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 And in 2012, the Federal Highway Administration rescinded its approval of the right of way.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.

Illinois Tollway, Canadian Pacific Railroad fighting over railyard land

Both railroads and tollways are important in the Chicago region so which should get their way when they both want the same land?

The Tollway has already built part of I-390 with the intention of extending it east to O’Hare. A new tollway would meet I-390 and connect it north to I-90 and south to the Tri-State Tollway along the airport’s western border. The project is expected to cost about $3.5 billion…

In March 2014, Canadian Pacific asked for $114 million for land acquisition and improvements to its Bensenville yard. The Tollway wants to use about 36 acres of the yard for the highway project. But the Tollway said CP restricted Tollway access to the yard, interfering with its ability to study the area to respond to the offer.

Schillerstrom said that the Tollway presented plans that addressed the railroad’s operational and land acquisition worries in November 2015, but CP ended discussions and since then has not been willing to discuss anything…

“With $140 million in federal dollars already invested in the project, Sen. Durbin is concerned about Canadian Pacific’s newfound unwillingness to work with the Tollway and other stakeholders,” Marter said. “After years of working toward a mutually beneficial solution, the railroad’s about-face is troubling.”

I’m a little surprised the state let this go so long and/or they didn’t wrap this piece of the puzzle up before they put themselves between a rock and a hard place. I imagine the public might rally around the cause of the tollway here – the road could help a number of drivers – but CP is correct about the level of railroad gridlock in the Chicago region. Say more about this particular railyard here; the picture at the top highlights the size of the facility.

Might this call for some sort of deal where the land in this railyard is traded for some other land or access elsewhere in the region? One solution to railroad congestion is to funnel more traffic around the edges of the region.

 

Slow process for possible new rail line around Chicago area

While the mayor of Aurora praised plans for a new railroad line around the Chicago area, the process of approval will take some time:

Not that everyone loves the idea. At a recent public hearing in Belvidere, near Rockford, some 400 people showed to say the train line would be dangerous in their areas, and would impact farms and groundwater. The U.S. Surface Transportation Board held a series of hearings on the proposed railroad, and took public comment through the middle of June. The board will issue an environmental impact statement, followed by more public hearings. A final impact statement is likely two to three years away, and then the Surface Transportation Board must approve the railroad before construction could begin.

Not only does new infrastructure require large sums of money, it often involves a lengthy process involving federal and local agencies as well as local residents and local officials. As has been noted by multiple commentators, this can make infrastructure projects very difficult to construct. By the time all the hoops have been jumped through, the money secured, and bids and plans approved, a significant amount of time has passed. At the same time, not all major infrastructure projects are worthwhile. I’m thinking particularly of highways in major cities, like along the Embarcadero in San Francisco, the elevated highway in Boston which was replaced in the Big Dig, or the Lower Manhattan Expressway that was never built. So, we have a system that slows down the process, which helps in some circumstances and is burdensome in others.

This is a reminder that perhaps the best way to deal with all of this is to have good foresight. Plan ahead and fewer residents might be affected, costs are lower, and society can benefit from the infrastructure for longer. When governments or private firms wait – for lack of funds, lack of need, political pressure – the construction only becomes more difficult.

Parallel railroad and Internet networks

Railroad right of ways contributed to the current infrastructure of the Internet in the United States:

Google didn’t come to Council Bluffs because of historical resonance. They came for the fiber, which runs parallel to Iowa’s many railroads and interstates. Rail infrastructure has shaped the language of the network (as noted in David A. Banks’s work on the history of the term “online”), the constellation of companies that form the network (most famously with Sprint emerging from the Southern Pacific Railroad’s internal-communications network), and, most relevant to this story, the actual routes that fiber-optic networks run.

Telecommunications companies quickly recognized the value of rail right-of-way as real estate for running cable networks long before the Internet—the first substantial use of rail networks for telecommunication networks starts with telegraphs. It’s a hell of a lot more efficient to run a cable along a single straight shot of property than negotiating easements with every single landowner between, say, Denver and Salt Lake City.

For railroads, this was a win-win, as the right-of-way agreements generate passive income, and the networks could be used for internal operations of the railroads themselves. As the first dot-com bubble expanded, more and more telecoms rushed to place their cables along rail routes. This New York Times story from 2000 documents the moment well; it also uses the delightful (and today, woefully underused) term “cyberage” and mentions an exciting new player in the telecom scene, Enron Broadband Services. Some railroad companies followed Sprint’s suit in this period, creating their own telecom services, like CSX Fiber Networks.

The markers of this right-of-way race along railroad routes (and highways, which have a similar right-of-way appeal to telecoms) are not especially impressive, but pretty hard to ignore. They usually take the form of orange-tipped white poles, or orange metal signs, spaced out a few meters apart running parallel to the rails. The orange part usually has a label warning people to call before digging, a phone number to call, and sometimes the name of the company or government agency that happens to own the buried cable. Labeled this way, fiber markers become a testament to telecom history, bearing names of companies that fell in the bursting of the first bubble, long ago absorbed into larger telecom networks. The new owners apparently don’t bother replacing the poles with their names or logos—presumably because it’s not really financially worthwhile to send someone to put Level 3 stickers over thousands of Global Crossing or Williams Communications logos on signage that’s more or less designed to be ignored by 99 percent of the public, like most network infrastructure.

Fascinating story: the land along the railroad lines turned out to be valuable not just for railroad uses but for any other infrastructure that needed clear paths. If I remember correctly, some of the right of ways were the product of public-private partnerships between the government and railroad companies. For example, completing long railroad lines might require years of negotiating with individual landowners which would delay important construction. To flip this around a bit, what would Internet networks look like today if railroads had never been constructed?

I wonder how much money this generates each year for the railroads. There is certainly plenty of freight traffic in the United States but it would be interesting to know what these particular routes are worth.

Fatalities due to vehicle-train collisions down dramatically

As the Chicago Tribune recently remembered a train-school bus collision that killed 7 in 1995, I looked at the statistics on vehicle-train crash fatalities. The numbers have dropped quite a bit in recent decades:

All Highway-Rail Incidents at Public and Private Crossings, 1981-2014
Source: Federal Railroad Administration
Year Collisions Fatalities Injuries
1981 9,461 728 3,293
1982 7,932 607 2,637
1983 7,305 575 2,623
1984 7,456 649 2,910
1985 7,073 582 2,687
1986 6,513 616 2,458
1987 6,426 624 2,429
1988 6,617 689 2,589
1989 6,526 801 2,868
1990 5,715 698 2,407
1991 5,388 608 2,094
1992 4,910 579 1,975
1993 4,892 626 1,837
1994 4,979 615 1,961
1995 4,633 579 1,894
1996 4,257 488 1,610
1997 3,865 461 1,540
1998 3,508 431 1,303
1999 3,489 402 1,396
2000 3,502 425 1,219
2001 3,237 421 1,157
2002 3,077 357 999
2003 2,977 334 1,035
2004 3,077 372 1,092
2005 3,057 359 1,051
2006 2,936 369 1,070
2007 2,776 339 1,062
2008 2,429 290 992
2009 1,934 249 743
2010 2,051 260 887
2011 2,061 250 1,045
2012 1,985 230 975
2013* 2,098 232 972
2014* 2,287 269 849

* Preliminary statistics

Based on the number of articles I’ve read plus personal experience driving at-grade crossings in the Chicago area (which has many cars driving over railroads tracks each day – in 2014, Illinois had the second most train-vehicle collisions in the country), there are several factors behind this decrease:

  1. Improved signage at many at-grade crossings.
  2. More barriers at crossings that make it difficult to go around gates (longer gate arms) or cross into other lanes (barriers in the middle of the road).
  3. Eliminating at-grade crossings with more underpasses and bridges. These can be expensive but they reduce crashes as well as save time for drivers who don’t have to wait for trains to pass.

Yet, these changes can’t control the actions of drivers as the Chicago Tribune article noted:

But experts say safety is a matter of attitude and awareness, not just signals and signs. That’s the message of groups like Operation Lifesaver and the DuPage Railroad Safety Council, an organization founded by Dr. Lanny Wilson after the death of his daughter at a rail crossing in 1994.

A 2013 University of Illinois at Chicago study found that as many as 4 in 10 Chicago-area pedestrians and bicyclists said they were at times willing to ignore flashing lights, ringing bells and gates at railroad crossings…

Barkan pointed to the Feb. 3 incident in Valhalla, N.Y., when a Metro-North Railroad commuter train struck an SUV at a grade crossing, killing six…

That crash could have been avoided, he said, if the driver had observed the “cardinal rule” of grade crossing safety: “Motorists must never enter a grade crossing until they have a clear exit path that equals or exceeds the length of their vehicle available on the other side of the tracks.”

Reaching zero traffic deaths on the roads also involves continuous improvement at such crossings.