Chicago suburbs continue the fight against railroad mergers they say will negatively impact their communities

This started years ago in response to the purchase of the Elgin, Joliet & Eastern Railway and continues now as eight Chicago suburbs challenge the potential merger of the Canadian Pacific and the Kansas City Southern railroads:

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Bartlett, Bensenville, Elgin, Itasca, Hanover Park, Roselle, Wood Dale and Schaumburg formed the Coalition to Stop CPKC last week in a bid to convince the board that the merger would bring so many additional trains to the Milwaukee West Line that it would dramatically alter life in their communities…

The merger would create the first single-line rail network linking the U.S., Canada and Mexico. The railroads filed the merger application in October.

Each of the eight suburbs conducted evaluations and determined what mitigations would be needed to protect their residents and businesses from the increase in freight traffic. Pileski said Roselle alone would need at least $30 million to create pathways and modify roads to get around the freight trains.

The coalition filing says the potential price tag for mitigations in all eight suburbs could reach $9.5 billion, and negate any benefit to the railroads.

Railroad traffic in many suburbs is viewed negatively due to an increase in blocked crossings or waiting for trains, more noise and pollution, and a disruption to a quiet suburban life. On the other hand, rail traffic helps deliver a lot of goods, can be more efficient than other shipping options, and might limit traffic – train or on roads – elsewhere.

In the larger picture of the Surface Transportation Board, where do the concerns of these 8 suburbs fit with other concerns or advantages regarding this potential merger?

In a region built in part on railroad transportation and that continues to see tremendous amounts of railroad freight traffic, it will be worth watching this outcome.

Balancing the needs of a region and nation versus the impact on local communities

Following up on a possible railroad merger that would affect multiple Chicago suburbs, several suburban leaders acknowledge that there are both community and larger interests at stake:

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Communities’ concerns about the length and frequency of trains are valid, but the key is to find a balance between alleviating their concerns and letting the railroads operate efficiently, bringing needed goods from one place to another, said Karen Darch, village president of Barrington and a board member of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning who has worked on railroad issues.

“We need transportation, this is a big industry for us, for the country,” she said. “And yet we want our communities to be safe and livable.”…

“It’s hard to argue against the commercial benefits that will occur from unifying these lines, and so the city’s trying to be realistic in terms of balancing its own interests with the greater benefit that can come for the U.S. economy,” he said. “We’re just asking, with the recognition that the railroads are going to benefit from this merger, we need some help.”

This is a conundrum that faces communities, regions, and the nation in multiple areas. The issue often arises in transportation but could also include eminent domain and land use, the move of a company from one location to another, and uneven development across communities. Whose interests should win out? How much room for compromise is there? How much can everyone involved see all of the layers?

There is little question that the Chicago region is an important region for railroad traffic in the United States. At the same time, that traffic impacts day-to-day experiences as well as long-term prospects for communities. What is good for the region or for national traffic may not look like what communities want.

The key here might be the efforts of the railroads themselves. What would they be willing to change about their operations and how much money would they contribute to help alleviate problems? This could range from listening to concerns, rerouting traffic away from residential areas, and contributing to the construction of bridges or underpasses to alleviate issues at at-grade crossings. This also helps make the contributions of railroads more tangible to suburbanites; people may know abstractly that railroads are important but have little to no direct interaction with any railroad company or representatives.

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:

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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.

Autonomous railroads and the importance of shipping goods by train

An exploration of autonomous trains in the United States includes this graphic about how cargo is moved in the country:

At this point, railroad shipping is very important: roughly one-third of cargo goes via train. This only follows trucks. And I wonder how this data works when cargo goes much of the way via train but then needs to make it “the last mile” from the railyard to specific locations.

So how much might autonomous railroads help? Here is some suggestive data:

A European Union-funded study published in 2020 found that moving to newer systems for managing trains could increase the capacity of existing rail networks by up to 44%. An internal study by Wabtec indicates in the U.S. the increase could be even higher, up to 50%. An increase of that magnitude in the ton-miles carried by America’s rail network would be the equivalent of moving approximately one million fully loaded Boeing 747-10 passenger jet planes from coast to coast every year.

Combine this with autonomous trucks (which, according to this piece, may take longer than moving to autonomous trains) and drones and perhaps more future goods could be moved even more quickly.

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.

The foresight of old railway viaducts

In regions like Chicagoland where there are numerous railroad lines and at-grade railroad crossings, old viaducts exhibit a measure of foresight that benefits today’s residents:

Google Street View image of Vollmer Road viaduct

That factory still operates as Chicago Heights Steel, and the cobblestone portion of Main Street is mostly a driveway leading to it. But just past the factory is a secret passageway of sorts, an ancient viaduct just wide enough to allow one vehicle to pass under the old Elgin, Joliet & Eastern railroad tracks…

There are areas, though, where there are no ways around it, and if you get stopped, you just have to abide. I’ve lived in those areas, but I don’t anymore. The main train line by me is above grade and it’s great. The old Illinois Central tracks, which include what’s now known as the Metra Electric District commuter line, traverse the area atop a big berm as unobstructed motorists cruise underneath through a series of viaducts from Sauk Trail all the way into the heart of Chicago.

According to Metra, the grade separation was a direct result of Chicago hosting the 1893 World’s Columbian Exhibition — city leaders didn’t want messy train deaths to tarnish the event’s image. In the years after those initial express trains from downtown to Jackson Park for the World’s Fair, commuter trains made their way to the suburbs, with Flossmoor getting service in 1900 and Matteson by 1912. The raised platforms, tracks and viaducts followed with the entire line being above grade by the 1920s…

Viaducts are harder to come by these days than they were in the golden age of railroads, and I only know of a few that have been constructed in my lifetime. Despite the hassles that can come along with them, motorists, and likely train engineers too, are happy we have the ones that are here.

Even as railroad lines help put many suburban communities on the map and still provide access to big cities, many local residents just see them as a hassle for the traffic and noise they create. With the automobile dominating suburban travel, trains are nuisance when they block vehicle flow.

I am familiar with numerous railroad viaducts in suburban communities in addition to the ones mentioned above in the south suburbs of Chicago. They were ahead of their time as they allowed access under the railroad tracks, sometimes even before cars were around. Local leaders and officials they foresaw the problems that might arise between ground-level traffic and trains and therefore separated the two flows to let each move on their own. This helps avoid safety issues that still plague communities today.

At the same time, not all of these viaducts have been treated well. As the article notes elsewhere, they can have drainage issues. Their original size is often an issue as today’s vehicles and/or traffic flow is larger, meaning that old viaducts need to be expanded. Letting one car through at a time is better than nothing but many communities would benefit from two lanes each way being able to go under the tracks. Foresight in infrastructure is helpful but it needs consistent attention to keep up with repairs and expanded suburban populations.

Trying to forecast future suburban commuting patterns, Naperville edition

The Naperville train stations are busy – until COVID-19. So how full will the parking lots be in the future?

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The city conducted a survey in the fall to gather data on commuting habits and gauge when people expect to return to work. The information will be used as the city reevaluates the Commuter Parking and Access Work Plan instituted in 2019…

A survey shows 81% of respondents are not commuting, but 75% indicated they expect to return to their “pre-pandemic schedule for commuting by Metra” by the end of 2021…

The survey shows 1,642 respondents, or 76%, said they commuted on Metra four or more days per week before the pandemic. But 37%, or 797, said they expect to continue commuting four or more days when life gets back to normal…

When people do return to a regular commute, Naperville’s parking survey showed 69% of responders would like the city to consider other payment options beyond quarterly and daily fees.

Trying to forecast commuting via multiple means – train, car, bus, subway, etc. – is going to be difficult for a while. As the article notes, a work from home option from many employers could continue. The willingness of commuters to return to mass transit and regularly proximity to others also might matter (and more of those who return to the office might choose driving which leads to other problems).

Yet, even if ridership or commuting stays low, systems still need to run and be maintained. With less revenue, how do transportation systems and municipalities keep up with costs?

This can contribute to an ongoing chicken-and-egg problem often posed in the United States. If there was better mass transit, would this lead to increased use? Or, do you have to have increased ridership or interest before building out transit systems?

The effects could be broader than just infrastructure and local budgets. Populations might shift if people change their commuting patterns for the long-term. Workplaces and offices could be very different. Suburbs, already built around private homes and lots of driving, could change in character and land use.

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.

Longer freight trains in the United States

Astute observers at crossings for freight trains might have noticed this over the last decade: on average, freight trains have become longer.

Freight trains have grown in length by about 25% since 2008, with trains on some railroads averaging 1.2 to 1.4 miles in 2017, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office…

Seven major railroads operating in the U.S. are running longer than average trains on specific routes, although some indicated that’s just a small percentage of total traffic. “One railroad said it runs a 3-mile-long train twice week,” the GOA noted.

With the government asking drivers to report long waits at crossings, perhaps the length of trains could change or they might move faster:

The agency recently launched the website www.fra.dot.gov/blockedcrossings with the intent of capturing data on blocked crossings to help identify chronic situations where trains cause traffic jams and hamstring first-responders for long stretches of time…

But will knowledge equal power? The hope is communities that experience the worst train-generated gridlock could lobby for federal dollars to build grade separations or use the knowledge to pressure railroads to offer operational fixes.

This is just made for the Chicago region where numerous at-grade crossings and a railroad bottleneck can lead to frustration or safety concerns.

But, this data does not seem that surprising. There are now more people living in the United States and so why wouldn’t there be more stuff shipped around the country? Presumably, a longer train is more efficient than running more trains. As the recent radio ads from the pipeline industry suggest, would drivers and residents prefer more trucks on the road to ship items than freight trains?

The long-term solution would seem to be the slow work of converting high-traffic at-grade crossings to bridges or underpasses or at least making this an option in some communities so that a slow, long, or stopped train is not a huge impediment. These projects can be costly and disruptive to nearby properties, particularly if located in downtowns. Additionally, intermodal facilities can be located further out in populated regions so as to keep long trains away from more populated areas. (The intermodal facilities can lead to their own problems.)

Finally, if the government wanted to solve the problem, why rely on drivers to report the data? This seems more likely to collect information from (1) certain people (perhaps more technologically savvy, perhaps those who can organize a campaign) and (2) certain locations that are problems. Is this a case where the squeaky (car) wheels will win out and see change?

West Chicago: founded around a railroad junction, host to Big Boy, and a missed opportunity to be a railroad tourist center

On Sunday, I had a vision of the suburb of West Chicago. Thousands of people regularly visited the community to see railroad displays and learn about the influence of the railroad on local history, the Chicago region, and the nation as a whole. Both regular and special trains drew onlookers. Local businesses, some with railroad themes, some not, benefited from extra visitors. Even as the car has dominated suburban life for decades, West Chicago remained an exciting testament to the power of the railroad in American life.

This vision may seem outlandish on a regular day but not so this past Sunday. To celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Transcontinental Railroad, Big Boy, one of the largest locomotives ever built, spent several days parked at the Union Pacific facilities just outside downtown West Chicago. On a hot summer Sunday, a large crowd gathered to see the locomotive and several passenger cars. Multiple generations turned out. People waited patiently to walk through one of the passenger cars. People stood next to the giant Big Boy and cheered when it released steam.

BigBoyOverhead

A community roughly thirty miles west of the heart of Chicago’s Loop, the community was founded as Junction around a railroad junction linking several other lines to the first railroad line in and out of Chicago (the Galena & Chicago Union). Workers came for railroad jobs. Factories and industrial facilities located near the railroad lines (including the later-arriving Elgin, Joliet & Eastern Railway). The community developed an identity around the railroad, with a Main Street that backed up to the railroad, the annual Railroad Days celebration and the prominent locomotive on the city seal. If there is a Chicago area suburb that can claim the railroad as its own, it is West Chicago.

Why doesn’t the suburb attract more visitors with such a rich railroad past? It may not be for a lack of trying. A display on Main Street featured a locomotive for a few decades. In the 1960s and 1970s, local groups developed plans to create a downtown railroad theme with one committee member saying West Chicago could become “Railroadsville, Illinois.” In the late 1980s, DuPage County planners said a railroad theme had great potential to offer something unique to families and visitors.

These efforts never quite came together. The suburb still benefits from its multiple transportation advantages – the railroad, DuPage County Airport, proximity to multiple major roads including Illinois Route 59, Illinois Route 64, and Interstate 88. But, the Illinois Railway Museum is located miles away to the northwest. West Chicago’s downtown struggles. The most attention many suburban residents pay to the railroad involves impatience when roadways are blocked by long freight trains or regular passenger trains.

When Big Boy leaves later this morning, perhaps it takes with it any hope that West Chicago can become a railroad tourist center. There is a minor chance it could happen; West Chicago has a history to build on. There is a market: thousands of visitors came out to see Big Boy. However, it would take sustained effort, resources, and some good timing.

Update 7/31/19: An estimated 45,000 people visited West Chicago to see Big Boy.