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Freight Train Network Suffers Lack of Modernization

April 21, 2009 at 6:20 PM EDT
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Chicago has been a freight rail hub for the past 150 years, but an outdated layout often makes it a bottleneck for the country's shipping network. Special correspondent Rick Karr reports in the latest installment of the Blueprint America series on infrastructure.

JIM LEHRER: Next, another of our Blueprint America reports on infrastructure, this one about freight trains.

President Obama called for new funding last week to create high-speed rail in several locations around the country. Transporting passengers is one problem; shipping freight is quite another.

Special correspondent Rick Karr reports from Chicago on the troubles of freight trains. And the series is produced in collaboration with WNET-New York.

DINO MCCULLOUGH, BNSF Engineer: Now, Paul, you would think that signal was for us here.


DINO MCCULLOUGH: But it’s for this track right here.

RICK KARR, Special Correspondent: Burlington Northern Santa Fe engineer Dino McCullough and the conductor Darius Dooley know that they annoy a lot of Chicago-area drivers who spend a lot of time stuck in their cars waiting for freight trains to pass.

DINO MCCULLOUGH: Well, a lot of people get frustrated because we block a lot of traffic. And we do. But it’s for the purpose of the people. It’s a good cause, you know? I mean, anything you pretty much use and you wear or you have or you see, we transport.

DARIUS DOOLEY, BNSF Conductor: When you see a lot of freight trains — I know people don’t like to be stopped by trains. You see a lot of freight trains, then you know the economy is doing well. You want to see a lot of freight trains.

RICK KARR: But traffic on Chicago’s rails is even slower than traffic on its roads. A 2002 study found that freight trains pass through the city at an average of just 9 miles an hour.

DINO MCCULLOUGH: I got a 10-mile-an-hour track restriction here. I can only go 10 up here. They just might be out there working on track. It just could be anything, you know? It could be broken rail.

RICK KARR: One reason for the slow speed is that some of the technology on Chicago’s rails hasn’t emerged from the 19th century. For example, McCullough and Dooley had to bring their 130-car train, which was carrying nearly 9,000 tons of coal, to a dead stop in the city so that Dooley could climb down through the locomotive and make sure that it went on to the right track at a switch by hand, even though most switches these days operate by remote control.

DARIUS DOOLEY: Some days that’s all I do, is throw switches, you know? Not everywhere is advanced as other places.

RICK KARR: The process is known as lining the train.

DARIUS DOOLEY: If they had it already lined, it just came right down, we’d be at the next signal by now, probably moving on. This is my delay report. And every time this train stops or we get delayed, I’m supposed to put it down there. That alone took 12 minutes.

Chicago is a choke point

RICK KARR: Chicago's history slows down trains, too. The city has been a freight rail hub for around 150 years. In the old days, some lines brought raw materials to the city, like cattle to the stockyards, while others carried finished products to market.

The city's rails are still laid out that way. A couple of lines come in from the west and a couple of others from the east, which means even though Chicago still handles about a third of the nation's freight, a lot of it has to stop there and shift from one railroad to another.

DINO MCCULLOUGH: As far as we go here in Chicago, this coal could be going actually to Michigan. We take it as far as we can. We bring it from west, wherever it comes from, west, we bring it here to Chicago. And if it's going on to Michigan, Canadian National, maybe CSX, they'll pick it up and take it to wherever it's going.

RICK KARR: With all of those delays, some businesses are trying to work around Chicago's rails, which means they've come to rely on trucks instead, trucks that haul freight to Chicago and then deposit it on trains that head out of the city.

MIKE SOUTHWORTH, Truck Driver: Looks good.

RICK KARR: Five times a week, Mike Southworth drives his truck from Detroit to Chicago and back, about 300 miles each way, hauling freight bound to or from points west.

So what do you have on the truck today?

MIKE SOUTHWORTH: I've got epoxy resin, which is hazardous, flammable. We'll be taking that into Chicago.

RICK KARR: And do you know where it's going ultimately?

MIKE SOUTHWORTH: It's going to Hermosillo, Mexico, to the Ford assembly plant in Hermosillo.

RICK KARR: Because that epoxy resin made the first leg of its trip from Detroit by truck instead of by train, it consumed about six times as much diesel fuel, it added to congestion on Chicago's highways, and, Southworth says, it cost more.

MIKE SOUTHWORTH: Trucks are more much expensive. By using the rail, the customers can drastically decrease their costs for shipment. The rail is more efficient, and they can haul more freight at one time than a truck can.

RICK KARR: But, Southworth says, businesses are willing to pay more to make sure that their freight gets to its destination on time. Even though he had to brave traffic and navigate the city's streets to make it to a rail yard, he did it a lot faster than a freight train could have.

MIKE SOUTHWORTH: By the time they load it in Detroit and train it to Chicago, switch it to the appropriate train headed for Mexico, we can get it here faster so that the customer has it on time so that they can build the automobiles.

Railroads need help

RICK KARR: Chicago doesn't just handle coal and automotive supplies. It also moves food, cars, appliances, even things that you order online or gifts that you ship to relatives. UPS is one of the nation's biggest rail shippers, and about 10 percent of its packages move through this facility in Chicago's suburbs.

UPS's Frank Barre says time is money.

FRANK BARRE, UPS: The typical lifespan of a package in this facility is less than 15 minutes. This facility can process above 100,000 packages per hour. We've actually demonstrated during our Christmas peak period of processing more than 120,000 packages per hour.

RICK KARR: Barre says, if railroads want to do business in the 21st century, they need a 21st-century rail network.

FRANK BARRE: The railroads need to certainly make sure that consistently they provide good service. There needs to be an increased amount of technology placed into the rail system, as well as more capacity, as we have the growth to move goods.

RICK KARR: But, he says, railroads can't do it alone. They need cooperation from industry and government.

FRANK BARRE: We look to do it from the business sector, but we also look for things to be sparked, really, by Washington. Really, what we would like to see is a coordinated, comprehensive strategy that takes a look at our infrastructure from certainly different viewpoints, different groups, to be able to plan and have that technology in place and have that capacity for growth.

Untangling road and rail traffic

RICK KARR: And freight shipments will grow. Consulting firm Global Insight expects that Chicago's freight volume will increase by 80 percent by 2030. Green groups, including the Environmental Defense Fund and Natural Resources Defense Council, say that rail is a far better option than trucks for handling that growth.

Right now, there's no national plan for freight, so Chicago leaders and railroad officials have developed a regional public-private partnership to fix the area's problems, but it won't come cheap.

This is one of the major bottlenecks in Chicago's freight rail network. A lot of times during rush hour, the freight trains have to stop and wait until the commuter trains make their way through.

Fixing that will cost $300 million, to build new tracks for the commuter trains and streamline the freight lines.

Untangling road and rail traffic will be expensive, too. Here, for example, it will cost millions to build an underpass to take the street under the tracks and move both trains and cars a bit faster. All told, the plan for the Chicago region will cost $2.5 billion.

MARYSUE BARRETT, President Metropolitan Planning Council: Here's downtown, roughly here.

RICK KARR: Marysue Barrett heads the city's Metropolitan Planning Council. She says, in the global economy, the only way that the U.S. will stay competitive is by fixing bottlenecks, like the one in Chicago, and developing a national freight policy.

MARYSUE BARRETT: Countries like the U.K., like Germany, like Canada, they have developed a freight strategy for their countries just in the last decade and sometimes in the last four or five years. Here in the United States, we've kind of been sleepwalking. We've been doing things the way we've always done it.

RICK KARR: The way we've always done it with regard to freight rail is with private-sector money. In other words, while government runs ports and roads and airport and passenger rail, freight railroads have traditionally paid for their own infrastructure.

Barrett says that won't work anymore.

MARYSUE BARRETT: They'll respond to incentives. If there's a cost-sharing offer on the table to say, "You're going to have to put some of your money in, but you can access this amount of public dollars," that kind of public-private brokering is, I think, the way that we're going to be funding infrastructure across the board in the future.

Obama's plan to improve speed

RICK KARR: Barrett says there's no agency in Washington responsible for untangling, modernizing or maintaining the nation's freight rail system or for paying for those improvements, and so federal support for Chicago's plan has come through the back door, tacked on to other transportation projects.

BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States: I'm announcing my administration's efforts to transform travel in America with an historic investment in high-speed rail.

RICK KARR: The Obama administration's plan for high-speed passenger rail in several key corridors, including Chicago and the Midwest, is likely to improve the speed of freight, since both kinds of trains share the same tracks in much of the country.

And five years ago, Congress tacked on to a transportation bill millions to modernize switches and signals at a junction on the city's southwest side. Conductor Darius Dooley says that project has already increased train speeds.

DARIUS DOOLEY: This one's actually getting better. A little further down, you'll see -- it's a park called Brighton Park, where before you used to go there and it was a person that was in a building that you talked to him, and they mainly threw the switch for you. But now it's all automatic, that a dispatch can do it. So that happened in the last year or two years.

RICK KARR: Even with federal help, it will take at least nine years to complete Chicago's plan. City officials are asking Congress to fund more improvements to the city's freight rail network later this year, and they're urging lawmakers to make a national freight rail strategy a priority.