The tangled rail and highway
OK admit it, you are a member of Amazon Prime and you order something almost every day. Lots of others in Chicago are doing the same thing. An apartment building with 200 units can receive upwards of 20,000 packages a year. How do they get to you? You may not realize the big role that trains play in getting you your stuff, and also moving people around the region. Nearly every consumer product that comes to Chicago finds itself in a rail car at some point, with trucks delivering packages only the last few miles.
One of the biggest freight and passenger rail knots in the country is right in our backyard, at (75th Street between Pulaski and State Street). Luckily, when CMAP releases its draft ONTO 2050 plan for public review in June, the 75th Street Corridor Improvement Program (or 75th Street CIP) will be included among other priority transportation projects of regional significance. The 75th Street CIP is the biggest project of the Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency Program (CREATE), a partnership between the freight and passenger railroads, Illinois DOT, Chicago DOT, and Cook County to build 70 freight and passenger rail and highway infrastructure projects to improve rail and traffic flow through Chicago. While many CREATE projects have been constructed since CREATE was announced in 2003, the 75th Street CIP is arguably the biggest freight and passenger rail knot in the country that still needs to be untangled.
The freight rail networks form a parallel transportation system that most of us do not see in our daily lives.
The 75th Street CIP will address multiple rail and roadway problems in this corridor, with some of the biggest being that six freight tracks converge into only two tracks in one location (80th Street Junction) and five tracks into two in another location (Belt Junction). You know what happens to traffic when a highway gets squeezed from five lanes to two. It’s the same for trains, except that freight trains are up to two miles long and Metra passenger trains, which cross the freight tracks in several locations, are on a rigorous schedule with tens of thousands of commuters expecting to be on time. Amtrak trains that operate on adjacent tracks also suffer from the frequent long freight train backups that can block long-distance passenger trains heading toward the East Coast. Check out this fascinating 8-minute animation developed by an Amtrak Blue Ribbon panel showing how trains struggle to get through the 75th Street CIP area, which this project would fix.
The freight rail networks form a parallel transportation system that most of us do not see in our daily lives. On these often-hidden corridors, rail efficiently moves massive amounts of freight. One intermodal train carries the equivalent of 280 trucks—if we didn’t have trains all this freight would be in trucks jockeying for space on the highways. And in terms of passengers, Metra carries nearly 300,000 people per day; if we didn’t have those 11 commuter rail lines, we’d need 27 more lanes of highways to carry all that traffic.
One intermodal train carries the equivalent of 280 trucks—if we didn’t have trains, all this freight would be in trucks jockeying for space on the highways.
If Chicago wants to continue to call itself the transportation hub of the nation we’ve got to clean up major issues like the 75th Street CIP, or feel the impact on the economy and on our roads. These mega-investments require an increased financial commitment by Illinois, even if funded in innovative ways, like public-private partnership with the railroads. We have no time to waste in developing sustainable revenue sources for transportation like 31 other states have in recent years. Then we’ll have a chance to fix the chokepoints that have challenged rail dispatchers for decades. You want your packages to get there fast, don’t you?
Postscript: June 6, 2018, The CREATE Program partners were thrilled to be awarded a $132M Federal INFRA Grant for the 75th Street CIP Project. The Federal grant was matched by $11 from the Illinois Department of Transportation, $116M from the Association of American Railroads, $78M from Cook County, $23M from Metra, $9M from the City of Chicago, and $5M from Amtrak. This funding will enable design and construction of the CSX freight rail flyover over Metra (Project P3) and construction of a road-rail grade separation of 71st St. and the CSX freight line (GS 19). Additionally, the funding will enable design of a connection between the Metra Southwest Service (SWS) and the Rock Island District to enable SWS trains to operate in and out of the LaSalle Street station and reduce congestion at Union Station. Finally, design is funded to reconfigure the Belt Railway of Chicago main tracks between the Dan Ryan Expressway and Belt Junction, where four freight railroads conflict with each other and Metra’s SouthWest Service operations (Project EW2).