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Chicago is the nation's busiest rail hub. It's also the most congested choke-point for train traffic in the country.
A $4 billion dollar infrastructure project aims to separate freight and commuter lines, hopefully allowing Chicago's trains to run on time.
Over a century, the rail lines have become a tangled mess, with busy commuter trains competing with freight trains for limited track space throughout the city. It leads to massive traffic jams, bottlenecks and frustration for Chicago commuters and national rail companies alike.
According to the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, Chicago commuters collectively waste 7,800 hours every weekday at rail crossings. Chicago resident Bobby Mitchell says he resident who routinely wastes 20 minutes of his day sitting in traffic and counting train cars.
"I learned something about these trains. You got to go find a way just to go around them sometimes," Mitchell said.
The massive traffic jam is made worse by the fact that the region’s busy commuter rail systems must compete for limited track space with the nation’s largest freight lines. In fact, one quarter of all rail traffic in the United States, some 1,300 trains a day, rumble through the city. That includes 500 freight trains each day, pulling 37,500 individual rail cars carrying everything from fuel to food, cars to cattle.
Freight trains come to a complete standstill during the morning and evening rush hours as preference is given to commuter trains through the the “Chicago protocol.” Tim Coffey, Belt Railway Company, said commuters get priority because, "freight don't vote."
“Commuters are given priority and that costs us roughly two hours a day – time off the clock that we can’t use to move trains," Coffey said.
As transit officials from Washington, D.C. and Chicago toured some of the city's most congested train tracks Wednesday, Mayor Rahm Emanuel recalled an old joke among chicago rail-hands: it takes a train three days to get from Los Angeles to Chicago, and three more to get through Chicago. Emanuel says he's made fixing the problem a top priority in his administration.
"Chicago is a spaghetti bowl of both commuter rail and cargo rail, and this whole investment strategy is untangling that spaghetti bowl," he said. "Everybody gets in everybody else’s business, and if you separate them, the cargo or freight moves much more efficiently. The economy becomes much more efficient."
Backed by public and private entities, the $4 billion Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency Program (CREATE) funds 70 projects around Chicago designed to speed things up, doing everything from removing tracks from street level by creating overpasses and underpasses, to separating freight and commuter trains.
Emanuel and the program's backers hope this will also keep hundreds of thousands of jobs in the region, pump the economy with money and save the most important resource of all: time.
One of those projects is a clearing yard used by the six largest railroads in the U.S. and Canada just west of Midway airport in Bedford Park. Essentially, every rail line runs through this area of Chicago, which means the fix for Chicago’s tangled train tracks is a national priority.
Bill Thompson is chief engineer at Association American Railroads and program manager of the CREATE program.
“It’s the biggest railroad terminal in the country and actually one of the biggest in the world in terms of total traffic," Thompson said.
Chicago’s 75th street corridor is also considered one of the nation's most congested crossings, and one of the biggest choke points in the country. More than 80 Metra and freight trains cross each other’s paths every day.
The junction is about to be overhauled. This month Chicago received a $132 million grant from the Department of Transportation to untangle intersecting commuter and freight rail lines.
A similar project was already completed in Englewood, where Metra used to cross paths with freight trains, delaying both. Now the Metra track is elevated and trains zoom past, as freight chugs along instead of sitting idle for hours. Thompson says it’s the same plan for the notorious 75th Street corridor.
Experts estimate the $4 billion investment could generate seven times that amount, more than $30 billion in economic benefits, by allowing some 50,000 additional freight trains to travel through the city’s rail network in the next few decades. All while saving thousands of hours in commuter delays each year. It's a massive undertaking, but the city’s bet hope to make up for lost time.
"All of this is connected, and Chicago’s history is written chapter and verse by transportation... If we don’t invest in it, we atrophy," Emanuel said.
This article first appeared on wgntv.com
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