Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Chicago Railroad Bottleneck and CREATE

Update: the link to the CREATE site in case you want to skip to the chase,
a Nov. 17, 2014, video about the need to continue funding CREATE.
CREATE's Flickr photostream

Back when farmers had to ship their crops and pickup their supplies with horse and wagon, it made sense to have a lot of railroad lines crossing our country. But with the advent of trucks and paved roads, a lot of those lines did not make economic sense. Unfortunately, the federal regulatory agency did not allow the railroads to abandon the lines that were made obsolete by the invention and development of the internal combustion machine (both cars and trucks) until the 1980s. When they were finally able to abandon lines, the companies tore up a lot of the lines to reduce their property tax liability, including New York Central tracks that would have allowed transcontinental trains to completely bypass Chicago area.

In the 1980s, railroading was considered a dying industry because of the interstates so tearing up tracks and abandoning right-of-ways was considered prudent. But with the invention of intermodal traffic and unit trains, freight traffic has recovered and now the railroads don't have enough track to handle the load. According to a Feb 14, 2012 issue of ChicagoMag:
Railroads have gone from having too much track to having not enough. Today, the nation’s rail network is just 94,942 miles, less than half of what it was in 1970, yet it is hauling 137 percent more freight, making for extreme congestion and longer shipping times.
In fact, BNSF is closing intermodal yards to force the traffic off their rails and make their intermodal service statistics look better. Today, a quarter of all rail traffic in the nation touches Chicago. Nearly half of the intermodal rail traffic goes by or through the city. The city sees 1,300 trains each day, 800 passenger and 500 freight. A May 27, 2012, NYTimes article explains the results of the Chicago bottleneck:
Shippers complain that a load of freight can make its way from Los Angeles to Chicago in 48 hours, then take 30 hours to travel across the city. A recent trainload of sulfur took some 27 hours to pass through Chicago — an average speed of 1.13 miles per hour, or about a quarter the pace of many electric wheelchairs.
A rail-flow map further illustrates Chicago's central role in freight traffic. This is why Chicago became the center for the futures trade industry.

US Government
There is a lot of room for improvement. According to the NYTimes article some of the switches still [May 7, 2012] have to be operated manually after the train passes. Since the railroads trashed their cabooses in the 1980s, that means a crew member has to walk the length of the train -- a mile or more -- to throw the switch and then walk back.

To reduce congestion in Chicago, in 2003 a program called CREATE (an acronym for Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency Program) was formed to coordinate solutions with the cooperation of the railroads, AAR, and all levels of government. The program defines 70 projects to eliminate grade crossings, add flyovers at railroad intersections, add more tracks, etc. As an example of one of the projects, the ASCE describes the B2 project. And I investigated GS15a and GS14. A project that is near and dear to my heart is GS7 because I live in Downers Grove.

CREATE is not just construction projects. It also instigated programs to improve the cooperation and coordination among the railroads. Before this program, they did not share information. Now they work with the Chicago Transportation Coordination Office (CTCO) to input information to a centralized database of needed freight car transfers that is shared by all of the railroads. I remember when air traffic control implemented what they called "full flight control." Before that control, flights would take off and then when they got close to their destination they would have to circle until a slot opened up to allow them to land. I remember circling for a while over Iowa one time waiting to get a landing slot at O'Hare. With full flight control, a plane is not allowed to take off until it is assigned a landing slot. I have spent more time sitting on a plane in Newark than I care to remember, but that beats setting in a plane over Iowa that periodically did sharp banks. (They really don't circle, it is more like square.) Now freight trains will be held on sidings out in the country until there is planned capacity to get it through Chicago, including the receiving railroad.

The Canadian National railroad was not satisfied with the progress of the CREATE program so in 2008 they proposed to buy the Elgin, Joliet and Eastern Railway Company (EJ&E) from USS Steel for $300 million, which has been purchased. When they are done upgrading the EJ&E, they will move their freight to the former EJ&E tracks and from the former Illinois Central tracks that run into the city. It is those former IC tracks that Amtrak was complaining about in the ChicagoMag article:
More than 4,000 instances of freight train interference on Amtrak’s City of New Orleans route and on Amtrak service between Chicago and Carbondale were counted on the CN-owned rail lines last year, Amtrak said in the complaint. The delays totaled the equivalent of more than 26 days, Amtrak said.
If CN quits using that track and abandons it, then CN will have solved the congestion problem. But then Amtrak would then need to buy the track to keep their southern routes intact. Since Amtrak was not willing to pay $100,000 for a former Santa Fe bridge that BNSF abandoned to keep the Southwest Chief service going on their mainline through Streator, IL, to Galesburg, it will be interesting to see what they do about the former IC route.

A couple of questions during an April 17, 2013, interview with the program director of CREATE, William C. Thompson, provides a nice update of the program.
Q: It has been 10 years since CREATE's launch. Can you quantify the progress that's been made in reducing the amount of time to traverse Chicagoland?
A: The railroads have seen about a 30-percent reduction in cross-town transit times. In 2003, it was taking trains just under 43 hours to move through the Chicago terminal. In 2012, trains were moving through the terminal in 32 hours. The Chicago terminal is ringed by automatic equipment identification (AEI) readers that enable us to accurately measure performance. Each railcar in North America has an AEI tag on it. By using data from the AEI readers, the railroads are able to receive the real dates and times a car entered and departed the terminal.
Q: What are the major challenges still facing railroads in unclogging the region?
A: The major challenge is to obtain the needed funding to finish the remaining projects in the face of continued traffic growth. It is important to remember that CREATE is not just about freight. It is also about improving intercity and commuter passenger rail service, and reducing road congestion. The railroads have agreed that passenger trains will have top priority for movements. This is known as the "Chicago Protocol." The protocol results in a shutdown of much of the Chicago-area mainline freight operations Monday through Friday between 6 a.m. and 9 a.m. and between 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. This amounts to a 25-percent reduction in track capacity during that time. The challenge is to continue to build facilities that will permit the freight and passenger operations to be separated during those critical rush hours.

There are still many grade separation projects and passenger projects that must be cleared environmentally, designed, and constructed. The challenge facing the CREATE partners is to gather sufficient funding to complete the program. So far, we have received about $1.2 billion in funding for a $3.2 billion-plus program. Currently, 16 CREATE projects are complete, 12 are under construction, and 19 are in the design phase. Twenty-one of the 70 projects have not started design.
The remainder of this posting is information from a presentation prepared for the American Association of Port Authorities (AAPA) that I found particularly interesting and that I want to easily reference.

Chicago Rail Infrastructure
• 16,000 acres, twice the area of O’Hare
• 78 yards, including 21 intermodal (rail-truck)
• 2,800 route-miles of track
• 12 commuter rail routes
• 1,100 viaducts and bridges
Daily Activity:
• 1,200 trains (500 freight, 700 passenger)
• 37,500 rail cars processed
• 20,000 truck moves through intermodal gates

• World’s 3rd busiest intermodal hub.
• One third of all freight rail traffic converges on Chicago daily.

AAPA Slideshow

AAPA Slideshow

AAPA Slideshow

AAPA Slideshow

AAPA Slideshow

AAPA Slideshow

I remember Amtrak wanted a control room that would be staffed with representatives from each of the railroads to improve communication and cooperation. They were even willing to donate space for the room in the Union Station. I wonder if it happened and CIROC is the result.

It is interesting to see how the plan changed from 2003. This plan was before CN decided to buy EJ&E in 2007.
The purpose of the plan is to expedite freight traffic through the area, and to separate commuter and freight operations as much as possible, thus improving the area's commuter rail system as well. The plan is known as CREATE (Chicago Regional Environmental and Transportation Efficiency Plan).
1. Rebuild the Panhandle right-of-way that parallels CSX (B&OCT) and Norfolk Southern (Chicago River & Indiana) at Brighton and Ash Street, and have Canadian National ex-IC trains from Glenn and Hawthorne yards feed into it at those junctions. Trains would then proceed south on the Panhandle, pass under the Chicago Transit Authority's Orange Line overpass, and then begin climbing. Just before 49th Street, they would turn east on a new flyover that would carry them over the CSX main and feed into the ex-Grand Trunk line that comes east from Elsdon. They would then feed into NS ex-Pennsy Fort Wayne main somewhere around 47th Street, where a new connection would be constructed. The ex-Gulf Mobile & Ohio line would not be abandoned east of Brighton since Amtrak St.Louis trains need it to reach Union Station.
CN trains would then use the NS tracks (a third main would be constructed) to Grand Crossing (75th Street) where a new connection in the southwest quadrant would be used to access the ex-IC main. North of 75th, the IC would be abandoned (of course the Metra Electric tracks would stay), as would the St. Charles Airline and some of CN's ex-IC Iowa line tracks east of Ash St. A flyover would be built at Englewood, carrying Metra's LaSalle Street station trains on the ex-Rock Island over the NS/CN main.
2. The CSX ex-B&OCT Altenheim Sub would be revived to carry CN's ex-Wisconsin Central trains to the restored Panhandle right-of-way. The Altenheim was closed in 2002 owing to deterioration of some bridges on the lightly used line.
3.The Metra Southwest commuter trains to Orland Park and Manhattan will be moved from Union Station to LaSalle Street. They would take the Metra ex-Rock Island main down to about 74th Street, where a brand new elevated ROW about two or three blocks in length would be built from the Rock to 74th Street Jct (UP, Belt Rwy, NS, Metra ex-C&WI). West of there, Belt Junction would be eliminated and the Belt shifted to where the ex-Wabash is now. The Metra trains would parallel the Belt on the south from 74th to Forest Hill.
4. If a Metra route using the ex-C&WI, ex-C&EI route to the south suburbs is ever established, their trains would also depart LaSalle Street and access the ex-C&WI tracks off the Rock elevation somewhere around 80th St. A flyover or perhaps a viaduct would carry them over Dolton Junction, and probably Lincoln Ave and 142nd St. They will terminate at Crete, IL, south of Chicago Heights.
The railroads are expected to cover about 15% of the projected cost. The rest is supposed to come from federal, state and local funds, but the feds will no doubt shoulder the lion's share of it.
Flyovers to be constructed on the Chicago Rail Plan:Englewood: Metra (ex-Rock) over NS (ex-PRR)
74th Street: Metra (ex-Wabash) over the Belt Rwy and NS (ex-Wabash), and a new connection to the Metra ex-Rock Island main
Forest Hill: CSX/B&OCT over new Metra alignment and NS
49th Street: CN (ex-Panhandle ROW) over CSX/B&OCT, connecting to CN (ex-GTW)
CP Canal (Argo): CN (ex-GM&O) over IHB/CSX
Chicago Ridge: Metra (ex-Wabash) over IHB/CSX
Brighton Park: CN (ex-GM&O) over CSX/B&OCT and NS
For more on the Chicago Rail Plan, see the September 2003 issue of Trains magazine.

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