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Faster Amtrak trains could mean slower traffic on S. Side, suburbs

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Updated: March 26, 2014 6:25AM



Just over a dozen Chicago neighborhoods and south suburban towns could see up to 16 more Amtrak trains a day blocking traffic at grade crossings under a proposal to run higher speed trains of up to 110 mph from Chicago to Joliet.

State officials also will be weighing whether to buy property — and possibly even homes — if they decide to add a third track to the enhanced Chicago-to-Joliet segment.

Illinois Department of Transportation officials and their consultants Monday began a series of briefings on an estimated $1.5 billion plan for the 40-mile Chicago-to-Joliet leg of a 281-mile, higher-speed Amtrak rail corridor from Chicago to St. Louis. Input was invited.

Although projections are sketchy at this point, the enhancements should reduce by 5 to 30 minutes the current Amtrak trip of 50 to 75 minutes between Chicago and Joliet, depending on the train taken, IDOT officials said. On-time Amtrak performance which averaged 76.5 percent in the last year on that leg also should rise, they said.

And, state officials said, improvement on that segment — due by 2019 at the earliest — should shrink the total 5 1/2- hour Chicago-St. Louis trip to even less than the 4 1/2 hours now envisioned.

To do so, trains would run through most segments of track at up to 110 mph — if possible — instead of the current 79 mph maximum. True high-speed rail service of 220 mph would be even more costly and is a distant goal at the moment.

The current proposal involves switching most of Amtrak’s Chicago-to-Joliet trains from tracks now mostly owned by Canadian National Railway that have about 20 grade crossings to tracks farther east now owned mostly by Metra that currently have 35 grade crossings.

That means communities holding any of those 35 grade crossings will see up to 16 new Amtrak trains a day rumbling through their neighborhoods at far higher speeds in addition to the current 65 Metra Rock Island passenger trains and nearly a half-dozen freight trains that now use those Metra tracks daily.

The 13 communities and suburbs affected include the Near South Side, Washington Heights, Beverly, Morgan Park, Blue Island, Tinley Park, Mokena and New Lennox.

IDOT will be including some kind of grade crossing enhancement to run faster trains through those communities, officials said. The most expensive of those would involve building a bridge so cars could travel above or below train tracks and not be held up at grade crossings. Other options include beefing up crossing gates or signaling systems.

On the positive side, communities along the Canadian National tracks will see as few as two Amtrak trains at their grade crossings everyday, instead of the current 10.

Also under consideration is adding a third track to portions of the Chicago-Joliet leg. That would involve garnering 25 to 50 additional feet alongside existing track — meaning the state might have to buy property, or possibly even homes, to do so, state consultants said.

Email rrossi@suntimes.com

Twitter @rosalindrossi



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