to high-speed trains.

Florida leaders have decided to separate its HSR stations by providing the (likely) foreign operator with stations north of the Miami area that will only handle high speed trains. Between Tampa and Orlando, only suburban locations and the Orlando Airport will be served. There'll be little or no connection to local transportation, the planned Sunrail project in central Florida, or Amtrak along the I-4 corridor.

On the other hand, Cincinnati's situation makes little sense because the Cardinal is not even a daily train and it's likely that Amtrak will run the 3C Route. As a result, there will be no connectivity with the 3C and the Cardinal. How the city can renovate a station and still not have any meaningful train service is beyond me! I would only hope that the Chicago-Cincinnati
HSR route would serve Union Terminal, but that is more long-term, regardless of which station the high-speed line calls home. The only way this makes any real sense is if there are separate operators for the 3C and the Chicago Hub routes. In essence, Cincinnati, fails the smell test because it doesn't meet any of the criteria listed above.