Courtesy CN Railway
Map depicting Canadian National's proposed bypass route around Chicago's train lines.
Map depicting Canadian National's proposed bypass route around Chicago's train lines. Courtesy CN Railway
It can be frustrating to wait at a railroad crossing as a long, slow freight train rumbles by, but some people around Chicago are increasingly faced with doing just that as "monster trains" take to the tracks.
The trains are on the Elgin, Joliet and Eastern, or EJ&E, tracks that ring the Chicago area. Residents who have to cross those tracks are complaining about delays — and raising safety concerns — as they begin to see more frequent and longer freight trains than ever before.
'Longer, Faster, Heavier'
"Monster trains seems to be the big catchphrase," says Karen Darch, village president of Barrington, an upper middle class suburb about 40 miles northwest of Chicago. "These trains are going to be longer, faster, heavier, the double-stacked intermodal look."
The Canadian National Railroad bought the EJ&E from U.S. Steel for $300 million this winter, allowing the railroad to connect all the different rail lines it has coming into Chicago and create a bypass around the city's notorious freight rail congestion.
But this has led to a slew of problems with residents unhappy about monster trains rumbling through their communities.
In Barrington, for example, three to five freight trains traveled down the EJ&E tracks each day before Canadian National's purchase. The company is gradually increasing that number and eventually plans to quadruple the number of trains to 20 or more a day.
These additional trains are 7,000 to 8,000 feet long on average, and can be up to 10,000 feet — or 2 miles long. At those lengths, they block all five of the town's grade-level crossings at once.
Bisecting A Town
"It basically cuts Barrington in half right through the center of town," says Darch. She worries about public safety because the town's only hospital is located on one side of the tracks and a significant portion of the population is on the other.
A spokesman for Advocate Good Shepard Hospital in Barrington, Michael Deering, says, "We're talking about one-third of all the EMS runs that Advocate Good Shepard sees each year come from what we'll affectionately now call 'the wrong side of the tracks.' So we're talking about over a thousand patients."
Deering says that with no overpasses or underpasses for eight miles, having to reroute ambulances around the trains or wait for a train to clear costs patients critical minutes.
"A trauma patient can bleed out; a stroke patient, the brain continues to die without the medicine they need at a hospital; and a cardiac patient, for every minute they're in cardiac arrest, their mortality rate increases by 10 percent," he says.
"It's not a matter of if, it's a matter of when. And people will die," Deering adds.
Barrington and several other communities along the EJ&E have filed a lawsuit to try to overturn the federal Surface Transportation Board's decision to approve the Canadian National deal and halt the so-called monster trains.
But the railroad says these trains really aren't that unusual.
"The rerouted trains that are running on the EJ&E are no different than the freight trains that traverse Chicago each and every day," says Patrick Waldron, a spokesman for Canadian National. He notes that the delays at crossings in towns like Barrington are no worse than the delays in dozens of other suburbs and in neighborhoods in Chicago, where these long freight trains have been a part of life for decades.
Unsnarling Rail's Gordian Knot
Chicago is the hub of the nation's railroad system, with six of the nation's seven largest railroads converging and their tracks intersecting one another. There are 1,200 freight trains a day — carrying close to 40 percent of all the freight shipped by rail in the country — going into, from or trying to get through Chicago.
The result is freight gridlock that can delay trains for not just hours, but days. Railroads complain that it can take just as long for a train to go from the East or West Coast to Chicago — two days — as it can just to get through Chicago itself.
Waldron says this adds to the cost of everything shipped by rail and leads some companies to move products by truck instead of train, adding to highway congestion, fuel consumption and pollution.
Moving some of Canadian National's trains around Chicago on the EJ&E eases the gridlock a bit. And many regional transportation planners say it eases some of the delays that many city and inner suburban residents have faced for years, while boosting the economy.
But those planners also believe more should be done to lessen the impact of more frequent and longer trains in the outer suburbs.