Blighted with severe bottlenecks across its freight and passenger railway lines, Chicago has been dubbed “America’s rail traffic speed bump”. After an Amtrak investigation revealed that the city’s congestion problem could cause up to $799bn yearly losses to the US economy, what are the new solutions that could solve Chicago’s problem once and for all?
Located at the crossroads of four major Eastern and Western railroads, Chicago is the hub of the United States’ passenger and freight rail networks. Carrying a third of all rail freight traffic in the US valued at over $1tn, the city is the most important freight rail hub in North America. Chicago also holds the second largest commuter rail ridership of any US city, representing 11% of total ridership. As such, almost every major North American industry is dependent on the smooth running of Chicago’s rail operations.
But despite its national importance, Chicago has earned its nickname of “America’s rail traffic speed bump” after its services were blighted by severe, debilitating gridlocks and delays.
Although delays reached a critical point in winter 2014, the gridlock began much earlier and is still present today. Between 2013 and 2014, six of the eight worst performing long-distance passenger routes originated and terminated in Chicago. The situation only worsened during the current fiscal year, when Chicago was the source and end point of seven of the country’s worst performing trains.
As a result, on 24 October 2014 president of US passenger service operator Amtrak, Joseph Boardman, set up the Chicago Gateway Blue Ribbon Panel, a board of rail experts, attorneys, professors and former mayors tasked with identifying the critical infrastructure and operational improvements Chicago needs to relieve its rail congestion.
The panel’s findings, published on 1 October 2015, revealed that if left unchecked, Chicago’s rail gridlock will end up costing the US economy almost $800bn each year, due to its effects on six key industries constituting 85% of US domestic product: agriculture, natural resources, automotive, manufacturing, retail and services.
“The congestion challenge in Chicago poses the largest potential economic vulnerability to the US economy of all the major rail hubs in the United States”, the panel concluded, urging immediate action in order to avoid “the next Chicago rail crisis”.
Chicago’s rail traffic problem has not been an ignored topic. Over the past 15 years, authorities have made efforts to address the issue, the most important of which is a yet unfinished $4bn investment programme called Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency (CREATE).
Established in 2003, CREATE encompasses 70 different freight and passenger projects looking at improving rail line capacity. So far, only 29 of these projects have been completed or are currently under construction, at a cost of $1.2bn, while the rest have been stalled due to lack of funding.
With Chicago’s volume of rail freight projected to increase by 62% before 2040, Amtrak’s report lists seven key recommendations, from top-priority infrastructure investments to improved operating practices, which aim to tackle Chicago’s congestion once and for all.
Infrastructural developments: tackling Chicago’s biggest chokepoint
“Because of the centrality of Chicago to the national railroad system in the US, the importance of alleviating congestion and increase fluidity has national economic implications,” says Howard Learner, Chicago attorney and member of the Blue Ribbon Panel.
“The CREATE programme received input and support by a wide range of democratic and republic politicians, policy makers across the board, transportation companies, labour unions, planners, environmental groups and others. One of the things the panel did here was prioritise two of the infrastructure improvements that have been highlighted in the CREATE programme.”
The first top priority project highlighted in the report is the 75th Street Corridor, located south of the city, identified as “Chicago’s biggest chokepoint”.
On a daily basis, 90 freight trains and 30 commuter trains have to squeeze through the same crisscross of tracks on a two-mile radius, forming long waiting queues around three major chokepoints. The Panel thus identified four separate CREATE projects which should be prioritised in order to alleviate this severe congestion.