Clearing up congestion in the heartland

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Clearing up congestion in the heartland

When Miguel d’Escoto, commissioner of Chicago’s Department of Transportation, told the six Class I railroads that move freight through the Windy City that they were trying to run 21st Century logistics operations on a 19th Century infrastructure, he was pointing to a congestion problem that was threatening to slow and choke shipments for the entire nation.

The message seems to have gotten through, evidenced by the creation of the Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency Project (CREATE). Participants in the six-year initiative include the six railroads, the city of Chicago, the state of Illinois and the Association of American Railroads (www.aar.org).

The need for improvement is obvious. “Chicago and northeastern Illinois have been the railroad hub of the nation for more than 150 years,” noted Chicago’s Mayor Richard Daley, in a public statement. More than 1,200 trains move through Chicago on a daily basis, carrying 75% of the nation’s rail freight.

There are 1.2 million intermodal truck trips each year, moving cargo from one yard to another. Chicago is rightfully considered the nation’s hub because it’s the only city where all six Class I railroads come together to interchange freight.

CREATE identifies five key rail corridors, only one of which addresses passenger traffic. The plan is to build 25 highway-rail grade crossing separations; build six rail-to-rail flyovers; conduct extensive track and switch replacements; and improve train control systems.

According to Rob Hoffman, director of business development for World Business Chicago, an economic development group, the fiercely competitive railroads have jointly come up with $200 million toward the estimated $1.5 billion CREATE needs to carry out its program. The city and state have added funding, bringing the total to about $500 million. Hoffman explains the hope is that the remaining funding will be included in the federal Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21).

“What’s important about Chicago,” says Hoffman, “is there’s such a large investment here already. To even contemplate alternatives does not make financial sense. It’s far better to improve on what we’ve got. Chicago is the linchpin for the whole intermodal system in America and we have some serious problems to fix.”

Hoffman feels the CREATE program will help toward removing some of the most pressing obstacles. However, he cautions, in all likelihood it will only enable the railroads to stand still. “CREATE is not going to tackle the ever-growing volume that’s going to come down the tracks.”

With intermodal traffic in the area predicted to double over the next 15 years, Hoffman hopes that CREATE represents just the first phase of a long-term effort to overhaul Chicago’s rail network.

“Last year’s West Coast dock strike brought home the lesson that you can’t allow foul-ups in the transportation system, since they quickly escalate,” Hoffman points out. “Beyond Phase One, CREATE can turn into a 10-year program, with a cost of $100 million a year, which in the relative scheme of things is not a huge amount of money.”

Meanwhile the railroads themselves are already moving forward with their own initiatives. In late August, for instance, Union Pacific (www.up.com), the leading rail freight carrier railroad in the U.S., opened a $181 million intermodal facility in Rochelle, Ill., roughly 80 miles west of Chicago. The facility, dubbed Global III, will have the capacity to handle 720,000 over-the-road trailers or ocean-going containers annually. LT

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October, 2003

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