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January 5, 2016updated 20 Nov 2017 11:02am

Solving Chicago’s rail gridlock

Blighted with severe bottlenecks across its freight and passenger railway lines, Chicago has been dubbed “America’s rail traffic speed bump”. After an Amtrak investigation revealed that the city’s congestion problem could cause up to $799bn yearly losses to the US economy, what are the new solutions that could solve Chicago’s problem once and for all?

By Eva Grey

Located at the crossroads of four major Eastern and Western railroads, Chicago is the hub of the United States’ passenger and freight rail networks.

Carrying a third of all rail freight traffic in the US valued at over $1tn, the C.T. is the most important freight rail hub in North America. Chicago also holds the second largest commuter rail ridership of any US city, representing 11% of total ridership. As such, almost every major North American industry is dependent on the smooth running of Chicago’s rail operations

But despite its national importance, Chicago has earned its nickname of “America’s rail traffic speed bump” after its services were blighted by severe, debilitating gridlocks and delays.

Although delays reached a critical point in winter 2014, the gridlock began much earlier and is still present today. Between 2013 and 2014, six of the eight worst performing long-distance passenger routes originated and terminated in Chicago. The situation only worsened during the current fiscal year, when Chicago was the source and end point of seven of the country’s worst performing trains.

As a result, on 24 October 2014 president of US passenger service operator Amtrak, Joseph Boardman, set up the Chicago Gateway Blue Ribbon Panel, a board of rail experts, attorneys, professors and former mayors tasked with identifying the critical infrastructure and operational improvements Chicago needs to relieve its rail congestion.

The panel’s findings, published on 1 October 2015, revealed that if left unchecked, Chicago’s rail gridlock will end up costing the US economy almost $800bn each year, due to its effects on six key industries constituting 85% of US domestic product: agriculture, natural resources, automotive, manufacturing, retail and services.

“If left unchecked, Chicago’s rail gridlock will end up costing the US economy almost $800bn each year.”

“The congestion challenge in Chicago poses the largest potential economic vulnerability to the US economy of all the major rail hubs in the United States”, the panel concluded, urging immediate action in order to avoid “the next Chicago rail crisis”.

Chicago’s rail traffic problem has not been an ignored topic. Over the past 15 years, authorities have made efforts to address the issue, the most important of which is a yet unfinished $4bn investment programme called Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency (Create).

Established in 2003, CREATE encompasses 70 different freight and passenger projects looking at improving rail line capacity. So far, only 29 of these projects have been completed or are currently under construction, at a cost of $1.2bn, while the rest have been stalled due to lack of funding.

With Chicago’s volume of rail freight projected to increase by 62% before 2040, Amtrak’s report lists seven key recommendations, from top-priority infrastructure investments to improved operating practices, which aim to tackle Chicago’s congestion once and for all.

Infrastructural developments: tackling Chicago’s biggest chokepoint

“Because of the centrality of Chicago to the national railroad system in the US, the importance of alleviating congestion and increase fluidity has national economic implications,” says Howard Learner, Chicago attorney and member of the Blue Ribbon Panel.

“The CREATE programme received input and support by a wide range of democratic and republic politicians, policy makers across the board, transportation companies, labour unions, planners, environmental groups and others. One of the things the panel did here was prioritise two of the infrastructure improvements that have been highlighted in the CREATE programme.” The first top priority project highlighted in the report is the 75th Street Corridor, located south of the city, identified as “Chicago’s biggest chokepoint”.

On a daily basis, 90 freight trains and 30 commuter trains have to squeeze through the same crisscross of tracks on a two-mile radius, forming long waiting queues around three major chokepoints. The Panel thus identified four separate CREATE projects which should be prioritised in order to alleviate this severe congestion.

Increasing efficiency of movement

For an estimated cost of $1bn, the report suggests a complete reconfiguration of existing tracks at Belt Junction and 80th Street, the installation of additional tracks along the corridor, the construction of a flyover at Forest Hill Junction to separate the east-west and north-south lines, and a new $250m flyover for passenger trains.

Once completed, the 75th Street Projects are expected to “almost entirely eliminate the need for trains to cross over other rail lines at grade at the 75th Street Corridor’s three chokepoints” and efficiency of movement will be increased by 40%.

A second key priority task identified in the report is the Grand Crossing Project, aimed to “improve or replace” three of the worst performing Amtrak routes into Chicago. Also called the CREATE Project 4, changes within this initiative would involve adding additional track capacity a two new service connections.

The Indiana Gateway Project, currently the only one under construction, is looking at adding seven miles of third track and crossovers at seven key locations across a 40-mile segment to increase fluidity.

The report highlights that all three projects could be realised for less than $1.5bn, however no additional funding has been made available for the rest of the improvements. Learner admits that although the Panel would like to see the CREATE improvements being achieved faster, “we are at a time of financial constraints”.

Operational and coordination improvements at a fraction of the cost

Another set of measures looked at improving operational coordination and communication between train dispatchers. At the moment, railroad dispatchers overseeing ten different railroads are dispersed across six different cities, making real-time communication problematic.

The Panel’s suggestion is simply bringing all dispatchers together in the same room.

“Those operational improvements give better coordination, can reduce congestion and increase fluidity and that’s regardless of any additional infrastructure,” Learner says. “Those are not especially costly. They are not zero cost, but they are not necessarily big ticket items.”

“The Panel’s suggestion is simply bringing all dispatchers together in the same room.”

According to the report, Amtrak is considering organising a co-located dispatching centre in Chicago Union Station.

Thanks to The Chicago Transportation Coordination Office (CTCO), which has been producing daily performance statistics and scorecards since its inception in 1999, coordination and operational performance has indeed seen some progress, particularly since Chicago reached its rail service tipping point in 2014. Possibly one of the simplest and cheapest recommendations on the list, the Panel urged Amtrak, commuter rail operator Metra and freight operators to keep up efforts in improving communication, with a particular focus on the most problematic nodes.

Due to its mix of infrastructural, heavy-funding projects and more cost-effective, organisational procedures, the Panel seems confident that its report will eventually help enable the much needed changes for Chicago.

A driver for action

“I think it’s important to point out that instead of just producing a report and putting it on a shelf somewhere, the panel met directly with congressional staff, we’ve met directly with the leaders of the freight industry, and we’re engaging the media nationally and internationally because this problem affects the entire North American continent,” says Amtrak government affairs spokesperson Marc Magliari.

“So we will see whether the Congress in its deliberations appropriates money towards some of the infrastructure investments that were targeted,” he says. “In the meantime, some of the operational improvements and better coordination can go forward without large amounts of additional funding.”

At the moment, a Service Transportation bill currently being discussed between the US House of Representatives and the Senate is seen as a good opportunity to advance some of the main suggestions put forward in the report. Magliari points out that since publication, there have been “more robust discussions” about staffing of the coordination office.

“Although not as far reaching as our recommendations, some progress was made with freight railroads, commuter railroads and Amtrak railroads on better coordination and better staffing. And I don’t think that’s a coincidence,” he says. “We believe this report will be a springboard for action that’s not going to sit on the shelf.”

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