Sunday, January 11, 2015

Why Union Station's Problems Are All Of Illinois Problem...

The recent leaks at Union Station are just the most recent illustration of the general issues that exist at Union Station (the third busiest in the US), issues which in my opinion will have long term impact on economic growth as well as reduce the value of Illinois investment in "high speed rail"

Union Station:
As a long time Metra commuter on the BNSF line, I can attest to the continued degradation of the infrastructure at Union Station and how it has an impact on the overall rail experience.

Leaks:
On both the North and South ends of station water leaking onto the platforms in quite common during rain. During the winter you also end up with some really nice ice as well hanging down from the ceiling.  The platform between tracks 2 and 4 on the South side is a particular example, this platform has an additional metal ceiling to try and keep water (and other debris) of off trains and commuters with various levels of success.  The patchwork that is now the ceiling above those tracks (you can see where they have replaced various parts) illustrates how effective of a long term solution that is.

I suspect there are not a whole lot of commuter rail terminals that have street level storm drains, that drain directly onto rail tracks. This appears to be the case when it comes to track 2 at Union Station.

Outside of the platforms, the Grand Hall at Union Station can become an obstacle course when it rains due to the buckets and garbage cans set up to capture the water leaking from the ceiling.  I will say this, they have made some improvements in the Grand Hall, but the seem to be more focused at events than they are at commuters or Amtrak riders...

The Grand Hall...

Well it is a nice space in one way, if you have seen various movies shot in Chicago you have seen people ranging from Al Capone's henchmen to General Zod meet their end in the Grand Hall.  However I suspect Union Station is the only major rail terminal in the US where it's largest waiting area may be unavailable to train riders who might be waiting for a train because someone is hosting a reception in it's space.

It is the major issue in Metra's new plan for managing crowds during delays. If there is a major delay you could easily fit most folks waiting into the Grand Hall, but if the Grand Hall has an event going odds are not bad you may end up waiting outside for your train...

Air Quality..

Well this has gotten better over the last couple of years. There was a time when the air was bad enough that the smoke detectors inside the bathroom (with a closed bathroom door) would go off. But suffice to say there is a times a visible haze on the platforms.


Why This Matters
Well the quality of Union Station is going to have an impact on Metra rider experience and will likely lead to fewer riders in the longer term.  But what I think is the more likely and perhaps more interesting result is turning off the very riders (business folks) that 'high speed' rail in Illinois is meant to attract.  Would you go to an airport for a trip you could do by car (or from a different airport) if it meant waiting in a poorly heated (or air conditioned) waiting area that might be very crowded (you should see what the primary Amtrak waiting area at Union Station looks like) and while going to your train there was the very real possibility you might get rained on?  Part of 'high speed' rail is the idea of enticing folks who would drive and/or fly.  That is going to be hard when not only may the trip by rail take longer but it may also be a less pleasant experience.

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