Talking Transit: Union Station at Capacity while Amtrak ridership up in Illinois - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Talking Transit: Union Station at Capacity while Amtrak ridership up in Illinois

Photo: Laurence Pearlman

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Did you Know?  In Illinois, inter-city ridership on Amtrak grew by 5.6 percent in 2012. This is a continuing trend: Since 2006, State of Illinois supported Amtrak ridership  has increased almost 93 percent. 

Growth demands

People are flocking to inter-city rail to avoid paying higher gas prices, sitting in traffic on congested highways, and stressing out at the airport. Amtrak also is meeting consumer demand with improved on-board amenities, such as Wi-Fi access and electrical outlets for mobile devices. What’s more, planned track upgrades across the country will result in faster trains. This ridership growth benefits the region by reducing traffic on the highways and emissions in the air, and by driving economic growth. 

Most inter-city rail riders arrive, depart or travel through Chicago’s Union Station, the hub of Amtrak’s Midwest and long-distance routes and the nation’s third-busiest station. In addition to Amtrak riders, Union Station also serves Metra commuter rail riders, for a total of more than 15 million passengers boarding trains each year at the station. If Union Station were an airport, it would be the 10th busiest in the U.S.  

In Illinois, funding from the $1.2 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act award is improving the Chicago-to-St. Louis rail corridor, allowing trains to travel at speeds up to 110 m.p.h.; a 15-mile stretch of the line has already been upgraded. Faster service will entice even more visitors to travel to Chicago on rail, creating a real economic opportunity: Projections show that over the next 10 years, about 800,000 new tourists will visit Chicago thanks to the Chicago-to-St. Louis modernization. The Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) analyzed the economic impact of that increased tourism in the Chicago area and determined that the project will pay for itself in just 10 years due to increased tourism spending alone!

Overcrowding at Chicago Union Station

But Union Station is at passenger capacity and on top of projected growth in Amtrak ridership, Metra forecasts a 40 percent increase in trains by 2040 to meet growing regional transit demand. Without improvements to Union Station, the region stands to lose billions of dollars in potential economic development around the station, particularly in the growing West Loop neighborhood. 

Renovated Union Station: More capacity and economic boom

The Chicago Union Station Master Plan Study – led by the Chicago Dept. of Transportation in partnership with Amtrak, Metra, and other stakeholders including MPC – has identified viable ideas for expanding capacity to add more trains at Union Station by repurposing platforms, improving passenger flow, and allowing for better connections to other transit service.  These changes would suffice to address inter-city rail and Metra ridership growth, but the plan goes beyond transportation. Chicago Union Station has the potential to be much more than a place where people catch a train; it can be transformed into a truly great place that is a vibrant destination, a neighborhood and city asset, and a catalyst for economic growth. As chair of the Civic Advisory Committee for the Union Station Master Plan Study, MPC has been working to ensure a renovation of this historic structure creates a destination that attracts people to shop, dine or just hang out.  

Washington, DC Union Station, with several levels of shopping and dining, is a destination for train and non-train riders alike.

Peter Skosey

Cities across the country, including DenverWashington, D.C., and San Francisco, have shown train terminals can be focal points for commercial redevelopmentand promote new development in the surrounding area. For example, Washington, D.C.’s Union Station is a destination featuring several levels of retail and dining, a public plaza, and bike sharing facilities, in addition to connections to rail. The neighborhood surrounding it has seen incredible population, housing and business growth over the past decade.Similar to these stations, a transformed Chicago Union Station would be a catalyst for adjacent property development.  

Plenty of opportunities to make Union Station's Great Hall a real destination.

random.places via flickr

Innovative financing

But how would Chicago pay for the upfront costs of renovating Union Station? The increase in property value around the station that would result from station redevelopment could be the answer. This type of innovative financing connects the benefits of an infrastructure investment with the costs to provide it. Though this type of financing is new to the Chicago region, it has been used to build and renovate transportation facilities all over the world. For example, Denver built its Union Station with an $145.6 million Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA) loan and a $155 million Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing (RRIF) Loan, and will repay both with future property taxes generated in the tax increment financing district surrounding the station.  

In 2013, MPC will analyze the potential to use this type of innovative financing to redevelop Chicago Union Station, an important investment that supports World Business Chicago’s Plan for Economic Growth and Jobs and Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning’s GO TO 2040 comprehensive regional plan.  



  1. 1. M.E. SINGER from Chicago, IL on December 10, 2012

    The issue for Chicago Union Station, as well as NYC's Pennsylvania Station, is simply due to the lack of a national transportation policy combined with the well-funded lobbyists influencing Congress against passenger rail, as they continue to gloss over the hidden subsidies for highway & air.
    Re-development of CUS would indeed be an economic catalyst for that area--just look at how development has surged around commuter depots.
    Key to securing higher tourism dollars spent in Chicago is to increase the speed & frequency of our Midwest corridor rail services; better yet; let the states be in operational control, instead of Amtrak.

  2. 2. Harvey Kahler from United States on December 10, 2012

    Removing the unnecessary baggage platforms, re-spacing the tracks, and adding additional stairs or escalators between the platforms and the streets will be a great improvement. The problem is no thought seems to have been given to the street level entrance and waiting.

    The existing run-through tracks can be exploited better for a connection between the Metra Electric and McCormick Place, Union Station train trains and the West Loop, and O'Hare Airport and the North Central Service area in addition to the relatively small number of potential Amtrak services. Medium and long-distance trains are subject to delays that would be unacceptable for run-through services to O'Hare or Milwaukee.

  3. 3. Nathanael on December 24, 2012

    Some of the baggage platforms are still needed (those Amtrak baggage cars fill up fast). The biggest issue is the asymmetry of service, with the south side of Union Station *very* busy and the north side half-empty. Run-through service could help a lot.

    Clearing out the clutter in the concourse will help with passenger flow. But eventually the office building on top of Union Station may have to be replaced.

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