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Freight Trains Face Burdensome Bottleneck in Midwest

June 18, 2009 at 6:35 PM EDT
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In the Midwest, Chicago has been a freight rail hub for 150 years. But now, traffic on Chicago's rails is even slower than traffic on its roads. As part of the Blueprint America series of reports on infrastructure, Rick Karr examines the U.S. freight train choke point.

JIM LEHRER: Now, another report in our infrastructure series, Blueprint America. Special correspondent Rick Karr looks at the fight over increasing railroad freight traffic.

RICK KARR, Special Correspondent: Chicago-area drivers spend a lot of time waiting for freight trains. The region has more grade crossings, where roads cross tracks, than any other in the country, more than 1,900. It’s a major hub for freight, but the average train crawls through the city at just nine miles an hour.

So some Chicago-area residents have gotten used to having freight trains in their backyards.

KATHERINE WORTHEN: That’s the end. That’s a short one, see?

RICK KARR: Take Katherine Worthen, for example. She and her neighbors in suburban South Holland, Illinois, have learned to live with train congestion when they try to get around.

KATHERINE WORTHEN: In a few minutes, we’ll be at one of the major crossings here, where I refer to as the prayer spot, because often you just have to sit and wait patiently.

People in the community have to navigate to either shop or to go to our community center for classes, for meetings, et cetera. Many times you have to plan your life around the trains.

Suburban residents angry

RICK KARR: But Worthen and her neighbors are celebrating some good news: There will be about 20 fewer trains running through South Holland every day.

In order to avoid the bottleneck in Chicago and its inner suburbs, one of the nation's largest railroads, Canadian National, plans to re-route traffic away from the tangle of freight lines that converge there.

C.N. bought the Elgin, Joliet and Eastern Railroad, or EJ&E, a 200-mile detour around the city. That'll take trains that could be nearly two miles long through 33 outer suburbs.

PROTESTORS: Hey, hey, ho, ho, Canadian National's got to go...

RICK KARR: That has people in those suburbs very angry. Last August, residents of affluent Barrington, Illinois, took to the streets to urge federal regulators at the Surface Transportation Board to stop Canadian National from buying the EJ&E. And hundreds of people turned up at a hearing to accuse those regulators of not considering their community's needs.

REP. DON MANZULLO (R), Illinois: What you never analyzed -- it's never in here -- is the impact on the backup of traffic. You never even looked at that.

RICK KARR: Barrington residents say the trains will ruin the quality of life in their town.

Take the Connors family, who live near the EJ&E line. The kids can walk to school. And just a couple of blocks away, there's an old-fashioned downtown full of shops, restaurants, even a movie theater. But the influx of trains will change all of that, according to Jerry Connors.

JERRY CONNORS: If I've got a train that's a mile long, I can come pretty close to blocking all the intersections going through town. The question is, what does it do to the fabric of the town?

RICK KARR: Barrington's likely to see a massive increase in train traffic, from two or three freights a day to more than two dozen.

JERRY CONNORS: If we increase the rail traffic, which backs up the car traffic, that means people won't come from the surrounding communities, Lake Barrington, North Barrington, Barrington Hills. They'll go the other direction to buy things. We won't have the businesses here. You don't have a downtown area.

RICK KARR: Barrington residents are concerned about safety, too. School Superintendent Tom Leonard says the town's high school is just 600 feet from the tracks.

TOM LEONARD, Superintendent, Barrington Community Unit School District: During the day, about 850 times, our buses cross these tracks, OK? I'd say you're going to have about 700 to 1,000 kids probably passing this way each day, after school, going this way, before school, going that way.

RICK KARR: He worries about what might happen if a train came to a stop in town.

TOM LEONARD: If they stop, you cannot get anywhere. If we have an emergency at the high school, the police can't get to us. You know, when you think about a school of 3,000 high school students, we typically have somebody with a health issue or something happening almost daily, and time is of the essence in those situations.

JIM ARIE, Fire Chief, Village of Barrington: The EJ&E line, the Canadian National line, runs close by. We're probably about a quarter-mile away from that.

Traffic-blocking is major issue

RICK KARR: Barrington fire chief Jim Arie says Canadian National may run trains long enough to block all four roads that cross the tracks in town.

JIM ARIE: It would conceivably knock out all those crossings, which causes major problems for us. It starts out at Lake Cook, 59, Route 14, which carries more then 30,000 cars a day, and then also up on Old Lake Zurich Road, as well.

RICK KARR: Barrington's hospital is on one side of the tracks, while many of its residents live on the other, so a train could delay an ambulance on its way to the emergency room.

What would it take to maintain the same level of protection for your entire jurisdiction once there are 20-some trains a day here?

JIM ARIE: Well, the ideal situation for us would be that we're able to provide the same level of service on this side of the tracks as that side of the tracks, irrespective of the train traffic.

RICK KARR: Which means a bridge?

JIM ARIE: Which would mean a grade separation of some kind. Clearly, that would be the logical choice.

RICK KARR: Arie thinks his community would be safer with a bridge or an underpass or some other kind of infrastructure that'd get trains out of the way of people and traffic. But those solutions are expensive: about $60 million to $70 million each.

Barrington Village President Karen Darch doesn't think taxpayers should have to pick up the tab.

KAREN DARCH, President, Village of Barrington: An issue for the village has been the fact that taxpayer money has to be used at all to do an infrastructure project that's going to benefit, essentially, Canadian National, a private industry that's going to make a lot of money from its ability to run 20 freight trains a day through this community.

Re-routing the trains?

RICK KARR: Some Barrington residents want the federal government to force Canadian National to pick up most of the tab. That's what regulators did in two other towns along the EJ&E where they found that train traffic posed a significant risk. But the railroad says it shouldn't have to pay more than 10 percent.

KAREN PHILLIPS, Vice President, Canadian National: Historically, the highway community and the government officials have viewed overpasses and underpasses as primarily benefiting highway users.

RICK KARR: Karen Phillips is a Canadian National vice president.

KAREN PHILLIPS: We've had these guidelines in place for a number of years, where railroads pay in the 5 percent to 10 percent range for grade separations. We believe that that formula is appropriate here, as well.

RICK KARR: C.N. has gone to court to overturn the government order. Barrington's filed suit, too. The village wants federal regulators to reconsider their decision to let Canadian National buy the tracks.

But railroad advocates say the village is missing the big pictures: Trains use less fuel and pollute less than trucks, and the more freight trains there are on the rails, the fewer trucks there are on the highways. What's more, re-routing the trains will benefit more people than it hurts, according to Canadian National's Karen Phillips.

KAREN PHILLIPS: It's roughly 1 million people along the EJ&E line that will have increased train traffic. It's about 4 million people in the city of Chicago, in the inner-arc communities that will have less train traffic. Many of these communities have a high proportion of low-income residents, often minority residents.

Lawsuit is pending

RICK KARR: South Holland, where Katherine Worthen lives, is one of those communities.

KATHERINE WORTHEN: All of us in this area and the region and the country are benefiting from the trains and what they bring to our communities. We have had it for years, so maybe we'll be relieved from some of the burden, but we would ask others to help us share the load.

RICK KARR: But Canadian National's opponents say communities shouldn't have to share the load on their own, that the railroad should carry more of the burden. They want federal regulators to strike a better balance between the economic health of railroads and the safety and quality of life of people who live along them.

The village of Barrington's lawsuit and the railroad's are pending in a Washington, D.C., court of appeals.