Proposed new Metra line to Rockford would run past Illinois Railway Museum

Museum has many Chicago transportation cars, including an old Metra engine

A diesel locomotive from the Illinois Railway Museum  crosses Olsen Road Friday, Aug. 11, 2023, on the museum's train tracks that are just south of the railroad tracks the proposed Metra route will use to connect Rockford and Huntley with Chicago.

The proposed new Metra line to Rockford will run right by the Illinois Railway Museum in Union, which has a collection of Chicago public transportation vehicles, ranging from early streetcars dating back to the 1850s to old Metra engines.

Over the years, interest in public transportation has grown, but Fred Ash, who sometimes volunteers at the Railway Museum, said political leaders now seem willing to fund train systems.

“What’s really grown is the political will to put money into it,” Ash said. “Illinois is one of the strongest states.”

Last month, officials announced plans to restore Metra rail service from Chicago to Rockford. The $275 million project is part of the $33.2 billion Rebuild Illinois capital program, with trains between the two cities possibly running by late 2027, officials said. As part of the plan, Huntley would land a train station stop.

Illinois’ willingness to fund train systems stems from Chicago’s history as a railroad hub, Ash said.

“Chicago was always the railroad capital,” Ash said, adding that public interest in trains has grown steadily.

Metra has been in operation in the Chicago area since 1984, according to Metra’s website. Ash said there have been talks and proposals over the years to expand rail service to the Quad Cities and Rockford, but officials at the Illinois Railway Museum are optimistic this time is different.

“I hope it happens,” Nick Kallas, executive director of the Illinois Railway Museum said of the proposed Metra expansion out to Rockford. “I think it will, because Metra’s involved.”

Illinois has a long history of interurban rail, where train lines took people between cities. Kallas explained how the rail system evolved in Illinois over the years.

Trains used to be one of the most popular forms of transportation in the U.S., but once automobiles became more popular, they took over as a popular form of transportation.

“Cars are door-to-door,” Kallas said.

Kallas said that before cars, most public transportation was owned by private companies, unlike today where most public transit is owned by government agencies.

“The downfall of a lot of these streetcar companies was the fact that they were private companies, had to make a profit, had to pay dividends,” Kallas said.

Today, however, one factor in passenger rail not being expanded is the operating cost.

“Contrary to what everybody thinks, you lose money on passengers,” Kallas said. “That’s why railroads today don’t want to haul passengers.”

Some of why passenger rail isn’t lucrative is the need to have amenities for passengers, among other things.

“If you have a train wreck, passengers can sue you, freight can’t sue you,” Kallas said. “That’s why government is the only way that it happens because there is no profit to be made in hauling passengers.”

Although the line would pass right by the railway museum, Kallas said he doesn’t expect tourism to the museum to increase, in part because of the schedule of the trains. Neither the Railway Museum nor Marengo have a stop under the current proposal.

“If you’re coming from Chicago to come here, you’d have to catch a morning train,” Kallas said. “You get here at nine, we open at 10, as opposed to you live in Tinley Park; you get in your car, you drive here. You don’t have to go to Chicago on a train to ride a train out here.”

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