Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Intermodal trains do NOT decrease urban traffic congestion.

One of the "green" claims made by the BNSF video below --- the reduction of heavy congestion --- is a lie. It makes me wonder if any BNSF suit has ever left his or her office building and drove the streets in Joliet, or even Plainfield, which is near their Logistics Park Chicago. While they are driving around Chicagoland, they should be sure to drive the two-lanes of I-80 through Joliet, then on up I-55 past their Willow Springs and Corwith Yards, and then over to their Cicero Yard. To be a fair test of the pain they are inflecting on our urban area, they should do the trips after intermodal trains have arrived around rush hour. I'm assuming no intermodal train is scheduled to leave just afer rush hour since it is easier to control departure times than arrival times.

The reason intermodal trains increase urban congestion is because all of those containers have to use a drayage service to get the container to its final destination. Drayage means a truck and chassis is hauling the container and, as far as traffic congestion is concerned, each container hauled across the country becomes another 18-wheeler in an urban area.

(new window)

My experience driving I-80 across Nebraska to Denver is that there is no congestion to relieve on the long-haul highways. But in Chicagoland, I-55 is pretty well gummed up now even during the off hours. I live in a western suburb. I used to use I-55 to go downtown to avoid I-290, which became a disaster years ago. Since I go downtown to take pictures only on Sundays, I now take Ogden to 31st Street to avoid I-290 and I-55.

It is a shame that CSX has torn up all of the routes between Chicagoland and Indianapolis and points south. I-65 is a long-haul highway that is congested. Since CSX did tear up the Monon, the state of Indiana needs to get some of its cut of the Federal highway pie and add a third lane to I-65 all the way between "the region" and Indianapolis. I now take I-355 to I-57 to US-52 when I go to Indianapolis or Atlanta to avoid I-294, I-80, and I-65. (Actually, Hunter Harrison killed a lot of CSX intermodal service, along with other railroad services, because he quit "switching containers" at their North Baltimore Yard and backed out of expanding a tunnel in Baltimore to handle dual-stack trains.)

This is what intermodal trains cause, not prevent, in the urban area --- lots of trucks on the local roads.
201803026 0100
Eastbound lanes of I-55 on the west side of I-355 were near a standstill because of a gappers block caused by a flipped trailer on a ramp for the westbound lanes on the east side of I-355. The two Yang Ming trucks and the Swift are probably coming from one of the intermodal yards south of Joliet. I see 9 trucks, 7 passenger vehicles and one bus. (It is interesting to note that most of the passenger vehicles are sedans instead of SUVs+vans+pickuos.)
Screenshot @ -0:21
Truck traffic on the Borman was insane today [8/14/2018], 1155 AM Tuesday morning. Transportation engineers typically say anything above 6% is heavy truck traffic. Hahaha! This is at least 50% !!
Visual evidence that Chicago is the freight capital of the world.
This is on the stretch in Northwest Indiana where traffic off I-65 and points south has joined with I-94 and I-80.
I read an article in the Chicago Tribune a few years ago how BNSF's Logistics Park Chicago causes severe traffic backups in Elwood with a lot of trucks going through town. It was not unusual for people to be late to a graveside service at the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery because of the traffic backups in Elwood.

20170725 0542
I personally experienced the gridlock in the area when I wanted to turn North on IL-53 from Mills Road. Note that the car in front of me is not making the needed right-hand turn even though the light is green. Some intermodal trains still carry a lot of piggyback traffic. Furthermore, when I looked to my left, traffic was backed up as far as I could see, and it contained a lot of  trucks. Not all of these trucks are going to I-80. I have seen drayage trucks going through downtown Joliet.
20170725 0571
Even as far away as Plainfield, trucks have a heavy presence on US-30. Note that they reduce the number of vehicles that can get through an intersection when the light turns green because of their slower acceleration and their length. To be fair to BNSF, UP also contributes to the traffic problems in this area because of their Global IV Yard.

After railroad freight houses became obsolete, Santa Fe allowed JB Hunt to use their land in the southwest part of Corwith Yard for a regional terminal. Containers headed to California (both southern and Bay Area) can be loaded in Corwith. But containers and/or trailers headed to the pacific northwest using the former CB&Q route along the Upper Mississippi to the former Great Northern route must leave from Cicero Yard. I have wondered if JB Hunt's traffic used rubber or steel wheels between Corwith and Cicero. Steel wheels means that they load a cut of freight cars in Corwith and deliever that cut to Cicero before departure time. Rubber wheels means that all of the containers are drayed to Cicero. One Saturday, while checking out Cicero yard from the Metra station, I got my answer --- rubber wheels. These are the trucks I saw going to Cicero while I was there.

20160416 2310
1:46  I caught this one as I left the area. Who knows how many arrived after I left and before I arrived. Even while I was there, I may have missed some because I was watching the railroad action, not the road traffic.

Hopefully, the recent CREATE WA4 Project allows BNSF to switch from rubber wheels to steel wheels for this local truck traffic.
Something they have done that does reduce traffic congestion is build rail served industrial parks. However, I see that only a couple of the companies in this park actually use rail service.
And BSNF continues to run a local train to deliver flour to Pepperidge Farm even though it seldom has more freight cars than locomotives. Receiving flour in covered hoppers keep 18-wheelers like the one below off of the local roads.
20160416 2271

I couldn't get close enough to photograph it, but a satellite image of the Nabisco plant in Naperville shows it still receives product by rail. We can also see some track left from where they used to ship product by rail. But the vegetation growth indicates it has been a while since they shipped by rail. In addition to the two hoppers spotted under the yellow fall-protection rail, there are four hoppers parked on the spur along the left-hand side of the photo. More study of the satellite map shows three other buildings are rail served: Phoenix Closures, Midwest Warehouse/Mario, and one that is for sale in Aug 2017.

20180712 2824
Most of the parking lots in this area are private, but I came across an empty Chasers Laser Tag parking lot that allowed me to discover this small yard that BNSF uses to switch the local industries. The eastbound (inbound) commuter train is on one of their three mainline tracks. (I know it is eastbound because below is the previous photo. The train is being controlled by an engineer in the "cab car.")

I zoomed in on the box cars near the left side of photo 2824. This is one of the few times I have seen boxcars, instead of covered hoppers or center-beam flatcars, on an industrial spur.
Zooming in on the covered hoppers, I count four bays. My observations have been that four-bay cars carry plastic pellets whereas flour is carried in five-bay cars. So these cars probably are for Phoenix Closures.
One advantage of the economies of a digital camera is that you can take "extra" photos without hesitation. This is the next photo I took of the eastbound commuter because the lumber car caught my eye. Taking a closer look at the photo (see below), I see there is an empty and a full center-beam flatcar. Checking a satellite map, 84 Lumber is still rail served.
Digitally Zoomed
Unfortunately, Downers Grove lost its rail-served lumber yard --- E.G. Hines. The track used to extend into their outside storage yard. Now we are forced to travel to a "big box" that has been built near an Interstate exit.

Update: This article by Jim Blaze argues that carload traffic to an industrial siding is profitable. In fact, "if you spend time examining railroad costing as a profession, you find that plenty of carload commodities offer the railroads higher margins than a lot of the supposedly core intermodal traffic." And railroads can expect coal, oil, and grain business to decline as power plants switch to gas, pipelines get built, and grain consumers retaliate in a tariff war. The article argues that railroad executives need to learn how to resurrect their carload business. But then it notes that many towns no longer have tail service and new factories and warehouses have been built next to interstates instead of railroads. His ending is basically a big question mark:
That decision of how to execute and how to invest is in the first instance the role of the seven Class 1 railroad managers and their boards of directors. What is their strategic outlook and level of confidence? How much CAPEX might that take? Who is going to be the first to deliver that longer term picture for the upcoming decade or two? 
Speaking of  tariff wars, this article indicates that truckers want an exception to a tariff on container chassis because US doesn't have enough capacity. But the chassis manufactures claim they could ramp up to meet the demand in a year in "a fairly traded market." A tariff exception was granted for containers on Aug 15, 2019.

UP has announced that they are closing Canalport, Global 1 and 3. They did close the hump in Proviso so that they could expand Global 2. Closing intermodal yards means more trucks on the area's interstate highways.

And UP and NS are dumping interchange containers onto the highways in Chicago and Memphis markets. CSX already gave up on steel-wheel interchange.


  1. Don't worry about this problem. When we've got self driving trucks and cars all this urban congestion will disappear overnight. Should be any day now, a few years at most (unless there's unexpected software issues, but... We've our best people are working on this, so what could go wrong? Really...)

  2. Ya gotta wonder too, how many of these trucks are going from one railroad intermodal terminal to another railroad's intermodal terminal simply because the railroad can't figure out how to share revenue if bypasses were used around Chicago. Oh well, self driving truck, that'll fix it.

  3. Chicago / Joliet is a rail heavy location and these goods have to get there somehow. Truck it all the way? Run it on rail and have to deal with the final mile drayage? Either way the trucks are going to be where they need to go to make their pickups and deliveries. I live in the Atlanta area and we have heavy duty truck
    traffic on our interstates all day and night. We have two intermodal yards within the city and one near the airport plus the Savannah Docks a few hours away. Trailers and containers all day non stop. This is the by product of robust commerce. Every day the traffic report is basically the same with an overturned truck blocking all lanes on one or more of I85, I75, I20 or I285.