The issues involved in solving the railroad traffic bottleneck in Chicago

The Chicago region is an important city for America’s railroad traffic but it is also a bottleneck:

Six of the nation’s seven biggest railroads pass through the city, a testament to Chicago’s economic might when the rail lines were laid from the 1800s on. Today, a quarter of all rail traffic in the nation touches Chicago. Nearly half of what is known as intermodal rail traffic, the big steel boxes that can be carried aboard ships, trains or trucks, roll by or through this city…

Now, federal, state, local and industry officials are completing the early stages of a $3.2 billion project to untangle Chicago’s rail system — not just for its residents, who suffer commuter train delays and long waits in their cars at grade crossings, but for the rest of the nation as well.

The program, called Create (an acronym for Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency Program), is intended to replace 25 rail intersections with overpasses and underpasses that will smooth the flow of traffic for the 1,300 freight and passenger trains that muscle through the city each day, and to separate tracks now shared by freight and passenger trains at critical spots. Fifty miles of new track will link yards and create a second east-west route across the city, building redundancy into the overburdened system.

Fourteen of the 70 projects have been completed so far, and 12 more are under way, including the $140 million “Englewood flyover,” or overpass.

This is a massive infrastructure issue involving a whole region. Some of the issues involved (several of which are pointed out by the article):

1. Paying for all of this. How much should the railroad industry itself chip in for this? We’ve also seen some of these issues with passenger lines. For example, the STAR Line would provide a circumferential commuter line between Joliet and O’Hare Airport but it has been on the drawing board for years without funding. And there hasn’t exactly been immediate funding for high speed rail in the Midwest region.

2. Geography: railroad traffic bunches in the area southwest of Lake Michigan. There is one way around this that railroad companies have been using now for some years: push facilities further out from the city to take advantage of more space. For example, Union Pacific built an intermodal facility in Rochelle, Illinois roughly 80 miles west of Chicago’s Loop. Additionally, there are large shipping facilities southwest of the city near the intersection of I-80 and I-55 (see CenterPoint Intermodal Center, “the largest master-planned inland port in North America,” see Union Pacific’s facility here) which could lead to the construction of a new interstate.

3. Lots of at-grade crossings in the Chicago region. These cause traffic issues for trains and cars. Plus, numerous commentators have pointed out the safety issues. Even when these crossings are fixed, they take a lot of time, can involve acquiring and utilizing pieces of land,  and limit car and pedestrian options in the meantime.

4. Tracks that are also used by commuter trains.

5. Suburban communities generally don’t want more railroad traffic. This was illustrated by the fight several years ago over whether Canadian National should be able to purchase and then run more freight trains along the Elgin, Joliet, and Eastern tracks. The suburbs which would see a reduction in traffic because more trains would be routed around the city were in favor while those along the railroad line were not. Thus, local governments often get involved in negotiations with the railroads and they have their own interests.

6. A public which is generally unaware of the importance of railroad lines to the American economy. Yes, railroad traffic may sometimes be inconvenient and noisy but a tremendous amount of traffic is involved.

This could be a great opportunity for regional cooperation.

6 thoughts on “The issues involved in solving the railroad traffic bottleneck in Chicago

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