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Freight Train Network Suffers Lack of Modernization

Chicago has been a freight rail hub for the past 150 years, but an outdated layout often makes it a bottleneck for the country's shipping network.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.

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  • 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.

  • TRAIN WORKER:

    Yes.

  • 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.

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