Fighting for decades against more freight trains in the Chicago suburbs

The mayor of Barrington, Illinois recently spoke about a long fight against large train companies and more freight traffic through the suburban community:

Photo by WT Pfefferle on Pexels.com

Karen Darch was elected mayor of Barrington in 2005, only two years before the merger of the Canadian National and EJ&E that would increase the freight traffic in Barrington from three trains to up to 20 each day. She understands what worries Roselle and other suburbs along the Canadian Pacific line, as CP and the Kansas City Southern pursue a merger.

The merger could bring six to eight more freight trains a day through Roselle, Itasca, Wood Dale, Elgin, Bartlett, Schaumburg, Hanover Park and Bensenville. Leaders in those towns are concerned about potential traffic backups, emergency vehicle delays, additional noise and more pollution, as vehicles idle for longer…

Under Darch’s leadership, Barrington fought to extend the oversight period over CN, arguing that crossings were being blocked for longer than what the railroad agreed to.

The village also worked for years to get federal money to build an underpass for Northwest Highway at the CN tracks — improving traffic flow and making it easier for ambulances to get to Advocate Good Shepherd Hospital.

I first ran into this issue in the late 2000s while conducting research involving a community that was also affected by the moves of Canadian National. To many leaders and residents in such suburbs, the increased traffic was not just a nuisance; in a region with many at-grade rail crossings, more and/or longer trains has the potential to snarl traffic, limit the ability of emergency vehicles to get around the community, and create more noise and pollution.

The irony is that many Chicago suburbs were founded along railroad lines and the region itself is central to the American passenger and freight rail network. Without the railroad, the Chicago region and many of its communities would not be the same. That same train that makes day to day suburban life more difficult is important for Barrington and the region as a whole.

There still might be solutions to these problems. One solution underway for a while is to move more of the freight train around the outskirts of the region so that it is does end up in communities and the city itself. A second solution is to limit the number of at-grade crossings so that roadways and trains do not interact as much. A third option is to see the whole of the region in these discussions so that what is good for Barrington and other suburbs could also be good for the region and vice versa.

Suburban traffic trapped by train, Barrington edition

Combining the issues posed by numerous at-grade crossings in the Chicago area plus the purchase of the EJ&E tracks by Canadian National, an afternoon rush hour situation arose June 12 in the suburb of Barrington because of a stopped freight train:

Among the thousands of vehicles caught in the jam were ambulances headed to Good Shepherd Hospital with two patients from a DUI crash at Ela Road and Northwest Highway…

As first-responders quickly found out, all four CN crossings — at Main Street, Hough Street (Route 59), Northwest Highway and Lake Zurich Road — were inaccessible, and trains on an intersecting rail line also backed up…

While traffic gridlock spiraled, Barrington police who had coalesced south of the tracks to handle the DUI crash reached out to neighboring departments. “Can you please let Lake Zurich PD, Lake County and Barrington Hills know on our northwest side we have no officers on right now. So if we need assistance we’ll be calling them,” a dispatcher asked.

As she idled in traffic, Barrington resident Erika Olivares tried to troubleshoot how to reach her 8-month-old son, Leo, before day care closed. “Basically I was panicking,” she recalled Thursday.

Some desperate commuters ducked under train cars to reach the opposite side. “There are numerous people who are actually crawling over the train that’s stopped here,” a 911 caller reported. “It’s getting more and more dangerous — there are kids doing it as well.”

Several quick thoughts:

  1. I would guess the winning issue on which to focus to solve this problem are the safety concerns. If people cannot make it to the hospital or police and fire units cannot make it to scenes, lives in the community may be endangered. Even though it would be interesting to look at how many safety cases are involved on an annual basis, the argument that even one endangered life is too many would likely convince many suburbanites.
  2. The traffic caused by such an incident is experienced by numerous Chicago area suburbs. Lots of at-grade crossings add up to the potential for outraged drivers. Even if rail lines move tremendous amounts of goods, the backups may leave the average suburbanite with the impression that the trains are foremost a nuisance.
  3. The fallout of the Canadian National purchase of the EJ&E tracks continues. What is potentially lost in stories like this from Barrington about changes in communities are the effects on the entire region. One of the outcomes of the purchase was to be that more freight traffic would be rerouted around the region rather than to areas closer to the city with further inconveniences to those communities. The Chicago area has long had problems with too many trains yet it is a vital part of the local and national economy.

Update on CN freight traffic on the EJ&E

The purchase of the EJ&E railroad tracks by Canadian National in 2008 was contentious in a number of Chicago suburbs. Here is an update on freight figures as the federal requirement that CN report data to local communities has ended:

Freight trains on the old EJ&E tracks have spiked from about four or five daily to 19 or 20 in communities stretching from Lake Zurich to Barrington and West Chicago.

But municipalities such as Buffalo Grove and Des Plaines are getting fewer trains. There were 3.6 freights a day in November compared to 19 before the merger as CN moved trains to the EJ&E tracks, which form a semicircle along the North, West and South suburbs…

Barrington and the Illinois Department of Transportation, with support from U.S. Sens. Tammy Duckworth and Dick Durbin, want to extend the oversight period by two years and get CN to chip in for an underpass at Route 14. The underpass will allow ambulances to reach Advocate Good Shepherd Hospital quickly and prevent traffic backing up, Darch said…

The freight train increase is no surprise and is below projections on average, the railroad has stated.

Looking back, it appears that the train traffic has shifted further away from the Chicago. This was the original plan as so many tracks and trains go through the Chicago region that congestion is a major issue. For the whole region, this changed freight train pattern is probably a good thing. But, if “all politics is local,” this may be truest in suburbs where any perceived negative change – such as an increase in trains – is seen as destroying an idyllic locale where homeowners have invested much money.