News & Reviews News Wire News photos: Aging lift bridge is Amtrak’s Achilles Heel in Chicago

News photos: Aging lift bridge is Amtrak’s Achilles Heel in Chicago

By Bob Johnston | June 15, 2022

| Last updated on February 26, 2024

Extreme heat requires work to keep bridge functioning

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Train crosses steel-girder bridge
Amtrak Lincoln Service train No. 300 crosses a former Pennsylvania Railroad bridge over the Chicago River, as water sprays to try to keep the bridge cool. Bob Johnston

CHICAGO — Water spray splashing the wheels of Lincoln Service train no. 300 coming off the Chicago River bridge Wednesday morning has nothing to do with Amtrak’s need to wash Windy City trains, and everything to do with making sure hot weather doesn’t sideline them.

Drawbridge in raised position
After failing to open, the bridge is raised with help from Amtrak shop forces. Bob Johnston

With temperatures expected to reach 100 degrees as they did on Tuesday, Amtrak hot weather protocols call for cooling an aging former Pennsylvania Railroad lift bridge at places where its movable center span connects to tracks on both sides. If intense heat expands the steel and the bridge won’t close and lock properly, trains from the east, south, and southwest lose direct access to Chicago Union Station.

When this happened in the past, a complicated alternative was possible utilizing the St. Charles Airline bridge over the Chicago River to get trains to and from Union Station via the BNSF’s western approach. But that bridge has been out of service for more than a year, so the only option would be a time-consuming, circuitous move west of downtown to get trains onto the BNSF.

Workers in high-visibility clothing on bridge
Shop forces examine the bridge after it is lowered back into place. Bob Johnston

The bridge tender attempted to raise the bridge after both no. 300 and Kansas City-bound Lincoln Service train no. 319 crossed. The lift siren sounded, but the bridge wouldn’t budge. Within a few minutes, a swarm of Amtrak shop personnel arrived from the nearby locomotive and car shops.

They were soon able to get the bridge up for two boats, then lowered, and examined all of the critical areas again. It figured to be a long day.


9 thoughts on “News photos: Aging lift bridge is Amtrak’s Achilles Heel in Chicago

  1. This year’s premature overheating also hit North America’s wind lover railroad capital!
    Fortunately, we still have enough (for now) water available from dear Mother Nature!
    Long live each organization that makes a serious and permanent investment by believing and trusting in environmentally friendly rail transportation!

    Dr. Güntürk Üstün

  2. The NEC bridges (the one currently in the headlines is “PORTAL” bridge, between Newark and the North River Tubes) see far more traffic than the South Branch Bridge. Both Amtrak and NJT access Penn Station NY via the “PORTAL” bridge.

    Delaware is not a factor here.

  3. Interesting that pictured is a service that would bypass this bridge if they get their wish of a new connection to the former CRIP for trains to St Louis.

  4. Mr. Landey: Kudos om your insightful remarks and analysis here. Particularly chasing the “chimera of HSR while our basic infrastructure is on life-support.”

    Wish our stupid elected officials understood this point, but they’re always chasing “the next wind-mill.”
    I don’t live in the Chicago area anymore and haven’t ridden Amtrak across the (ex PRR) 21st St. lift bridge in probably 35 years. But even back then I recall it being a rather old and decrepit bridge. And yes, it does serve as a major freight connection between Norfolk Southern (ex PRR) and the BNSF Railway (ex BN).
    Yes, when this bridge fails (and it will someday soon on current trends), it’s going to really handicap Amtrak operations into Chicago’s Union Station. Good luck!

  5. I wonder why this bridge has not gotten the public attention that the NEC moveable bridges have.

    1. Well, two issues, James. (1) Because it doesn’t serve Delaware. (2) Chicago CREATE’s wish list of vitally needed projects is so long that this one fell through the cracks.

      Now I’m going to complicate the discussion. I’m not 100% sure but as far as I can tell from a map and my knowledge of the area, this is a big-time FREIGHT route as well as Amtrak. There is a regular transfer of long freights between NS (ex-PRR) and BNSF (the Burlington main). As best as I know, these go over that bridge. So it’s just as important as all the other CREATE improvements in Chicago that themselves seem to be behind schedule.

  6. The same article could be written about dozens of moveable railroad bridges. The are aging, complicated mechanical contraptions that are subject to massive physical demands. Nonetheless, they still need to maintain a relatively tight level of tolerance upon closing so the running rails stay within required track standards. Think what is involved with keeping a 1915 steam locomotive in operation, and then consider that many of these beasts where built in the same era and still employ much of the same technology to this day. Worse yet, the most problematic areas, namely the rail joints at the ends of the span, are constantly being modified and reworked over the years in well meaning attempts to make them more reliable and safer. Finally, to work on them you have to work with both track time and river closure constraints, under the gun from both the VP of Transportation and the Coast Guard. At least in this case Amtrak is lucky enough to have there shop right next door.

  7. While we chase the chimera of HSR, our basic infrastructure is on life support, hovering just above flatline.

    If that bridge goes (when that bridge goes) much of Amtrak shuts down.

  8. The SCAL bridge is out of service due to a new road going in just east of the south branch. They are building a massive development called the 78. It required the removal of the rails as they build a new overpass for the rails.

    The B&O bridge right next to it is permanently locked in place so that’s a no go.

    Ages ago I remember crossing that old Pennsy Bridge at about 5mph ages ago.

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