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Shippers call Chicago the biggest cause of rail freight delays

Posted by Olog-hai on Tue May 8 02:00:35 2012

NY Times via Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Freight train late? Blame it on Chicago

May 8, 2012 12:03 am
By John Schwartz / The New York Times
CHICAGO When it comes to rail traffic, Chicago is America's speed bump.

Shippers complain that a load of freight can make its way from Los Angeles to Chicago in 48 hours, then take 30 hours to travel across the city. A recent trainload of sulfur took some 27 hours to pass through Chicago an average speed of 1.13 miles per hour, or about a quarter the pace of many electric wheelchairs.

With freight volume in the United States expected to grow by more than 80 percent in the next 20 years, delays are projected only to get worse.

The underlying reasons for this sprawling traffic jam are complex involving history, economics and a nation's disinclination to improve its roads, bridges and rails.

Six of the nation's seven biggest railroads pass through the city, a testament to Chicago's economic might when the rail lines were laid from the 1800s on. Today, a quarter of all rail traffic in the nation touches Chicago. Nearly half of what is known as intermodal rail traffic the big steel boxes that can be carried aboard ships, trains or trucks roll by, or through, this city.

The slowdown involves more than freight.

The other day, William C. Thompson, a project manager for the Association of American Railroads, stood next to a crossroads of steel in the Englewood neighborhood, pointing to a web of tracks used by freight trains and Amtrak passenger trains that intersected tracks for Metra, Chicago's commuter rail. The commuter trains get to go first, he said, so "Amtrak tells me they have more delays here than anywhere else in the system."

More delays than anywhere else in the Chicago area? No, he explained "in the entire United States."

Now, federal, state, local and industry officials are completing the early stages of a $3.2 billion project to untangle Chicago's rail system not just for its residents, who suffer commuter train delays and long waits in their cars at grade crossings, but for the rest of the nation as well.

The program, called the Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency Program, or CREATE, is intended to replace 25 rail intersections with overpasses and underpasses that will smooth the traffic flow for the 1,300 freight and passenger trains that muscle through the city each day, and to separate tracks now shared by freight and passenger trains at critical spots.

Fifty miles of new track will link yards and create a second east-west route across the city, building redundancy into the overburdened system.

Fourteen of the 70 projects have been completed so far, and 12 more are under way, including the $140 million "Englewood flyover," or overpass.

While much of the country's attention in transportation issues is focused on high-speed rail projects trumpeted by the Obama administration, CREATE is largely about bringing old-fashioned low-speed rail up to modern standards. Innovative financing combines federal, state and private funds from various programs, including the federal stimulus packages. CREATE even uses some funds tied to high-speed rail, since many of the projects are being designed to accommodate those lines in the future.

One of the biggest holdups for freight traffic is that Chicago's crowded rails must also get hundreds of thousands of commuters to work and home mornings and evenings, so by an agreement known as the Chicago Protocol, the shared tracks and intersections belong to passenger rail during rush hours.

Mr. Thompson, the rail association's program manager for CREATE, said building during a recession had produced a bonus, as construction companies eager to get the work have come in under budget on every project. "It's a very good time to be building infrastructure," he said.

With more than a dozen of the smaller projects in place, there have already seen some reduction in rail delays, said Joe Shachter, director of public and intermodal transportation for the Illinois Department of Transportation, with bigger improvements to come. "The next two or three years, in particular, we think are going to show great advances," he said.

But the full benefits will be felt only if all the projects can be completed, Mr. Thompson said: A knot of interrelated problems requires a network of solutions.

And there lies a potentially larger problem than anything in the steel rails that snake across the city. While some of the financing for CREATE has come from private industry and state bonds, further progress depends almost entirely on the ability of Congress to pass transportation legislation.

That legislation has historically been passed in a bipartisan manner. But Congress, eager to squeeze the budget and in continual discord about the nation's priorities, has found itself repeatedly at impasse over the current transportation bill.

To Brian Imus, staff director of Illinois PIRG, a consumer group, "it seems like as much gridlock as we've got with our trains, it's even worse in Washington, D.C."


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