At the Heart of the U.S. Freight Rail System, Chicago Advances Grade Separation

» A grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation will speed up both passenger and freight trains by eliminating delays caused by a grade crossing.

Chicago is at the center of the American freight rail system, handling 40% of U.S. rail freight on 500 daily trains. It forms the primary junction of the four biggest American freight rail companies — BNSF, CSX, Norfolk Southern, and Union Pacific — in addition to the two big Canadian carriers, Canadian National and Canadian Pacific. But the complex and intertwined web of tracks that brings trains into and out of the city is hopelessly out of date and causing congestion that limits the number of both freight and passenger trains that can run there.

Last week, ground was broken on the Englewood Flyover, a major element of CREATE, a grand scheme to eliminate such delays in the Chicago area. CREATE — which stands for Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency Program — is a series of 67 individual projects that would speed up freight, commuter, and intercity rail by increasing trackage along heavily used routes and eliminating intersections between competing roads and rails.

Thanks to a significant federal grant, some of those delays will be eliminated.

The Englewood Flyover, but one of the hundreds of infrastructure projects reliant on funds from Washington, is designed to reduce train conflicts for the 130 trains that run through the intersection of the Metra Rock Island District commuter rail line and the Norfolk Southern/Amtrak line just south of 63rd Street and near I-90/I-94 on the South Side. Rock Island trains run between Joliet in the southwest suburbs and LaSalle Street station in the Loop; Amtrak trains connect Union Station with destinations in Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan.

The two corridors currently intersect perpendicularly, meaning that trains can only pass through on one corridor at a time. A new bridge will not only separate the operations of the two rights-of-way, but will also increase the number of tracks on each line.

At $133 million, the Englewood Crossover is no major project when it comes to typical American infrastructure (one may question whether this cost is too high for a bridge and a few hundred feet of tracks), but the cumulative effect of similar investments is an improved rail system both for freight and passenger users.

Though this project is all about improving freight systems, the large majority of the project’s funding ($126 million) originated with the federal government and the DOT’s high-speed and intercity rail passenger program, the same funding source that has been much-maligned by GOP governors in states like Florida and Wisconsin. Illinois’ Jobs Now! program* will fund the remaining costs.

The CREATE project is far from the only intercity and freight rail improvement project being funded through public sector financing. Though the high-speed rail program, with its marquee projects such as the link between San Francisco and Los Angeles, has commanded much of the discussion and controversy in recent months, more mundane improvements will play a significant part in keeping the country moving.

Earlier this month, CSX announced that one-third of its major National Gateway improvement project is either complete or under construction. This project is designed to create a double-decker freight corridor between Mid-Atlantic sea ports and the Midwest. The major program will cost almost a billion dollars by itself and will have a majority of its costs paid by public sector sources.

Meanwhile, slow-speed Amtrak celebrated last Thursday its highest ridership ever: 30 million riders in fiscal year 2011. It may not have the class or the efficiency of its counterparts abroad, but the national passenger railroad has steadily increased its role in the lifestyles of Americans — by almost 50% since 2001. But it faces annual grilling sessions in Congress by conservatives who think the government should get out of the rail business.

Neither the freight rail system, nor the passenger rail system, nor even the highway system, could survive without subsidies from the federal government.

Bipartisan “agreement” in the Congress in September produced a deal that will fund intercity rail projects at just $100 million in Fiscal Year 2012 — not enough even to afford the small Chicago project, not to mention the dozens of similar improvements that are vitally necessary to keep the U.S. rail system in a state of reasonable repair. Projects like the Englewood Flyover have little to nothing to do with true high-speed rail investments, but they have a lot to do with making sure people and goods can continue to get around as they have for the last century.

* A state-level stimulus funding program that is intended to eventually pump $31 billion into Illinois’ economy. In addition to funds for roads, schools, and more, $3 billion will be distributed for transit improvements, $550 million for intercity rail, and $322 million for the CREATE project.

Image above: Amtrak passenger and Union Pacific freight trains near Chicago’s Loop, from Flickr user vxla (cc)

40 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Neither the freight rail system, nor the passenger rail system, nor even the highway system, could survive without subsidies from the federal government.

    Other than this and a few projects here and there (Florida’s SunRail comes to mind), what subsidies does freight rail get? Sure, 150 years ago all the western railroads were subsidized, and even longer ago eastern railroads were given land grants (though mostly from states), but within the past century, leaving aside Conrail, my understanding is that it’s been pretty much totally private, and also damn near unregulated in the period since Staggers.

    • Danny

      This.

      Freight rail has survived perfectly well even when the government has tried their best to destroy it. If you asked a railroader what the government could do to help, you would probably hear “Stay out of the way”, rather than “Give us a $500m loan guarantee”.

      • Beta Magellan

        No, most would take the loan guarantees (the fewer strings the better).

        In any event, it’s also worth noting that Chicago’s situation is somewhat unique because you have six railroads (plus a major transit agency and Amtrak) all crossing one another’s infrastructure—there’s a clear opening here for the public to step in and coordinate improvements, unlike in cases like the plum deals CSX has gotten from the state of Florida.

        • Danny

          Taking money from the government is more than a string, it is a noose. Grants and direct subsidies have explicit policy objectives, and takers are bound by those restrictions.

          • ThomasD

            Danny tell us how you really feel about govt infrastructure investment.

            Then repeat it o the freight rail companies who gladhand the govt for projects nationwide.

            • Danny

              And while the occasional railroad accepts subsidies to get Amtrak off its tracks, the entire industry banded together spending hundreds of millions of dollars to stop reregulation.

              Railroads much prefer that the government stay out of the way.

              • Tim E

                Reregulation is one thing and many respects different from what railroads have accepted in recent history.

                The reality is that NS and CSX have gladly accepted a host of fed, state and local tax dollars to build out Heritage Corridor, Crescent Corridor and Gateway National Corridor – all meant to move containers from East Coast ports to the midwest.

                Nor don’t forgot the numerous state grants, various tax credits and schemes that have pump a lot of money into shortline railroads and last mile investment.

              • Beta Magellan

                To be fair, my initial response to Danny was more a snarky comment about railroads’ opportunism when it comes to local subsidies and public funds. He’s right that they’re not clamoring for more public money to improve their infrastructure—when I was working on freight policy, I got a lot of exposure to the freights’ lobbying materials and their main demand was that there be carbon dioxide pricing or regulation, since this would reduce the demand for coal and therefore put a dent in their profits. Receiving subsidies for more or better tracks was barely there, and intermodal freight was barely mentioned (though that may have just been due to the fact that my stint overlapped with Kerry-Graham-Lieberman so freight was unusually concerned with protecting its coal business).

                In any event, given the current economic outlook it makes sense that the railroads would not be terribly concerned with improvements or adding capacity. Most of the concerns I’ve heard lay fifteen or twenty years down the road—there’s a legitimate worry that the railroads will act basically act like the telecommunications companies do now, sitting on their infrastructure and trying to manage demand via the freight equivalents of bandwidth caps and exorbitant texting rates. This wouldn’t a big deal (as a climate hawk standpoint I generally love demand management) but most don’t expect our total demand for freight to go down—rather, it would shift to trucks, bringing about more congestion and higher maintenance costs. If the intertstate highway system similarly had some kind of demand-management this wouldn’t necessarily be an issue either, although that doesn’t seem likely at this point.

  • Don

    Freight RRs haven’t received much in the way of subsidy in their long history, but there has been a push for Public-Private Partnerships of late where there is shared investment paired with shared benefit.

    CREATE is a good example as is NS’s Crescent Corridor and CSX’s National Gateway Corridor. In both cases, large investments in highways can be avoided with a much more modest investment in rail capacity.

  • Don

    The $133 for the Englewood flyover is probably a decent price. It’s certainly more than “a few hundred feet” of track. Even at a 3% grade, the approaches would be about 1000′ on each side.

  • Russell Pittman

    Yes, it is certainly incorrect to say that US freight rail could not survive without federal subsidies. Whatever small subsidies it may receive now, they are much, much less than railroad company profits. The same is true around the world: generally freight rail is expected to pay its way, and even to cross-subsidize passenger rail. In Russia the vertically integrated, state owned, freight railway company has been trying for years to get these cross-subsidy requirements removed. The government agrees that where subsidies are necessary, they should come from governments rather than from freight operations, but making that happen has been a very slow process.

  • Jake

    But the land on which all major railroads in the United States (or their predecessors, rather) have built their trunk lines was basically handed to them by the Federal Government. While today they don’t get an insane amount of subsidies, the huge and major projects that are occasionally needed today (Heartland Corridor) and were needed in the past (TC Railroad) were supplemented by the Feds.

    • Danny

      Land Grants were not necessary for the creation of successful railroads, as the Great Northern Railway has already proven.

      But even in the case of those that received land grants, the railroads have paid off their grants in higher-than-average property tax rates.

      In other words, they received the land free of charge, but have been subsidizing their communities for a good 150 years now.

      • The Great Northern was riding on the coat tails of a government-driven boom (kinda like non-gov’t backed private home buyers in Phoenix in 2006), and a good portion of it used an older land grant railroad. It’s highly doubtful that it would have been built if the original Union/Central Pacific and all subsequent government railroads were. In fact, it was a pretty dumb business decision when you look at a map – it has very close competition with the Northern Pacific and the Canada Pacific, in a region that is not terribly fertile.

        That having been said, I do believe the railroads could have gotten along just fine without subsidies – they just would have been concentrated in the East, less Indians would have been killed, etc. You should read Railroaded by Richard White.

      • Nathanael

        Take a look some time at the routes of the railroads which didn’t get *any* public assistance, not even eminent domain.

        Hint: their routes are *terrible*.

        All the railroads with good routes used, at the very least, eminent domain power. Which is a a form of public, government, assistance.

        • The Milwaukee’s Pacific Extension has a bad route for connecting strings of settlements, since it was built much later than the rest of the lines, but it was very well-engineered.

          • Nathanael

            The Milwaukee Road, by that time, had a degree of eminent domain power. By that time all railroads had been given eminent domain powers by the Federal Government (they still have ‘em actually).

            For pre-eminent-domain railroads, you have to look to New England and New York (all the ones in Pennsylvania seem to have been government-backed).

            • Adirondacker12800

              So did the canal companies and the early railroads. Their charters are available online if you are in mood to read legislation from the 1820s and 30s.

  • AndyS

    Isn’t there a similar junction project ~25 miles away in Porter, IN?

    http://indianaeconomicdigest.com/Main.asp?SectionID=31&SubSectionID=66&ArticleID=59986

    Obviously public funds can be used to aid private companies. Dredging harbors, building roads … so why not rail infrastructure as well?

    Still, one wonders why, in all these years, the railroads didn’t fix these choke points on their own. Was it really not that much of a problem for freight, or were they holding back figuring that miserable Amtrak delays would eventually bring public money?

    • BLambert

      My (uninformed) guess would be that, due to multiple railroad companies, plus Amtrak and a local transit agency, being involved, private industry leaders found the status quo preferable to taking on a large construction project which would potentially benefit their competitors just as much as themselves. $133 million isn’t small change, but divided by 6 is not an unbearable burden.

      Either way, I’m glad that CREATE is still going forward (and would’ve loved to see more federal dollars sent its way to shorten completion times, if that was at all possible).

      • Nathanael

        Getting agreement among private companies is painfully hard. There are some tracks in Detroit which should have been swapped decades ago, but neither company is willing to give up their existing tracks for fear the other set will be in worse condition, etc….

        • Nathanael

          For railfan reference, I am referring to the segment where parallel Conrail and CN tracks cross each other, then cross each other BACK AGAIN, causing completely wasteful interference.

    • Beta Magellan

      Amtrak has to get out of freight’s way, so there’s really no incentive for freight companies to fix things like this—even if the Michigan Services were profitable and run by Norfolk Southern, the cost of building the bypasses (or the opportunity cost of substituting passenger trains for freight trains) would probably not have a great ROI.

      • AndyS

        I guess my impression was that Englewood was a problem spot even without passenger rail traffic, but nothing was done about it.

        I assume that private companies can get together without the gov’t to babysit talks. Maybe the road/interstate crossings complicate this particular situation, but that doesn’t seem to be the case in Porter, where a similar situation stagnated.

        • FG

          Metra is a big part of the equation here – it was delaying people from getting to work on time. My understanding from Metra’s newsletters is that they also may relocate some trains from Union to LaSalle Street thanks to this flyover, which may free up some capacity/speed up service on the lines that are left there (I can’t imagine any new services with the cuts they are proposing).

        • Beta Magellan

          Oh—I was only referring to the Porter project above. The Englewood Flyover’s definitely a huge deal, but mostly for Metra and Norfolk Southern (and to a lesser degree Amtrak). The part of CREATE that reroutes Metra’s Southwest Service to Lasalle and untangles CSX, the Belt Railway, NS and UP on the southwest side is the 75th Street Corridor Improvement Project.

          Interference with Metra (and Amtrak) service is a big reason why CREATE exists. It’s also my understanding that Chicago was afraid that the major railroads would reroute trains to avoid rail congestion in Chicago before improving infrastructure there, which is one of the big reasons why the city and IDOT are championing (and helping to fund) CREATE.

  • Tim E

    Don’t forget that Freight Railroads have been enjoying the protection of interstate commerce for decades. Imagine if every city, town, village and rural township along their ROW’s had the ability to decide if they thought trains had to wait for cars when ROW’s crossed, or if they made railroads pay full price for any grade separation that community may desire or what rules the trains could operate under such as daylight only, no weekneds, all stop at rush hour, the list would go on and consequences would be catastrophic. Like any other business, I take the argument from businesses that their should be no regulation with a grain of salt.

    In the meantime, I think railroads are seeing strategic investments can be made with the help of tax dollars even though they won’t admit it. A vision that I think LaHood understands well. Their is a reason why NS is willing to give up more trackage in Michigan and UP is all in on the Chicago/St. Louis improvement or why CSX wanted to sell to SunRAIL. Unfortunately, our congressmen would rather slash infrastructure spending instead of supporting programs like TIGER grants and the likes. Just investing 2-4 billion a year in inter city rail and offering additional loan guarantees would make a huge impact when DOT has the freedom to evaluate and pick competing applications like the Englewood flyover or its investments in Fort Worth, TX.

  • david vartanoff

    While I am supportive of RR track improvements, the Englewood flyover illustrates spending tax money to paper over mediocre private sector performance. When I was taking pix there 50 years ago, PRR alone ran more passenger trains through than Amtrak today, while Rock Island ran more commuter service than Metra as well as long distance trains.

    • FG

      But what was the freight count?

      • david vartanoff

        On RI, none–no real freight business along the line to La Salle St Station. NYC used the yard E of the junction for some freight–that is the intermodal area in the linked pix. PRR did freight work further west at a yard now part of CSX with alternative routes to the Fort Wayne Line thus not much. This part of the South Side was mainly residential and freight yards were further south and west or closer to the steel mill areas by the Indiana border.

        • Nathanael

          The introduction of substantial intermodal freight which runs on the ex-PRR (now NS) route across Englewood — much of which continues directly to the BNSF line, rather than working at a yard — is what changed the picture here.

          In the *bigger* picture, the problem is that the old private companies crossed each others’ tracks at grade willy-nilly, and the mergers did not straighten that out, especially in Chicago. A national planned system such as most countries established would have dealt with that. (The UK actually has similar criss-cross problems, due to a similar history of competing companies, but I haven’t seen such problems in most countries.)

  • david vartanoff

    further thoughts on ex RI Metra. Provision should be made for a proper 4 track main and future catenary as well as track connections @ Blue Island to ME.

  • Ocean Railroader

    This project most likely will cut a lot more time off of the existing Amtrak routes and Metra routes that pass though it in that it is a place where a four and a three track main line come to cross one another at grade and that by itself is a very rare thing you see on main line railroads. Also it is very dangerous to have something like this keep existing on a well traveled Amtrak and Metra Mainline. Also railroads are very senstive to getting backed up at places like this so this will most likely save more time than anyting else done so far on the existing Amtrak and Metra system in the future.

    I’ve been though this city and this main line at grade crossing type is very common in the city in that there are several others around the city like it that need to be removed. There are also a lot of cases where roads cross over three and four track mainlines at grade.

  • Michael G. Koerner

    How different would things be in Chicagoland if the North America’s rails operated on a European-style ‘open access’ system?

    A quick thought on that is that few, if any, of the entities that would be running cross-country rail freight traffic under such a regime would even dare to enter the core area of Chicagoland, opting to either avoid the area completely (ie, transit east-west though Saint Louis) or use the beltline routes, the present-day Indiana Harbor Belt and, especially, the former Elgin, Joliet and Eastern – they would be to rails what the three-digit interstate routes are to long-haul trucking (and what I-80 is to Chicago). The east-west part of the former EJ&E would likely require at least four mainline tracks to be able to handle all of the freight traffic that would use it.

    Mike
    Appleton, WI

    • david vartanoff

      And of course that is what SHOULD happen. Spending huge sums to facilitate moving stack trains through the city that are LA-NJ runs w/o any switching in or out of cars is silly. CN has figured this out and unless the NIMBYS persevere, the St Charles Air Line will shrivel and disappear eliminating another choke point on the Rock Island/Metra line through Englewood.

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