Metra's Heritage Corridor Line Shortchanged
By Richard Wronski, Chicago Tribune reporter
March 15, 2013
Commuters living in Lisle have their choice of 15 Metra trains to travel downtown each weekday morning. Lake Forest residents have 12 trains. Lombard, ditto.
Lockport or Lemont? Commuters there have three. It's the same situation heading home in the afternoon.
Since at least 2011, local officials and state legislators from the southwest suburbs have been campaigning in earnest for more service on Metra's Heritage Corridor Line, which operates between Union Station and Joliet along the historic Illinois and Michigan Canal.
But U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski, who represents much of the area and has spurred most of the effort, said the many meetings and letters over the last two years have failed to prompt the Canadian National Railway Co. to allow more Metra trains on the Heritage Corridor tracks, which the CN owns.
Lipinski said he has grown so frustrated that he is considering legislation that could force CN to allow more than the six commuter trains a day that now run on the Heritage Corridor.
"The bottom line for me is, I'm tired of trying to work this out with CN," said Lipinski, a member of the House Transportation Committee. "The only thing that can be done now is to put pressure on CN."
CN contends the Heritage Corridor is being used at full capacity now for its freight customers, six daily Amtrak trains and existing Metra service. No Metra trains could be added without "significant" capacity and infrastructure upgrades, spokesman Patrick Waldron said.
CN, one of North America's largest railway companies, contends it should not have to pay to improve commuter rail service.
"We would expect Metra or the state to be responsible for funding those investments," Waldron said. "We have been and remain willing to discuss those upgrades."
All agree that the railroad has acted cooperatively to reduce freight-related delays on Metra.
A $150,000 capacity study, paid for by the state, estimated that it would cost $152 million to upgrade the Heritage Corridor to three tracks and add six Metra trains a day.
Under current federal law, Metra can ask the federal regulators at the Surface Transportation Board only to mediate differences between the agency and CN.
Lipinski said one legislative option could give Metra the ability to get the regulators to compel CN to allow more commuter trains.
"I believe … CN is just being very difficult on this," Lipinski said. "Their strategy is not to give in or be cooperative unless they are forced to be."
Based on recent budget discussions among Metra officials, it's not likely the agency could come up with the extra tens of millions to upgrade tracks it doesn't own.
Neither could Metra afford to buy the Heritage Corridor tracks outright, although there has been speculation that CN would be willing to sell.
About all Metra could do for now, officials said, is provide the nearly $500,000 a year needed to add one inbound and one outbound train a day, if CN allows it.
Metra Chairman Brad O'Halloran said the agency is supportive of Lipinski's efforts but is reviewing its options for dealing with CN. The agency is walking a tightrope, he said.
"We have to be cognizant of the fact we have an operational partner" in CN, O'Halloran said. "But we have to address the needs of the corridor. And the congressman is addressing the needs of his constituents."
Officials along the Heritage Corridor say one inbound and one outbound trip per weekday would suit them fine.
Trains now stop in Lockport, Lemont, Willow Springs and Summit. A station in Romeoville is in the works.
Proponents say the line is long overdue for improvement, with the booming population of southwest Cook and Will counties in recent years. It's the least-used of Metra's 11 lines with an average weekday ridership of 2,600 passengers. There is no midday or weekend service.
Metra has been operating the Heritage Corridor line only since 1987. Other Metra lines, like the BNSF or the UP North and West, for example, have historically provided scores of trips each day to suburbs that developed along those lines.
Towns along the Heritage Corridor feel their time has come for more Metra service. Residents of Lemont continually ask for more trains, said Lemont Village Administrator Ben Wehmeier.
"Absolutely." Wehmeier said. "There's definitely a feeling that we are underserved."
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