Metra's Unbuilt STAR Line

The Metra STAR (Suburban Transit Access Route) was a proposed, but unbuilt railroad project, which would have been the first Metra line to exclusively serve the suburbs of Chicago, and connect to multiple Metra lines. 

Here's a rendering of Diesel Multiple Units that were proposed to run on the STAR. Metra has since taken this site offline, but the Wayback Machine still has the page.

This would have been key to connecting the Metra system outside of Downtown, as each individual line that makes up Metra runs from the suburbs in one direction into the city, i.e. a hub and spoke system. Thus, there are very few connections between individual Metra lines outside of Downtown Chicago.

Here's an unofficial Metra Map showing how disconnected the system is.

A true sign of this disconnect? Even within downtown Chicago, one can't use the "L" Train to connect to each Metra station. (Wikipedia Commons)

That wouldn't necessarily be a problem if there was adequate bus transportation between individual lines, but despite being individual parts of the Regional Transportation Authority, Metra, Pace and the CTA refuse to cooperate together to create a unified system that actually works for regional transportation. While some recent initiatives are welcome, such as the Fair Transit South Cook initiative, there is a ton of work that needs to be done, and very little in the way of political will to achieve it, sadly. The I-90 bus corridor is at least an attempt towards that end, however. (More on that later)

Here's how the line would have looked had it been completed, and maybe the fact that the map looks like the Grim Reaper's scythe was a bad omen for this line from the beginning. 

You can take a look at the full plan at this link: STAR Line Final Alternatives Analysis Study Report (June 2012)

The abridged version is that the 55 Mile Route would have used the existing Elgin Joliet & Eastern Railway (now CN) tracks, between Joliet and I-90, and then use new trackage in the median of I-90 east from there to complete the route to Rosemont. Some news reports from when the project was still in its planning phase are still available on YouTube.

CN 8813 at Diehl Road, where the STAR line would have used existing railroad right of way. (FRRandP photo, 2019)

While I would love to eventually turn this blog and my historical inquisitiveness into a full time job, that is not reality at this time, and as such, I am employed and commute to work on a daily basis. And at my previous job, I would commute over 50 miles by vehicle each way, each day, which aside from being completely unsustainable from an environmental lens, was annoying and stressful enough that I often had to sit and unwind just from the commute home. Further, I am aware that I am far from alone in that level of commuting. 

My commute would have been possible via Metra, had I wished to commute 150 minutes each way, assuming no delays throughout my trip.

The STAR would have helped me and numerous others who commuted between suburbs tremendously, and would have probably shaved an hour off of my commute and made rail a feasible alternative to driving.

However, in spite of the positives the system could have had on the region as a whole, its cost ultimately could not be justified.

In 2012, the planning process culminated in the cancellation of the STAR line, in favor of much cheaper bus rapid transit along I-90. Today, multiple Pace bus routes serve the rebuilt I-90 corridor between Randall Rd and Rosemont. 

I got a chance to be one of the first users of that system in September of 2018. While any public transportation improvement is welcome, it was not hard to see the limitations of this BRT. The Bus Rapid Transit lines start all the west at Randall Road and connect to the CTA Blue Line at Rosemont.

For those keeping score at home, that would be about a 45 minute ride just to the Blue Line, and likely another 45-60 minutes downtown from Rosemont. So 90-120 minute commutes each way along this system would not be out of the ordinary, and a train could probably shave at least 30 minutes off of that trip.

Looking east from the overhead transfer point on I-90 at Arlington Heights Rd, watching traffic fly by at posted speeds of 70 miles per hour. (Andrew Grigg photo, 2018)

The STAR line would have been an expensive investment in a state that has terrible structural deficit problems, that much I understand. And further, it would not completely solve the issue I just described above; while you could connect to the city via the Blue Line at the end of the STAR line, the entire point of the STAR line was to better connect the suburbs without having to go through Chicago.

And there is still a need for transportation facilities between Joliet and I-90, and indeed the region of Chicago as a whole. Much more need, I think, than the Chicago-Quad Cities Amtrak train, and further, I think the investment in a regional commuter rail system would yield far more bang for our buck than a high-speed line from Chicago to Nowhere.

Thanks as always for reading! It's rare I discuss more current trends in the rail industry, especially since Current Railways, Roads & Places is not a blog. Yet.


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