AN Amtrak-led coalition has submitted applications for $US 872.8m in Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) funding for the Chicago Hub Improvement Programme (Chip), which aims to “provide faster and more reliable service to support the Midwest’s growing ridership.”

Announcing the request for funding on August 3, Illinois governor, Mr J B Pritzker, said that successful completion of the project “would unlock a vast system of new and expanded passenger rail services throughout the Midwest, with Chicago's Union Station serving as the hub.”

Chip has three components: upgrading infrastructure at Chicago Union Station (CUS), in the wider Chicago area and on the line between Chicago and Detroit. Overall, Amtrak says the project will enable it to operate more services across the Midwest by creating faster and more reliable ways of accessing CUS.

Among the specific proposed projects is the creation of a direct connection between CUS and St Charles Air Line (SCAL) bridge over the south branch of the Chicago River near 18th Street. Combined with modifications to the track layout east of the bridge, this will help to reduce journey times to and from CUS as trains will no longer have to reverse to reach destinations on the former Illinois Central main line such as Champaign-Urbana, Centralia and Carbondale.

The project also includes work to improve the junction between the SCAL and the Rock Island District at 16th Street and provide a new platform at Joliet, Illinois, which will boost capacity through this major regional bottleneck. Further afield, Chip includes work to track double the congested Niles - Glenwood Road section of the Chicago - Detroit line.

CUS will also undergo a major modernisation programme to deliver accessible platforms and concourses that will support future growth of inter-city and commuter ridership.

Among the planned services that the upgrades will facilitate is a new cross-town Metra commuter service from O’Hare Airport transfer station in the north to McCormick Place via Beverly and Hyde Park. It will also offer the potential to increase Amtrak services to cities across the Midwest by eliminating bottlenecks and improving service reliability, which could benefit more than 15 inter-city routes.

A new platform at Joliet, Illinois, will provide a welcome boost to capacity at the station.

The project is expected to cost $US 1.1bn, $US 872.8m of which will be covered by the FRA’s Federal-State Partnership Programme, which is funded by the Biden administration’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. Amtrak and its partners will contribute a further $US 218m. This includes $US 50m from the state’s Rebuild Illinois capital programme.

In addition to Amtrak, members of the bidding coalition include the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT), the Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT), Cook County, Metra and the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT), together with the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP).

“Bringing our cities closer together with fast, frequent, and affordable trains is key to attracting the dynamic businesses and innovative workforce needed to transition to the green economy,” says Mr Rick Harnish, executive director of the  High Speed Rail Alliance.

“And fixing Union Station is the first step towards building those trains.

“Next, we need Congress to support governor Pritzker’s leadership. Congress should fully fund the Federal Railroad Administration in the 2024 federal budget. With FRA support, programmes like Chip can get done, and we can build a more prosperous region with increased freedom to travel for all.”

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