Crain’s Chicago Business: ELPC’s Learner Says Freight Companies Should Pay Their Share to Fix Chicago Rail Bottleneck

As the Nation’s Rail Hub, Chicago is an Expensive and Dangerous Bottleneck
By Judith Crown

One of the daily nuisances caused by the tangle of the Chicago area’s nearly 4,000 miles of rail track can be seen at the 71st Street grade crossing just east of Western Avenue. Motorists are routinely stuck for 15 to 20 minutes behind a gate, which is down an average of two hours a day.

“It gets pretty crowded,” said Vernon Wiltz, an aide to Ald. Derrick Curtis (18th). “We get complaints about traffic, and the train horns are horrendous at 3 or 4 in the morning.”

But however bad it is for motorists, think of it from the freight train’s point of view. Thomas the Tank Engine and his cousins must crawl for hours at a time navigating an eight mile stretch of South Side track where four freight and two passenger lines converge to create one of the worst rail choke points in the nation.

The so-called 75th Street corridor, which despite its name actually meanders from Evergreen Park to the Dan Ryan Expressway, is a prime reason why experts say a coast-to-coast freight train can spend one-third of its trip simply trying to pass through Chicago area bottlenecks. They pose deadly safety hazards and add immense expense to the cost of shipping goods by rail.

As President Trump beats the drum for a $1 trillion national public works program reminiscent of the New Deal, the Chicago area offers a long list of critical infrastructure suffering from deferred maintenance and in dire need of an upgrade. Rail, central to Chicago’s growth from prairie backwater to metropolitan crossroads, tops the list.

The economic peril of inaction is palpable. A 2015 Amtrak study concluded that $935 billion in goods transit through the Chicago on rail per year, and executives of major carriers frustrated by delays are becoming more vocal about the possibility of shifting traffic—and by extensions spending and investment–away from the area.

Indeed, Keith Creel, the CEO of Canadian Pacific told investors in May that his line was in talks with Jacksonville Fla.-based CSX to form a joint marketing and operating agreement to avoid Chicago switching yards and bypass chokepoints.

The partnership could find other ways to avoid Chicago. CP, for example, could bring intermodal traffic into Vancouver and hand it off to CSX on the east side of the Great Lakes, said Keith Schoonmaker, director for industrials equity research at Morningstar, Inc. “You’re a fool to drive into a traffic jam,” Schoonmaker said.

Another alternative: Shippers could circumvent the city by using the widened Panama Canal—East Coast cities are dredging their ports to accommodate larger container ships that can pass through the widened waterway, said Joseph C. Szabo, executive director of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning who headed the Federal Railroad Administration under former President Barack Obama.

Four Atlantic ports already can accommodate larger containerships: New York/New Jersey, Baltimore, Hampton Roads, Va., and Port Everglades, Fla., according to Shyam Raman, program manager at consultancy Frost & Sullivan, which analyzed the Chicago rail congestion problem for Amtrak.

These threats are real, Szabo said. “We put at risk losing our dominance if we don’t take decisive action.” Freight volumes are growing, he added, due to growth in population, consumption and the explosion of e-commerce, so it’s possible the region could tread water but still lose market share.

About 25 percent of all U.S. freight trains, and half of all intermodal trains that ferry shipping containers and trailer trucks, pass through the Chicago area, according to CMAP. Each day, tracks in the region bristle with 1,300 trains carrying freight and passengers.

But tracks, bridges, switches and signals largely laid out more than a century ago have resulted in a jumble that grinds away at efficiency. It often takes 26 to 30 hours for a freight train to pass through the area, a considerable time suck out of the typical three to five days it takes to move freight from West Coast ports to the Eastern seaboard.

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