Massive Train Bottleneck Leads to a Rare Form of Cooperation

 

CHICAGO — It is an all-too-common experience. An Amtrak passenger train traveling from Michigan, just eight miles from its final stop at Chicago's downtown Union Station, has to idle for 15 minutes at a signal tower on the South Side. Before it can go any further, a commuter train on a different set of tracks must cross through the intersection. This is what's known as a chokepoint — and it is a huge problem for a city whose tracks handle millions of commuters and a quarter of the nation's freight rail traffic.

On an average day, roughly 140 trains pass through this South Side intersection. Half of them are commuter trains shuttling between the suburbs and downtown. More than a dozen, like the one waiting at the signal tower, are from Amtrak. The rest are lumbering Norfolk Southern freight trains, many of which stretch for more than a mile and a half. In the course of a year, this one bottleneck causes roughly 7,500 hours of commuter delays.

That doesn't count the time lost by freight trains. Busy rail intersections, outdated signals and switches and narrow viaducts all slow down freight traffic in the area. The congestion not only prevents railroads from shipping their goods quickly, but it blocks cars, trucks and ambulances competing to get through.

The problem in Chicago is so bad that the railroads are working with state, federal and city transportation agencies to unclog the network. They are embarking on a $3 billion plan, called the Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency (CREATE) program. It could take up to 10 years to complete. It is designed to reduce delays to just one-sixth of what they are now.

"The whole notion behind CREATE is … you don't just fix one bottleneck and move the bottleneck a few miles down the road," says Jeffrey Sriver of the Chicago Department of Transportation. "At this point we've made progress, but you don't get the full bang until you have done all of the projects."

A coordinated approach

Getting all the interests to work together isn't easy. Six of the country's seven major railroads serve the Chicago region. Their freight trains share the tracks with Amtrak passengers and Metra suburban commuters. That is why the city of Chicago and the state of Illinois are part of the effort. The agencies and railroads have divided up responsibility for the projects among themselves.

Federal officials say it is the first time state and local governments have worked with railroads to reduce congestion on such a large scale. In addition, they say it is the first time so many competing railroads have worked together in such an effort.

The collaborative has earned plaudits from the Urban Land Institute (ULI) as a means of helping planners to think of the needs of the region as a whole. The institute recently designated the CREATE project a "game changer" in the Chicago region, because it can spur economic development and preserve the environment and because it is politically and financially viable. But the cooperation involved struck ULI as a crucially important factor. "You can't just build the hard assets unless you have all the uses that it serves also facilitated," says the ULI's Paul Shadle. "There's going to have to be some interaction between those agencies that govern the transportation infrastructure and agencies that regulate land use." Besides the railroads, the companies and people who rely on freight rail need to be able to take advantage of the improvements, too.

Breaking ground

The current rail backlog — unlike traffic jams on highways — is easy to miss. The trains can sometimes be forced to a halt miles from the choke points that are delaying them. At the actual choke point, it may look like nothing much is happening. In between is a large and frustrating distance between trains that have to use the same tracks.

"If one train has to hold a half hour away, you've got a big gap in there," says the city of Chicago's Sriver. "That's just extremely inefficient. When these improvement projects are done … you might see every single track occupied with trains moving, and that would be the sign that it's working."

Altogether, there are 70 projects in the CREATE master plan. On the list are many that will benefit pedestrians, motorists and passenger trains, not just freight haulers. There are 25 places where planners hope to separate roads from railways, so cars and other street traffic do not have to wait for passing trains.

Another six would separate sets of train tracks. One of those six, known as the Englewood Flyover, would clear up the South Side intersection that delayed the Amtrak train from Michigan. The rest of the projects are improvements to the equipment that manages rail traffic and improves safety.

So far, construction has focused on the projects that are easiest to complete. The 11 finished projects include replacing signals made in 1915 with computer controls; building a rail bridge; and upgrading signals to accommodate longer trains and more of them. Another 10 projects are currently under way.

Scarce funding

The biggest obstacle to starting the more ambitious projects is money. Organizers raised funds from the railroads themselves and from all levels of government. But after tallying up all the money dedicated to the projects so far, organizers are still less than halfway to their goal.

One of the biggest chunks of funding, $400 million from the state of Illinois' 2009 public works bill, is now in legal limbo. The state Supreme Court heard arguments this month on whether the capital spending bill that contains the funds, one of Governor Pat Quinn's signature achievements to date, was unconstitutionally broad in the way it was written. A Chicago liquor distributor sued on the basis that the plan, which includes not only rail money but an increased alcohol tax, violates a part of the state constitution limiting bills to a single subject.

Another big portion of CREATE's money was nearly stripped away in a congressional budget battle earlier this year. A Republican plan to pare federal spending included elimination of $133 million in stimulus money designated for building the Englewood Flyover. The Illinois congressional delegation, including U.S. Senator Dick Durbin, a high-ranking Democrat, eventually reinstated the money before the bill was signed by the president.

The uncertainty of future funding, though, affects how projects are chosen. It can lead to an emphasis on the cheapest improvements, which may not be the ones that are most urgently needed. It doesn't make much sense, for example, to start building a bridge if there is no guarantee that the money will be there to finish it. Many of the unbuilt projects depend on completion of the Englewood Flyover; if that plan gets derailed, then some of the other projects might be useless or even counter-productive.

If and when money is found, the impact is expected to reach far beyond Chicago and even the Midwest. Getting rid of delays would save businesses more than $1.7 billion a year, according to one estimate. States beyond the Great Lakes would get three-quarters of the benefit.

"The railroads, it's their business," says Shadle of the Urban Land Institute. "But everybody who ships goods or people through the area uses this system."

 
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