Why do children’s books spend so much time on infrastructure and construction yet there is little formal instruction on these topics later?

Yesterday, I walked to the nearest bank and watched some construction going on. The work appeared to involve digging underneath the side of a street, possibly to deal with a pipe or some kind of wire. I was struck that while many neighbors or drivers would find such a sight a nuisance, many kids would be fascinated.

Plenty of books for children involve infrastructure and construction. These books discuss vehicles, what is underground, and how items get from one place to another. The emphasis on big machines doing physical work and the mobility of it all seems attractive to kids. (I would guess much of this attraction is due to socialization.) But, if I think back to my schooling, we spend little time analyzing and discussing these basic systems that are essential to all of our lives: electricity and electrical lines, plumbing and sewers, Internet cables, roads and highways, pipelines, gas lines, railroads, trucking, waterways, airplanes and airports, and other crucial pieces of infrastructure. Why?

In many ways, it would not be hard to incorporate these topics into multiple subjects. The first example that came to mind would be a unit about railroads. These are essential for moving goods long distances. Various subjects could tackle aspects of the railroad. Plenty of history and geography to note. The natural sciences could discuss steam engines, coal, diesel engines, and how such heavy objects move. The humanities have a wealth of stories, poems, songs, and other works that involve railroads. Math could involve analyzing timetables or schedules. Language arts could involve writing promotional materials for railroads or describing particular historical events involving trains.

Without more formal instruction on infrastructure, American adults may not (1) think often about how we all need to contribute to maintaining and building infrastructure and (2) have a good understanding of how it all works (not just the infrastructure itself but also related industries and aspects of social life). In other words, a lack of attention paid to infrastructure in school and learning may just contribute to a public that does not want to address the infrastructure issues facing the nation today.

Shipping via truck and railroad in a strong economy

If the economy is going well, the trucking and railroad industries have plenty of work to do:

The dynamics in the transportation sector are “clearly signaling that the US economy, at least for now, is ignoring all of the angst coming out of Washington D.C. about the trade wars,” the report by Cass said.

The Cass Shipments Index does not include shipments of bulk commodities, such as grains or chemicals. But shipments of commodities were strong too, according to the Association of American Railroads. Excluding the carload category of coal, which is facing a structural decline in the US, carloads rose by 6.7% year-over-year, including grain, up 14.7%; petroleum & petroleum products, up 27%; and chemicals, up 4.6%. Of the 20 commodity carload categories, only five showed declines, including nonmetallic minerals, metallic ores, and the biggie, coal.

And intermodal traffic – shipments of containers and trailers via a combination of rail and truck – surged 6.9% in July compared to July last year, the AAR reported.

At the least, this is just a reminder of how goods make their way to stores and eventually buyer’s residences. Those trucks and trains may be a nuisance when you want to get where you want to go but this is how it works in our society.

A few other thoughts:

  1. It is hard to imagine drones could make up for all or even many of the goods shipped by trucks and trains. Or, imagine drones like swarms of locusts.
  2. The shipping industry is another one highly affected by economic swings. Like the construction and housing industries, when times are good, there is a lot of need for goods to be moved around. When a recession hits, all that equipment and all those employees are not needed.
  3. Of course, there is an international component to all of this where goods have to enter or leave countries. That all happens on a consistent even with all the rhetoric regarding trade wars and trade agreements. I remember going past some of the shipping yards in Hong Kong and being amazed at the size of the facilities: cargo containers in huge piles for as far as one could see.

CREATE plan slowly moves to address Chicago area railroad congestion

An expensive and sizable project aims to solve the train congestion in the Chicago region:

CREATE takes an incremental approach to fixing rail gridlock in the suburbs and Chicago, the nation’s busiest rail hub.

One overpass here, two extra tracks there, and eventually freight trains will be chugging along instead of noisily idling in your neighborhood while emitting diesel fumes.

The downside is the cost — a staggering $4.4 billion to fix the region’s outdated rail infrastructure.

Despite funding challenges, 29 out of 70 CREATE projects in the region have been completed with $1 billion spent, Association of American Railroads Chief Engineer for CREATE William Thompson explained during a recent tour…

The Chicago region handles a whopping 25 percent of freight traffic in the U.S. That means almost 500 freight trains and 760 Metra and Amtrak trains pass through the region daily. Completing the Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency Program that builds bridges and new track will mean the metro area can host 50,000 more freight trains a year by 2051.

The Chicago area is a critical railroad hub for the entire nation. Yet, given the amount of development in the region, making significant changes is difficult. For example, construction at O’Hare Airport is held up by a dispute over railroad land adjacent to the busy facility. Or, suburban residents and communities do not like it when freight traffic is increased near them even if benefits the region as a whole. Or, getting rid of the many at-grade crossings is a slow process. This is another good illustration of how foresight – addressing these issues decades ago as the region was growing at a face pace – could have cut off numerous later issues.

Also, I am intrigued by the last line from the article quoted above. I assume most of the region’s residents would assume that the amount of time and money poured into this project would eventually mean that they would encounter fewer trains. And this might be the case if more bridges, underpasses, and routes around the outskirts of the region limit the vehicular contact with trains. Yet, increasing the number of freight trains by 50,000 means more noise and possibly more traffic issues at the points in the transportation grid where trains and vehicles still come in contact. Would the majority of residents want 50,000 new trains? I would guess no even if it is essential to their day-to-day lives (delivering goods and food, etc.).

 

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.

Two dead suburban transportation projects: the Metra STAR Line and the Prairie Parkway

A large metropolitan area of over 9 million residents could benefit from more transportation options for residents and visitors. Here are quick summaries about two projects that never got off the ground:

The STAR Line

The suburb-to-suburb STAR Line rail system was intended to loop from O’Hare to Hoffman Estates to Joliet along tracks formerly owned by the EJ & E railroad, providing an alternative to the suburb-to-city commuter lines.

But Canadian National Railroad bought the EJ & E in 2008 and moved freight traffic onto those tracks, effectively putting the STAR Line on ice. In 2011 Schaumburg pulled the plug on a special taxing district meant to spur development around the convention center, which had been envisioned as a STAR Line hub.

Prairie Parkway

The Prairie Parkway would have circled Chicago’s outer suburbs, linking I-88 near Elburn to I-80 near Minooka. The Illinois Department of Transportation began studies in 2003, and in 2005 President George W. Bush came to Montgomery to sign a highway funding bill and call the Prairie Parkway “crucial for economic progress for Kane and Kendall counties.”

Opponents organized and sued. The highway’s patron, former U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Plano, was accused of profiting from land buys near the proposed highway. And in 2012, the Federal Highway Administration rescinded its approval of the right of way. It was only in March that IDOT canceled the corridor.

I have always thought the STAR Line was a clever idea in multiple ways:

  1. It would provide needed railroad links throughout the region so that not all riders have to go into Chicago before making transfers. The spoke model in the Chicago region is good for getting to downtown but the biggest number of trips these days are suburb to suburb.
  2. It made use of existing tracks. Although they likely needed more capacity to run regular passenger service and new tracks would be needed along I-90, some of the infrastructure was already there. This is not something to look past in an era when acquiring land can be expensive and time-consuming.
  3. It had the potential to spur transit-oriented suburban development in a number of communities. This is a hot topic in many suburban downtowns and it could have opened up new commuting, residential, and business opportunities.

Yet, the plan was scuttled by several factors:

  1. A lack of money. This project has been around since the 1990s but it was unclear who would fund it.
  2. Control of the EJ&E tracks.
  3. Likely concerns from neighbors to these tracks. When CN purchased these tracks and added freight trains, multiple communities pushed back.

The Prairie Parkway may have not offered as much opportunity to remove cars from roads but could have spurred development on some of the edges of the Chicago region and offered a shorter drive time in these areas. Building belt-line highways like this require some foresight: if they are constructed after too much development has occurred, they can be much more expensive to build. Also, neighbors can object to the plans, such as with the Illiana Expressway which also has not gotten off the ground.

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.

Reducing trespassing on railroad tracks

Experts from several areas are working to limit the number of people on railroad tracks:

Trespassing numbers have remained fairly steady over the years and now account for about 72 percent of all railroad-related deaths, with 761 fatalities in 2015, including 296 suicides.

Safety experts are now focused on finding ways to cut trespassing through education, intervention and barriers such as fencing at popular trespassing spots. But advocates concede it won’t be easy — there are 140,000 miles of railroad track in the United States, and it is impossible to contain it all.

“Trespassing has been more of a stubborn problem for us,” said Bonnie Murphy, president and CEO of Operation Lifesaver, a national train safety organization, who spoke along with other safety experts at the biennial DuPage Railroad Safety Council conference last week. “There’s a disturbing, ongoing trend of people walking along the tracks.”

This is an important safety issue. But, it raises a larger question: while the lines are technically private property, how do you realistically keep people off of them when they crisscross all parts of America at ground level? Railroads rejected the idea long ago that fences should be built along the thousands of miles of lines. There is no mention in this article of enforcing trespassing but I assume this would require a significant amount of resources. Cameras at important locations? Warning signs at regular intervals along the lines? Trains using a more effective warning signal of their arrival (think of a targeted rumbling option from a longer distance)? More effort at moving rail traffic away from major population centers (such as going around major metropolitan regions when possible)?

Railroads can be incredible at moving freight and people long distances. However, they don’t interact well with pedestrians.