Big red signal in Glenview

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Friday, May 24, 2019

At a time when nearly four dozen passenger trains dashed between Chicago and Milwaukee each day on three railroads, a Milwaukee Road F6 4-6-4 races north near Rondout, Ill., in 1948. C. H. Kerrigan
Over the past several years, the northwest Chicago suburbs have become Ground Zero for battles between railroads and the local citizenry. 

Suburban NIMBYs — the familiar “not in my backyard” crowd — lost a big one several years ago when Canadian National was able to proceed with its acquisition of the EJ&E mainline, giving CN an additional and utterly logical way of moving freight around Chicago, rather than through it. The tony little town of Barrington fought like hell to keep it from happening, but for the most part they lost.

Now the score is tied. A couple of weeks ago, Illinois DOT decided to withdraw support for a plan to expand track capacity through the communities of Glenview and Lake Forest, towns every bit as affluent and politically connected as Barrington.

The plan, pushed by Amtrak and Wisconsin DOT, would have allowed Amtrak’s burgeoning Chicago–Milwaukee Hiawatha service to grow from 7 daily train pairs to 10. IDOT’s support was needed to secure additional federal funding. The Hiawatha corridor saw 858,000 riders in 2018, a 3.6 percent improvement over 2017. That trend should continue, especially if Amtrak can find a way to restore daily late-evening service for passengers with a natural interest in spending money in either end-point city. 

Glenview alone spent more than $500,000 to fight the expansion project. Now, without the state of Illinois’ support, the parties will have to go back to the drawing boards. Everyone is saying the right things about improving rail service, even officials of Glenview, but at the moment it’s difficult to predict what might be the backup solution beyond Metra’s conviction that what is required is, in essence, a three-track railroad on its Milwaukee District North line.

Chicago & North Western was the Milwaukee's chief competitor for Chicago–Milwaukee trade. Two C&NW E3 diesels head a southbound train through Great Lakes, Ill., in 1952. George Krambles, Krambles-Peterson Archive
There was another factor here in the two suburbs’ opposition, and that was the lingering bitterness over the July 2012 derailment of a Union Pacific coal train on UP’s freight line on the edge of Glenview, in which a local couple was killed when they were buried by the coal hoppers of a derailing unit coal train. The two victims were driving under a bridge just as it collapsed.

That crash and the recent plan to upgrade service on the Amtrak line obviously have nothing to do with each other. But bitterness over the circumstances of the UP incident was deep and abiding. “Glenview has never forgotten that,” a local railroad official told me. When emotion overtakes rational discussion in a public debate, just about anything can be conflated. 

Like most observers from the railroad side of the fence — and in this case there literally would have been a 10-foot fence — I was disappointed by IDOT’s decision on Glenview. I don’t reflexively trust the grand plans of large corporations and government entities, but neither do I have much regard for irrational citizen opposition.

I like what writer Christopher Helman wrote in the August 2015 issue of Forbes, when he described what he called the “NIMBY tax” on the American economy. It is, he wrote, “the unnecessary, exorbitant and more and more common cost of getting anything done in America.” I think that applies here.

It’s ironic that a minor expansion of infrastructure was enough to set off the opposition, given the density of rail traffic already moving through Glenview. Every weekday, Metra runs upwards of 50 commuter trains through the village, along with Amtrak’s 14 Hiawathas and 2 Empire Builders. Throw in maybe a half dozen or more Canadian Pacific freights and you have a classic hot spot. And they haven’t gotten used to this by now?

The North Shore Line wasn't the fastest rail route between Chicago and Milwaukee, but it accounted for about half the corridor's trains. An Electroliner sails south on the Skokie Valley Route in Illinois in 1949. George Krambles, Krambles-Peterson Archive
Of course, if your memory is long enough, you might be bemused by Amtrak’s struggle to just get to 10 daily Chicago–Milwaukee trains. Sixty years ago, travelers over these 85 fast miles had three railroads to choose from, and more than 43 trains each way. It was one of the most competitive passenger-train corridors in the U.S.

Just think of the choices someone in Chicago had, contemplating a trip to Milwaukee (my source is the June 1954 Official Guide of the Railways). If you were partial to the Milwaukee Road, you had a dozen northbound weekday trains out of Union Station, including the speedy Morning and Afternoon Hiawathas, running on 1-hour 15-minute schedules, the fastest in the market. All of them ran through Glenview. 

The Milwaukee’s old rival, Chicago & North Western, was competitive, with approximately 10 trains from North Western Station, just two blocks away from Union Station. Those yellow-and-green 400-fleet trains were nearly as fast as the Hiawathas, with train 401, the Twin Cities 400, offering the fastest timing: 1 hour 19 minutes. 

Then there was the North Shore Line, with the thickest schedule of Milwaukee-bound trains, an average of 21, fitting for an electric railroad running in transit fashion. The North Shore boasted nearly hourly service to Milwaukee, and included the famed, streamlined Electroliners, one of which managed a 1-hour 52-minute running time, including eight stops and slow running on Chicago’s ‘L’ and Milwaukee streets. 

We’ll likely never get close to those heydays, when the Milwaukee Road, boasting of its service between Milwaukee and Chicago, proclaimed “No detours, no bottlenecks, no worries — just swift, smooth travel over a boulevard of steel!” Or when the North Shore said it “Leads America in high-speed service.”

But is it too much to ask for additional Hiawathaservice, especially when the market is crying out for late-evening service? Is 10 trains some kind of bridge too far? Running more trains would be great for the region and a boon for what is now nearly a million annual riders — provided an outraged bedroom suburb doesn’t get in the way. 

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