TagAmtrak

Amazing view of downtown Chicago as an Amtrak train cuts through wide open land in the South Loop

The bridge carries the St. Charles Air Line which itself carries freight and Amtrak traffic over the Chicago River at 16th Street. The City of New Orleans, Illini and Saluki routes use the line (after crossing the bridge, they back in to Union Station).

The park in the foreground is the extension of Ping Tom Park, and has a boathouse in which kayaks are stored.

The massive vacant parcel was once owned by Tony Rezko who was convicted of corruption and fraud.

The land is separated from that history, now, and will be developed by Related Midwest.

I can never remember the names that other people use for this land. I’ve always known it as the “Rezko lot”, so I’m sorry to perpetuate its relation to someone who was convicted of fraud and corruption.

Video was taken from my hot air balloon.

How I created a map of Illinois Amtrak routes in TileMill in less than 30 minutes

This interactive map was created for a Grid Chicago article to show the cities and Amtrak routes mentioned. Click and drag it around or hover your mouse on the red train station markers. 

Want to create a map like that and publish it on your own website? It’s easy. I’ll show you how to do it in less than 30 minutes. First, download the following files:

All shapefiles are from the United States Department of Transportation, Bureau of Transportation Statistics’s National Transportation Atlas 2012 edition except for Illinois places, which comes from the Census Bureau’s TIGER project.

At the end of this tutorial, you’ll have a good introduction on how to find geographic data, build a map with TileMill, style the map, and publish it for the public. Your map will not look like mine as this tutorial doesn’t describe how to add labels or use the hover/info feature.

Tutorial to make Amtrak Illinois map

  1. Unzip the four ZIP files you downloaded and move their contents into a folder, like /Documents/GIS/Amtrak Illinois/shapefiles. This is your project folder.
  2. Install TileMill and open it.
  3. Set up a project. In the Projects pane, click “New Project”. In the filename field, title it “amtrak_illinois”. Ensure that the checkbox next to “Default data” is checked – this shows a world map and helps you get your bearings (but it’s not absolutely necessary).
  4. Get familiar with TileMill’s layout. Your new project will open with the map on the left side and your Carto style code on the right side. There are four buttons aligning the left edge of your map. From top to bottom they are: Templates, Font list, Carto guide, and Layers.
  5. Add a layer. We’re going to add the four shapefile layers you downloaded. Click the “Layers” button and then click “Add layer”. In the ID field, type in “amtrak_routes”. For Datasource, browse to your project folder and find “amtrak.shp” – this file has the Amtrak route lines. Then click “Done”. Click “Save & Style”.
  6. Style that layer. When you click “Save & Style” after adding a layer, your attention will be called to the Carto style code on the right side of TileMill. A section of code with the “amtrak_routes” #selector will have been inserted with some default colors and styles. If you know CSS, you will be familiar with how to change the Amtrak routes line styles. Change the “line-color” to “#000”. After “line-color”, add a new line and insert “line-opacity: 0.5;”. This will add some transparency to the line. Press the “Save” button above the code.
  7. Add remaining layers. Repeat Step 5 and add 3 more layers: “amtrk_sta.shp” (ID field: “amtrak_stations”), “state.shp” (ID field: “states”), and “tl_2012_17_place.shp” (ID field: “illinois_cities”).
  8. Hide bus stations. The Amtrak stations layer shows bus and ferry stations as part of Amtrak’s Thruway connections. You probably don’t want to show these. In your Carto style code, rename the #selector from “#amtrak_stations” to “#amtrak_stations[STNTYPE=’RAIL’]”. That makes the following style code only apply to stations with the “rail” type. Since there’s no style definition for things that aren’t of that type, they won’t appear.

Screenshot of my map.

Prepare your map for uploading

TileMill has many exporting options. You can save it as MBTiles and publish the map for free using MapBox (TileMill’s parent), or you can export it as image files (but it won’t be interactive), or you can display the map using the Leaflet JavaScript map library (which I use for the Chicago Bike Map app). This tutorial will explain how to export MBTiles and upload to MapBox, the server I’m using to display the map at the top of this page.

  1. Change project settings. To upload to MapBox, you’ll have to export your project as MBTiles, a proprietary format. Click the “Export” button above your Carto style code and click “MBTiles”. You’ll be asked to provide a name, description, attribution, and version. Input appropriate text for all but version.
  2. Adjust the zoom levels. Adjust the number of zoom levels you want (the more you have the longer it takes to export and upload your project, and you might exceed MapBox’s free 50 MB account limit). My map has zoom levels 8-11.
  3. Adjust the bounds. You’ll then want to draw your bounds: how much of the map’s geographic extents you want to export. Zoom to a level where you can see the entire state of Illinois in your map. Hold down the Shift key and drag a box around the state, plus a buffer (so viewers don’t fall of your map when they pan to the edges).
  4. Export your map. Click Export and watch the progress! On a four-year-old MacBook it took less than one minute to export the project.
  5. Bring the export to your project folder. When export finishes, click the “Save” button and browse to your project folder. Click the file browser’s save button.
  6. Upload to MapBox. Login to MapBox’s website and click “Upload Layer”. Browse to your project folder, select the .mbtiles folder, and click “Upload file”. Upon a successful upload, your map will display.
  7. Embed it in your website. Click the “Share” button in the upper left corner of your map and copy the embed code. Paste this into the HTML source code of a webpage (or in a WordPress post) and save that (I’m not going to provide instructions on how to do that).

Now you know how to find geographic data, build a custom map using the TileMill application, begin to understand how to style it, and embed your map for the public on a website or blog.

N.B. I was originally going to use QGIS to build a map and then publish a static image before I realized that TileMill + MapBox (the website) can build a map but publish an interactive feature instead of a static image. I’m happy I went that route. However, I did use QGIS to verify the data and even create a new shapefile of just a few of the key train stations on the Lincoln Service (the centerpiece of my Grid Chicago article).

High-speed rail in Illinois, February 2011 edition

View a map of the places described in this article.

A friend of mine traveled by Amtrak’s Lincoln Service from Chicago to St. Louis in January 2011. He reported, “It’s extremely smooth north of Alton and south of Lincoln. You can barely even hear or feel that you’re on a train.” Track replacement as part of President Obama’s economic stimulus and high-speed rail plan is complete between Alton and Lincoln, Illinois.

Photo shows a Union Pacific work train next to new track in Carlinville, Illinois. Photo by Tim Carman, taken in November 2010.

The next track replacement phase will take place between Lincoln and Dwight, scheduled to be completed in Fall 2011. A December 2010 press release from the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) explains the next steps for the first state to begin construction on high-speed rail grants provided by American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA):

  1. Installation of new, enhanced grade crossing warning protection
  2. New cars and locomotives
  3. Station upgrades

Like all press releases, this one also seems to ooze idealistic endeavors by adding that the “public can expect to enjoy its first taste of 110 mile-per-hour train service when a 20-mile segment between Dwight and Pontiac is completed in 2012.” But this project has a high likelihood of being completed as described.

Read more posts on high-speed rail in Steven can plan.

Taking the train

A bunch of people asked me how much I paid for my train ticket between Portland and Seattle. I paid $29, one way, 310 miles, for a comfy ride. Every seat pair has a power port, ample leg room, and tons of luggage space. The train left on time. I didn’t pass through security, and I didn’t have to turn off any electronic device.

The last time I took an Amtrak train was in the 1990s, from Minneapolis to Chicago. That was during the time Amtrak and United Airlines had a partnership where you could easily book a trip that involved a plane in one direction and a train in the return direction. Interestingly, I took a coach bus to Minneapolis just last September for a trip to try out their bicycling infrastructure.

The Amtrak Cascades trainsets from Talgo feature remarkable branding and livery. Find more photos.

Thursday is a big day for high-speed rail in America

UPDATE 2: The Transport Politic has the most detailed and comprehensive information on high-speed rail project/corridor funding, a better looking map than Ray LaHood’s map on LaHood’s blog. The White House Press Office posted separate press releases for each project here.

UPDATE: Chicago Business (Crain’s) says Illinois to get $1.2 billion for high-speed rail projects, including money to build the Englewood Flyover connection (Project P1, see map), a major CREATE component (read more: PDF). CREATE is a multi-agency program to reduce the bottlenecks caused by mixing passenger and freight trains and at-grade road crossings.

Tomorrow, President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden will travel to Tampa, Florida, to announce the thirteen corridors winning a portion of $8 billion in funding for high-speed passenger rail projects.

Infrastructurist predicts four winners.

An Amtrak train heads south from Chicago Union Station. If Illinois receives stimulus funding for high-speed rail, we may see some faster locomotives and some new track emerging from the Chicago South Loop train yards.

Vice President Biden, President Obama, and Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood (from Peoria, Illinois), announced the high-speed passenger rail plan for the United States in Washington, D.C., in April 2009. Photo by Scott Bernstein of the Center for Neighborhood Technology in Chicago, Illinois.

One of the winners Infrastructurist predicts is the State of Illinois on behalf of a project to upgrade the tracks and rolling stock for the Amtrak lines Lincoln Service and Texas Eagle that run from Chicago to St. Louis. This is by far the state’s most prosperous route. The Illinois DOT has increased the subsidy to this route, increasing the frequency of service. In response, ridership has grown year over year over year (although the gain from 2008 to 2009 was only 6 percent).

Will Americans soon travel with more convenience in the coming decade?

Urban data page updated

Like any good website owner and author, I track statistics (or analytics as people like to call them now). The most important information the reports tell me is how people found my site: either through keyword searches, or links from related webpages.

Recently, a visitor came across my site because of a search for “amtrak routes gis.” I suspect they were looking for shapefiles they could load into Geographic Information System software containing Amtrak routes and stations. My blog showed up on the second results page in Google and they came to my post, “Why Amtrak’s not on time,” about the factors that influence the passenger rail company’s timeliness. The page doesn’t have what the visitor wants.

I decided to update my page, “Find urban data,” to aid future visitors. Also, if one person is looking for this information, it’s likely that others want it, too. I found the information, “amtrak routes gis,” in two places and in two formats.

First, the United States Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics publishes national data in the “National Transportation Atlas.” You can find a shapefile with Amtrak stations. For Amtrak routes you must download the railway network shapefiles and then filter the information for the attributes that describe Amtrak.

The second source is an interactive KML file (more about KML) that you can load into Google Earth, view in Google Maps, or manipulate in another KML-compatible application.

Annual trip to Phoenix, Mesa, Tempe

I have lots of family who live in the Phoenix Valley in southern Arizona. I take a trip out there annually to visit, usually around Thanksgiving or Christmas. I’ll be leaving in a week and I haven’t yet planned what I’m going to do. Neither of my siblings will be coming at the same time (odd), so I’m going to have a lot of me time. I know the Phoenix area has had some of the worst foreclosures and job losses in the country, and maybe I can try to find visual, apparent indications of this (not sure how, though).

I’ll have a car, a bike, or a light rail train!

So far, I’m thinking of these things:

  • Photoshoot of the construction of the new Bombardier People Mover at the PHX SkyHarbor airport. When the light rail opened last year in December (see my photos), the connection between the Valley Metro station at Washington and 44th and the northern terminal of the people mover was this disconnected, unadorned viaduct. I hear construction has progressed at a steady rate on the $1 billion, 1 mile system (keep in mind that the entire light rail system of 20 miles cost $1.4 billion to construct).
  • Visit the Phoenix Trolley Museum. I found this just now through someone’s Flickr photostream next to a photo of the people mover construction area. I’ve never heard of the place, and I don’t know anything about it right now, but it has at least one train, so why not go!
  • Visit Tucson! I’ve heard that the University of Arizona, Tucson campus, is very bike friendly (my former coworker, Christy, studied there). The Tucson Bike Lawyer keeps everyone apprised of the local comings and goings. The city is a 2.5 hour drive so I can easily handle it by myself in a day (or perhaps my dad or one of my cousins would come with). I don’t know what there is to do, but I get a lot of joy from walking and taking photos.
  • Lastly, I’m thinking of visiting Los Angeles. I’ve never been to L.A. and I want to go to test ride a bike I’ve recently started researching. I still have a big soft spot for Dutch bicycles, but the Yuba Mundo has caught my eye as a bike that can handle just as much cargo, costs less, and I can customize it with many Dutch bike attributes (like internal gearing, brakes, and dynamo-powered lighting). A Chinatown bus is $60 roundtrip, but the duration is 6 hours. Also, Amtrak no longer serves Phoenix but does stop in “nearby” Maricopa (not the county).

If you live around here and want to show me something neat, I am interested.

Why Amtrak’s not on time

“Over the last 12 months, Amtrak operations and equipment contributed between 11 and 18 percent of the total delay.  Likewise, “third party” causes of delay, such as inclement weather and police activity, contributed only between 6 and 8 percent of the total.  The delay that Amtrak ascribes to the “host” railroad, on the other hand, averaged 79 percent of total monthly delay.”*

Amtrak operates some commuter trains in California.

Breaking down delays attributable to the host railroads (across the national system):*

  • Freight train interference (25 percent)
  • Passenger train interference (this really means other Amtrak trains)
  • Commuter train interference
  • Slow orders not related to weather (“likely in response to track conditions”)
  • Signal delays

And the reason Amtrak can’t report: Continued underfunding at a time when ridership is increasing. Congress makes yearly allocations to Amtrak and without an expectation for stable long-term funding, the National Passenger Railroad Corporation can’t make long-term investment plans or seek alternate, additional funding (like bonds). Recently received American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funding gives Amtrak a necessary booster shot to clear out a backlog of maintenance. But this doesn’t solve the year-to-year fight for dollars.

An Amtrak train emerging from Chicago Union Station (CUS).

State of Illinois-supported routes (from Chicago to St. Louis, Missouri, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin) show a 20% increase since 2007. The Illinois Department of Transportation has spent millions of dollars in the past few years to upgrade track, crossings, and signals to improve travel times. You can see the effect on ridership when you improve service. I think this makes Illinois a strong contender for high-speed rail stimulus money not yet awarded.

*Delay information comes from the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning’s 2009 Freight Snapshot draft report.

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