$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.

Key to national railroad on-time performance is Chicago?

In an interview, Amtrak’s leader suggests Chicago plays a critical role in the nation’s railroad structure:

I want to talk about on-time performance, and especially the role of freight prioritization. How has that played out?

The big problem I see right now is the on-time performance in and out of Chicago. Chicago is the hub for the long-distance system. All freights today are having a fluidity problem in and out of Chicago.

One of the things I’ve just done recently is every senior manager of this company had to adopt a train that operates in and out of Chicago. The reason for that is to get them really paying attention and focusing on a major part of what we do as a business. To make sure that our employees know that senior management’s paying attention to this. Communities know that senior management is out there looking at this. So that they understand our business better than they have in the past. That they can see what might be hurting us. Where can we improve ourselves? So that we can continue to hold a higher ground on the need for the freights to move our trains.

This is both a boon and a problem. For Chicago, this means that there is a tremendous amount of rail traffic going through the region, providing more opportunities for jobs and facilities. On the other hand, there is a limited amount of land, a lot of at-grade crossings, and getting trains through this bottleneck can be a headache. These issues have helped push more trains and facilities further out from the Loop, whether beltway lines or new intermodal facilities.

And this isn’t just a railroad problem in Chicago. As a transportation center, Chicago can be a bottleneck for air traffic with the soon-to-be world’s busiest airport (and recent infrastructure issues). The road traffic isn’t so great either.

“How Trains Can Be Silent Killers”

Over 780 people were killed by trains last year in the United States and it is possible for them to sneak up quietly on people:

“Statistically, every 94 minutes something or someone is getting hit by a train in the United States,” says David Rangel, deputy director of Modoc Railroad, a training school for future train engineers. Now, most of those incidents don’t involve people—Rangel’s statistic also includes the occasional abandoned shopping cart, wayward livestock, and other objects that somehow find their way onto the tracks. But, according to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), 784 people were killed in train-related accidents in 2013, the highest total in the last four years.

That accident rate comes down to a combination of factors, each increasing the likelihood of disasters. “Railcars are incredibly quiet,” Rangel says. “[Tracks] are designed to achieve the lowest possible coefficient of friction…At age 62, I could push a train car down a track.” Unlike a steam engine that would hammer the rails (a main reason why they were retired), modern railcars glide with low friction, and crushed rock underneath the tracks helps diminish impact. “You won’t hear it or feel it,” Rangel says.

The Doppler Effect, which explains how sound changes pitch based on an observer’s location relative to the sound’s origin (the reason sirens sound different as they approach you), plays a role. However, since they were in front of the train, where the pitch would be higher, they’d be more likely to hear the siren and doesn’t explain why they didn’t hear the train coming. Unsurprisingly, some train-collision victims often were wearing headphones or earbuds at the time. (These two were not wearing headphones.)

Terrain can also add to the danger. If a locomotive passes through a corridor lined with trees, those trees act like sound baffles in a recording studio, Rangel says, suppressing the noise. The average railcar traveling at 50 mph measures in decibels between at “loud voice” and a “shout,” according to the FRA. The horn itself, though, can be even louder than sirens on an ambulance.

When you think about it, it is surprising how open train tracks are to the general public. The average city or suburban dweller could probably get to a railroad line easily and walk around. This also includes a large number of at-grade crossings, a particular problem in the Chicago region with lots of freight traffic and lots of people. But, the goal of railroad lines is not to minimize accidents but rather to transport goods and people as efficiently as possible.

h/t Instapundit

Naperville to commemorate deadly 1946 train collision

Naperville likes its public art so it is not surprising to see that a memorial for a deadly 1946 train crash is in the planning stage:

In 1946, two trains crashed at the Naperville station and killed 45 people, including some military personnel returning from World War II…

Plans are moving forward to place a sculpture as a memorial near the site of the train wreck. The project would be installed on the day after the 68th anniversary of the April 25 crash. The memorial would honor those who died and recognize heroic rescue efforts on that Thursday afternoon in 1946 when the Exposition Flyer, a passenger train heading west from Chicago, plowed into the Advance Flyer, which had made an unscheduled stop at the Naperville station to check mechanical problems.

About 125 people were injured in the crash.

“It’s a story that I bet 95 percent of the people in Naperville don’t know about,” said W. Brand Bobosky, president of Century Walk Corp., a public-private partnership that has installed dozens of sculptures related to the city’s history in and around downtown.

This was a large incident, even among a metropolitan region full of railroad lines (which leads to some smaller accidents), lots of freight moving through the area, and high commuter counts in places like Naperville. To some degree, perhaps it is remarkable train crashes don’t happen more often given the number of at-grade crossings as well as the number of trains.

The majority of the statues and public art in Naperville celebrate important figures, reinforcing the narrative of the suburb’s impressive community spirit as well as it is remarkable growth. At the same time, there is currently a 9/11 memorial along the south side of the Riverwalk. This new memorial might be the first to commemorate tragedy that occurred within Napeville itself. Is building a memorial a signal of the maturity of a suburb (that may or may not be related to how much time has passed or the size of the community)?

Aconsequence of this crash, according to Wikipedia, was that it contributed to lower train speeds in the United States:

This crash is a major reason why most passenger trains in the United States only travel at a speed limit of 79 mph (127 km/h) or below.[2][3] The CB&Q, Milwaukee Road, and Illinois Central were among railroads in the region running passenger trains at up to and above 100 miles per hour (160 km/h) in the 1930s and 1940s. The Interstate Commerce Commission ruled in 1951 that trains traveling faster must have “an automatic cab signal, automatic train stop or automatic train control system”,[4][5] expensive technology that was implemented on some lines in the region, but has since been mostly removed.

An interesting legacy.

A $3 billion funding shortage for relieving Chicago area railroad gridlock

A House hearing suggested there is a major funding shortage for the construction necessary to relieve railroad traffic in the Chicago region:

A potential drop of more than 60 percent in Metra delays.

That number alone makes an ambitious $3.2 billion fix for rail congestion in the Chicago region attractive in the eyes of area commuters. And railroads, with the backing of the business community, also support the Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency Program, or CREATE.

But where funding for the $2 billion worth of work remaining will come from is a question both U.S. congressmen and industry officials pondered at a Monday hearing of the House Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials.

The Chicago region hosts about 1,300 trains a day — 800 Amtrak and Metra trains and 500 freights. But the outdated infrastructure and numerous street level crossings make it a major chokepoint for freight trains, not to mention the delays caused for drivers.

State dollars for the project run out this year and there’s nothing forthcoming in the federal government’s latest transportation plan.

Funding is hard to come by these days. Yet, these are infrastructure improvements that affect not only the Chicago area but perhaps the entire United States railroad system. A large amount of freight traffic in the United States moves through the Chicago region. The railroads as well as local, state, and federal government have been chipping away at this for years including moving intermodal facilities and switching yards further from the city and making at-grade crossings safer and rarer.

Another question that could be asked: should money be spent on high-speed rail if there are still significant problems in the regular railroad system?

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.