As many as 1300 freight and passenger trains pass over Chicagoland rails every day.
Today, the networks of the nation’s six largest freight rail companies cover nearly 95,000 miles. This is less than half of what the networks had been in 1970, but they are hauling 137 percent more freight – this discord is resulting in congested roads and rails, longer shipping times, and overall inefficiencies. In cities across the country, commuter service, Amtrak and other freight interests share the same rail corridors, creating a bottleneck that makes it difficult to move traffic through certain locations. In the Chicago region, Amtrak and Metra operate on borrowed infrastructure, using tracks that are owned by private freight companies. Approximately 60 percent of Amtrak train routes are operated on these tracks, with freight train interference ranking as the largest cause of delays. Likewise, almost 18 percent of all Metra delays are caused by freight interference, impeding the ability of Metra to add additional service, especially for reverse commuters. Not only does congestion impact the daily commute in Chicago, but with freight business growing in recent years, more railroad companies are experiencing the cost of congestion due to passenger rail. Ultimately, delays and congestion diminish Chicago’s location advantage, and decrease its ability to be economically competitive.
Over the next 20 years, the Chicago region is expected to grow by 2.8 million residents. Over this same timeframe, the demand for freight rail service in Chicago is expected to double. As it is now, freight rail loses an average of two days transit time passing through Chicago. If rail capacity issues and infrastructure improvements are not addressed, the region stands to lose even more: $2 billion in annual economic production and 17,000 jobs within the next 20 years. Freight railroads are not the only ones affected by congestion, however. There is a growing demand for reverse and inter-suburban commuter service. The reverse-commute travel market has consistently grown since 1980, and suburb-to-suburb travel is the largest and fastest growing work travel market. Congestion hinders Metra’s ability to add service, even where it is most currently needed. Likewise, Amtrak ridership continues to increase on two of its three Illinois routes. With estimates that total Amtrak ridership could grow to 50 million in the next 10 years, the need for increased rail capacity is urgent.
How can the region alleviate this debilitating congestion? Federal policy and funding need to reflect the national integrated character of goods movement. CREATE, a public-private partnership involving the railroads, City of Chicago, State of Illinois, Amtrak, Metra, and the federal government, is designed to fund infrastructure improvements to speed the movement of trains throughout the region. A 2002 study found that freight trains move through the city at an average speed of 9 mph. Untangling commuter and freight lines near choke points such as Englewood, where the Norfolk Southern line crosses Metra’s Rock Island District, would improve both reliability and speed, as well as provide the opportunity to extend current service. Englewood also constitutes a significant delay point for Amtrak and could hinder the potential Midwest High Speed Rail system. So, before Chicago can begin to imagine “whisking through towns at speeds over 100 mph,” the region must first take the needed steps investing in efforts to mitigate its congestion.
This article was featured in Talking Transit, MPC's bi-weekly e-newsletter.