$8 billion to reroute most freight traffic around Chicago suburbs

The railroad bottleneck in Chicago is real but a new proposal suggests a way to route much of the freight traffic around the outer edges of the region:

In the 21st century, the plan by Great Lakes Transportation Inc. is rare to the point of being unbelievable: Building an $8 billion, 278-mile-long, two-track freight railroad through northeastern Illinois…

But most of the more than 400 people who showed up Tuesday morning at a federal “scoping” hearing in Belvidere weren’t thinking about convenience to people living 50 miles to the east in the suburbs. Many wore stickers showing their opposition to the project, called the Great Lakes Basin Rail Line.

Instead, they told the U.S. Surface Transportation Board’s environmental studies staff that such a railroad would split up farms that have been owned by their families for 100 years. That it would threaten underground water supplies with pollution from spilled chemicals, would slow local ambulance crews and firefighters, would take the world’s best soil out of agricultural production, would lower their property values, could cause drainage problems on their farmland and would fill their quiet rural townships with train noise.

Great Lakes Basin Transportation Inc. is headed by former software entrepreneur Frank Patton and reportedly is supported by 14 investors. The proposed railroad is designed to give the area’s six “Class I” railroads — BNSF, Union Pacific, Norfolk Southern, CSX, Canadian National and Canadian Pacific, plus the small Wisconsin & Southern Railway — a way to send long-distance freight trains around metropolitan Chicago rather than through it.

This is still is years from becoming a reality with the number of studies that would need to be completed as well as the actual funding and construction. Yet, it will be interesting to see how the concerns of these property owners are weighed against the interests of the entire Chicago region. Many communities would be very happy with this chance to see fewer freight trains. For some reason, this reminds me of some of the property owners near O’Hare Airport who have put up a consistent fight against expansion even as such plans would benefit the entire region.

In the long run, I would assume the interests of these property owners will matter less than the funding and completion issues that come from such a massive project.

Happenings since Canadian National purchased the EJ&E tracks in 2008

Here is a recap of what has happened since the 2008 purchase of the EJ&E railroad tracks by Canadian National:

In December 2008, the Surface Transportation Board approved CN’s request to buy the smaller EJ&E, which extended in a half-circle from Waukegan to Joliet. Suburbs traversed by the EJ&E fought the plan, citing extra freight train traffic. The board agreed with CN that the purchase would reduce regional freight congestion but imposed numerous conditions on the railroad as a result and included a period of federal oversight until Jan. 23, 2015.

Last month, the STB extended the monitoring period until Jan. 23, 2017, citing concerns about additional freight traffic in the region.

Mongeau said the railroad’s acquisition of the EJ&E “gave CN what it was looking for — a route around Chicago,” that has a trickle-down effect on other railroads by taking its trains off other crowded tracks.

The railroad has spent $700 million on upgrades and safety improvements since 2008.

Twenty-eight out of 33 towns affected by the merger signed mitigation deals with CN, Mongeau noted. Holdouts included Aurora and Barrington, which fought against the merger and campaigned to extend the monitoring period.

In October 2014, there were 1,620 blocked railway crossings lasting 10 minutes or more on the EJ&E. In October 2009, early in the acquisition phase, there were just nine, according to CN data….

On tracks between Lake Zurich, Barrington and Hanover Park, traffic on the EJ&E grew from about five daily trains prior to the merger to 17 in October 2014.

This was a big issue for a number of suburban communities in the mid-2000s as they wondered how the purchase would affect freight traffic as well as block crossings, create more noise, and potentially harm property values. It sounds like the monitoring is intended to keep tabs on these changes and help ensure the railroad and communities work together. Yet, it is still important to keep the big picture in mind: moving traffic onto the EJ&E tracks can help alleviate freight traffic elsewhere, addressing the problem of the railroad bottleneck in the Chicago region. This sort of issue makes the case for metropolitanization where communities and government could come together and solve problems facing numerous municipalities.

The need for infrastructure to move future freight

This look at the future of moving freight in the United States suggests there is work to be done in developing the necessary infrastructure:

The scale of the infrastructure that moves our stuff is staggering, yet we hardly notice it beyond appreciating how fast a book has arrived or growing agitated with double-parked delivery trucks. But the ships, trains, trucks, ports, rails, roads, and support structure that facilitates the metabolism of our society will soon be more visible. The Census Bureau estimates a nearly 20 percent population increase by 2040—that’s one new person every 12 seconds who needs and wants stuff…

As ships bring bigger swells of goods and ask for quicker turnaround times, the ports are focusing on how to get those goods off the ship and on the roads or rails faster. So while ships are maximizing economies, ports are focusing on efficiency. “We are using less to move more,” said Curtis Foltz, executive director of the Georgia Ports Authority, echoing the company tagline (“we use less to move more”). The authority recently converted as much equipment as possible from diesel to electric, including cranes that generate 30 percent of their own power from gravity, and efficient rack systems for growing numbers of “reefers,” or refrigerated containers…

The DOT estimates an 88 percent increase in rail freight demand by 2035, and Forbes recently predicted that rail will become the most important logistics system of the 21st Century. The reliability and efficiency of rail is already eating into trucking’s market share, as trains are increasingly used for hauls as short as 500 miles, formerly only the domain of trucks. But increasing capacity of the country’s 140,000-mile rail network and its upkeep will require huge capital expenditure, estimated by the Federal Railroad Administration to reach $149 billion over the next 20 years…

The Federal Highway Administration has some numbers to consider: In 2011, approximately 11 million trucks moved 16.1 billion tons of freight worth $14.9 trillion. This level of activity caused recurring peak-period congestion on 10 percent of the National Highway System. Now consider that commercial vehicles currently account for only 9 percent of all vehicle highway miles traveled. Think rush hour is bad now? The FHA estimates that in the next 30 years, there will be 60 percent more trucks, translating to significant slowing on 28,000 miles of the NHS during peak hours, and stop-and-go conditions on an additional 46,000 miles.

There may be a lot of interest in driverless cars but it just be “old” technologies like ships and railroads that keep the flow of goods moving as well as large trucks. When you think about, the whole system is quite amazing: transporting enough goods for 300+ million people requires a lot of coordination and energy.

It will be interesting to see who pays for these upgraded structures; improving ports, for example, could be economic boosts but they are not usually sexy projects and there are plenty of more immediate quality-of-life issues that get more attention (education, health care, etc.) Would consumers complain if the cost of their relatively cheap goods went up to pay for some of these improvements?