Global supply chain problems lead to 25 mile train backup at Chicago area railyard?

As concerns mount about global supply chains, I found one Chicago connection involving the region’s important role in the nation’s infrastructure:

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In Chicago, one of the country’s largest railyards – the size of 500 football fields – was at one point backed up for 25 miles…Cities like Chicago and San Antonio – the busiest international land gateway in the country – have been particularly affected by the bottlenecks.

Chicago is an important railroad center for the United States. With multiple intermodal facilities, helpful nearby highways and airports, numerous warehouses, and port options, many freight trains carrying a lot of important material pass through the region.

With that said, where exactly do the train delays in the Chicago region fit within the larger supply chain problems? Most of the news I have seen on the topic emphasizes the problems at major coastal ports where ships are waiting to be unloaded. If the ports could move through the goods already waiting, would they simply then get stuck in Chicago and similar locations?

If the problems in the Chicago region are confined to railyards and intermodal facilities, I would guess most people in the region have little reason to know about the issue. They may notice empty shelves in stores but not know that some of the goods might just be a few miles away on a railroad track. Unless you happen to drive by such locations and see something – and some of them and their activity are visible from major highways – or hear something specific in the news, the supply chain issues could be anywhere.

Chicago as ongoing railroad hub: one quarter of freight trains pass through the region

With Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg in Chicago yesterday, the Chicago Tribune provided this context for the need for infrastructure money in the region:

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His next stop was the CSX Bedford Park Intermodal Yard with Gov. Pritzker, and U.S. Reps. Marie Newman, of La Grange, and Mike Quigley, of Chicago planning to join him.

The event was an opportunity for Buttigieg to talk up how Biden’s infrastructure plan calls for billions in investments to improve freight and passenger rail infrastructure.

The CSX terminal, the nation’s third largest by volume, serves domestic and international intermodal freight. One of every four U.S. freight trains passes through Chicago., according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Chicago area residents can catch glimpses of some of these intermodal areas, often on the side of major highways, and they certainly know about the frieght trains that can block their roadways. But, how many know that 25% of national freight traffic passes through the region?

Even as motor vehicles and airplanes came to dominate landscapes – and Chicago has plenty of traffic and one of the busiest airports – the railroad continues to provide food, consumer goods, and transportation. Chicago’s status as a leading global city partly depends on it. The economy of the United States partly depends on it.

The railroad was one very important reason for Chicago’s rise. With its location on the southwest corner of Lake Michigan, Chicago quickly became a railroad hub for connecting the Northeast to a growing Midwest as well as Western expansion and all of its abundance.

The railroad can be an inconvenience. News of railroad traffic increasing in the region can induce concerns from residents and community leaders. But, the railroad traffic in the region at large helps the region as a whole.

Chicago’s rail and intermodal facilities, pollution, and COVID-19

One of Chicago’s advantages is its transportation sector, particularly the railroad and truck traffic that passes in and through the region. But, the railyards and intermodal facilities where rail and truck traffic converge can cause a lot of pollution, even during COVID-19:

But for reasons that have yet to be fully explained, people in Chicago and its suburbs aren’t breathing dramatically cleaner air during the pandemic…

Likely culprits include buildings, factories and diesel engines that burn coal, oil or natural gas. Diesel emissions in particular remain a chronic problem in Chicago, a racially segregated freight hub where rail yards, warehouses and intermodal facilities are concentrated in low-income, predominantly African American and Latino neighborhoods.

“We already have roughly double the amount of heavy-duty traffic than other major cities in the country,” said Zac Adelman, executive director of the Lake Michigan Air Directors Consortium, a group of state officials from Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Minnesota and Wisconsin…

During the past decade, scientists at the U.S. EPA have discovered daily spikes of soot pollution near intermodal facilities in Chicago and other cities that far exceed average urban concentrations.

The article primarily focuses on Chicago where intermodal and railroad facilities tend to be located near poorer residents. Leaders have sought to move traffic away from the center of Chicago and more to the edges of the region, but this means this is also a problem for the entire region. With numerous facilities far from Chicago, such as in Will County or as far as New Rochelle near Rockford, the air quality for millions is affected. It would also be worth looking at where the suburban and exurban facilities are located; what residents are most affected? How far away are these facilities from wealthier communities?

The article also suggests new regulations mandating cleaner locomotives and trucks would help. How this would play within a region that relies on the transportation industry – Chicago was not only the convergence center for Midwest commodities, it also developed the capacity to move those goods throughout the United States and world – would be interesting to watch. Suburbanites would not like the pollution if they knew about it or were concerned about it in their own neighborhoods or elsewhere nor do they like the inconveniences of a lot of rail and truck traffic. Yet, they like cheaper goods and jobs, perhaps even more so if the immediate problems of pollution are borne by other residents of the region.

Small Illinois town becomes intermodal facility and warehouse central; long-term benefits are not good

Elwood, Illinois is home to facilities of a number of important American companies but the small community experiences few benefits:

It’s hard to find anyone who will admit to it now, but when the CenterPoint Intermodal freight terminal opened in 2002, people in Elwood, Illinois, were excited. The plan was simple: shipping containers, arriving by train from the country’s major ports, were offloaded onto trucks at the facility, then driven to warehouses scattered about the area, where they were emptied, their contents stored. From there, those products—merchandise for Wal-Mart, Target, and Home Depot—were loaded into semis, and trucked to stores all over the country. Goods in, goods out. The arrangement was supposed to produce a windfall for Elwood and its 2,200 residents, giving them access to the highly lucrative logistics and warehousing industry. “People thought it was the greatest thing,” said Delilah Legrett, an Elwood native…

But this corporate valhalla turned out to be hell for the community, which suffered a concentrated dose of the indignities and disappointments of late capitalism in the 21st century. Instead of abundant full-time work, a regime of partial, precarious employment set in. Temp agencies flourished, but no restaurants, hotels, or grocery stores ever came, save for the recent addition of a dollar store. Tens of thousands of semis rumbled through Will County every day, wreaking havoc on the infrastructure. And as the town of Elwood scrambled to pave its potholes, its inability to collect taxes from the facilities plunged it into more than $30 million in debt…

According to the Will County Center for Economic Development, at least 25,000 tractor trailers a day come through the Intermodals. That amounts to three million containers annually, carrying $65 billion worth of goods. A staggering $623 billion worth of freight traversed Will County infrastructure in 2015 alone, roughly equivalent to 3.5 percent of the U.S.’s total GDP…

But when it comes to the long-term prospects for the region, optimism is scarce. Paul Buss’s son, who works as a building inspector in Joliet, told his dad there’s concern “these companies are gonna come in, they’re gonna build these buildings, and they’re gonna use them for however long they can get a tax break on them, and then they’ll move someplace else.” The threat of empty warehouses looms large.

The freight industry, composed of both railroads and trucks, has to be placed somewhere. The southern edge of the Chicago region is a logical place with close connections to major highways, cross-country railroad lines, airports, and both the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River as well as proximity to the third largest metropolitan area in the United States. And there are likely benefits to these companies and industries to have a concentration of facilities rather than scattering them across multiple communities and regions.

But, the article suggests we should not view the communities where these facilities are placed just as collateral damage. There are real consequences to the trucks and trains that ship all the goods we need on a daily basis. People’s lives are affected. Could the facilities should be placed outside of towns and away from residences as possible?

Perhaps the true test of all of this is whether the next town that is chosen or selects itself as the possible next facility center turns down the opportunity or they dive headlong into the same issues.


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.

Building intermodal facilities to relieve traffic congestion

After examining a new report that Chicago has some of the worst traffic bottlenecks in the country, the suggestion is made not to add lanes to the highways but rather to build more intermodal facilities:

“This is a roadway that has 1950s technology that we are using for 2011 traffic,” said Don Schaefer, executive vice president of the Mid-West Truckers Association. “Aside from a few locations on the Illinois Tollway, there are very few roadways in the Chicago area that are engineered to handle 2011 traffic volumes.”

Adding highway lanes is unlikely to produce the capacity necessary to ease congestion, experts said. A partial solution involves building more intermodal facilities where truck trailers are loaded onto flatbed train cars and transported long distance by rail, then transferred to trucks for the last segment of trips.

One such facility is the sprawling CenterPoint Intermodal Center near Joliet, on the site of the former Joliet Arsenal. But even there, truck traffic is a problem on Arsenal Road leading to Interstate Highway 55.

“The state is building a new interchange to relieve traffic, but today truck traffic trying to get off I-55 southbound is backed up on to the highway,” Schaefer said.

While adding lanes may seem like “common sense,” studies consistently show that this simply encourages more traffic. Think about places have kept adding lanes like downtown Atlanta (I-75 corridor in particular) or the Los Angeles region. Traffic is still an issue during peak times and those roads are already at six or more lanes in each direction.

Intermodal facilities are an intriguing solution. A few thoughts about these:

1. Do most Americans even know what they are? If not, they should as many of their consumer items are routed through these facilities.

2. Part of the reason this article caught my attention is that just last week I drove right by the Centerpoint Intermodal Center which is just east of I-55 and just south of the Des Plaines River. The area was an interesting one: the large facility itself is surrounded by a number of warehouses and distribution centers, including Wal-Mart. When driving a car through such places, I tend to feel out of place as everything is a little bigger: the buildings, the space, the trucks. And yes, the ramp to get on I-55 northbound at Arsenal Road had a long backup of trucks.

Here is some more information on the CenterPoint Facility that just opened in 2010:

The facility will be a central spot where train containers from California, Texas and the Pacific Rim will be delivered for pick-up by trucks moving goods to warehouses and distribution centers throughout the Midwest.

CenterPoint already has an international intermodal facility in nearby Elwood. Combined, the sites will be the country’s largest inland port. In an era of high fuel costs and declining numbers of cross-country truck drivers, the facility is expected to be a more efficient, environmentally-friendly mode of hauling.

A third CenterPoint facility also is planned for Crete.

The $2 billion Joliet development – located on 3,800 acres south of Laraway Road between Brandon and Patterson roads – is the largest construction project in Will County.  It has created about 1,000 construction jobs.

3. What would it take to build more of these? One obvious question is where to put them. This one near Joliet is just outside the Chicago region and there is not much around it: an oil refinery and the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery. Most importantly, there are not a lot of houses nearby. If you tried to build these closer to cities, I’m sure there would be NIMBY issues. Imagine if someone wanted to build a new one near the Circle Interchange in Chicago – residents would complain and the price of land would likely be prohibitive. There are some older facilities embedded in the Chicago region; for example, there is one in Chicago just south of Midway Airport between 65th and 73rd Streets. You can see Union Pacific’s Chicago region facilities here.

But these facilities are needed, particularly in the Chicago region with its radial railroad system and many at-grade crossings. In recent years, the goal has been to relieve some of the rail traffic closer to the city which was behind the fight over whether Canadian National should be allowed to purchase the Elgin, Joliet & Eastern beltline railroad that runs around the city and on which CN wanted to run more freight trains.