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April 22nd, 2009
America in Gridlock
[VIDEO] Choke Point

Blueprint America — with The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer — in a two part report looks at the bottlenecks of America’s freight rail network, and the communities the trains intersect.

In the Midwest, Chicago 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. Even though Chicago still handles about a third of the nation’s freight, a lot of it has to stop there -– wait there –- and shift from one railroad to another.

As a result, 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 nine miles an hour.

There is no agency in Washington, D.C. responsible for untangling, modernizing, or maintaining the nation’s freight rail system –- or for paying for those improvements. Federal support for improving freight has to come through the back door –- tacked on to other transportation projects.

The Obama Administration’s plan for the expansion of high-speed passenger rail in several key corridors – including Chicago and the Midwest – is likely to improve the speed of freight as both kinds of trains share the same tracks in much of the country.

At the same time, the community of Barrington, IL, an outlying suburb in the Chicago area, has had freight re-routed to pass through the city. Residents are not too happy. Still, the shift in train traffic is likely to lessen the congestion of freight in the City of Chicago.

And while the City of Chicago, railroads, and federal authorities have developed a plan to ease freight train traffic, it won’t be complete for years. As a result, the freight carrier Canadian National did what it could and moved some of its trains away from the metropolitan area.

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