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Why Chicagoland’s Freight Rail Infrastructure Is Important to You and Me

Our region is a key part of the nation’s freight rail system. Image Credit: dgphilli (flickr)

“Chicago is a freight powerhouse.” I often hear this phrase, and it’s true; six of the seven largest U.S. railroads operate in the region, with 1,300 passenger and freight trains daily on 2,800 route-miles of track. In fact, 25 percent of all U.S. rail traffic touches Chicago, likely at one of the 78 rail yards. But really, how does that affect me? I don’t work in the rail industry or live near a train crossing. Sure, I ride Amtrak and sometimes my train is late because it shares the track with a freight train, but I thought that’s where my connection ended.

Yesterday I learned just how wrong I was. At the Metropolitan Planning Council’s (MPC) roundtable, CREATE: Freight Driving the Economy, I learned that most of the nonperishable goods purchased in the U.S. make their trip to us on a train. That materials used for building roads and manufacturing arrive on a train. Even my online shopping gets to my door by train. Here I was thinking the brown UPS truck drove my package across the country, when actually it was transported on rail first and then transferred to the truck that delivers it, on time, to my door.

Trains just became a lot more important to me.

The roundtable featured Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, Ill. Rep. Elaine Nekritz (D-Northbrook), Jeff Sriver of the Chicago Dept. of Transportation and Audrey Wennink of Cambridge Systematics, Inc. Not surprisingly, the number one take away was that rail has a communications problem. The story of how my package arrives at my door has not been told.

The story of how my package arrives at my door—and freight rail’s role—has not been told…

The issue at hand is this: Freight trains coming into Chicago often back up as far as Iowa, waiting for their turn to enter the city’s rail yards. Congestion, along with Chicago’s rush-hour commuter train priority and sharing track with Amtrak passenger rail, means it takes up to 30 hours for freight trains to pass through the Chicago region. Goods take longer to get to your door, roads are congested and productivity hindered. This hurts not only Chicago’s economy, but the entire nation’s.

The solution is continued investment in the Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency (CREATE) initiative, a groundbreaking partnership between federal, state and local governments, metropolitan transportation agencies and the nation’s freight railroads. The initiative includes 70 critically needed rail and highway infrastructure improvements in Northeast Illinois. Projects such as the elimination of grade crossings, viaduct improvements, safety enhancements and reduction of chokepoints can increase capacity.

MPC’s video features local leaders telling that story.

When the initiative was developed in 2000, Chicago was known as the bottleneck of the nation’s rail system. While the amount of rail traffic continues to grow, infrastructure investments by the initiative, matched by those of the rail industry, have resulted in the completion of 22 of the 70 projects, reducing both passenger and freight train delays by nearly 30 percent. If Chicago is to maintain its position as the epicenter of the nation’s rail system and the 36,000 jobs created by that status, billions of dollars in additional funding are still needed for the rest of the projects. 

As the Chicago Dept. of Transportation’s Jeff Sriver discussed, investing in the initiative means goods get to their destinations more quickly and cheaply—the same goes for Metra and Amtrak riders. For example, last month the $142 million Englewood Flyover at 63rd and State streets was completed. The flyover is a railroad bridge that eliminates a major rail bottleneck by elevating 78 weekday Metra Rock Island trains so they don’t have to wait to cross tracks that carry 60 daily freight and Amtrak trains. This project alone will save Metra riders a whopping 7,500 annual passenger hours of delay, allow the freight trains to move freely and provide community benefits such as reduced emissions and noise of idling trains.

The $3.8 billion investment in CREATE will yield $28.3 billion in benefits.

Audrey Wennink of Cambridge Systematics, Inc. has quantified the benefits of the Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency initiative: In total, $28.3 billion over 30 years. Audrey found that without the initiative, Metra and Amtrak riders and freight trains would be delayed 160,000 hours a year by 2025 and drivers, trucks and bus passengers would spend over 500,000 hours idling at rail at-grade crossings waiting for trains to pass. A more efficient train network means less freight traveling by truck on our nation’s congested highways, to the tune of 5.7 billion annual truck miles traveled averted, which also reduces fuel consumption and vehicle emissions. Most importantly, the initiative makes the region safer—eliminating grade crossings reduces vehicle crashes and 911 emergency vehicles have less congestion to maneuver through.

The initiative has real, tangible benefits, for the economy, for residents who live near train crossings, transit commuters and people like me, who just want our packages to arrive on time.

The estimated cost of the initiative is $3.8 billion. $1.2 billion has been invested so far. As a result, goods now traverse Chicago in a full day less than they used to take. It’s now down to about 30 hours.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and Ill. Rep. Elaine Nekritz (D-Northbrook) at MPC’s CREATE roundtable.

But, as both Pres. Preckwinkle and Rep. Nekritz stated, while the completion of the 22 projects thus far has eliminated some freight congestion in the region, there’s much more to do—and fund.

Good infrastructure is the foundation of our economy, according to Pres. Preckwinkle, who noted the need to better market the benefits and continued investments of the initiative to people and business, including its importance in opening markets abroad. For example, how many people know that freight is a key component of the Chicago region’s manufacturing industry? 183 million tons of heavy commodities like wood, stone and agricultural products are imported to Chicago annually, which fuel the production of $206 billion in high-value exports of machinery, chemicals, electronics, transportation equipment, and precision instruments. Formerly empty rail containers leaving Chicago heading east now haul almost $800 million worth of grain to Singapore, China, Japan and Africa annually, strengthening connections to new global markets that can grow the economy.

Because the public doesn’t understand the service freight rail provides them, they experience it as an inconvenience.

Unfortunately, all of that benefit is overshadowed by inconvenience. Rep. Nekritz explained that one of the main issues she encounters is that most legislators don’t have direct experience with rail. Their constituents see it as an inconvenience, not a service. A legislator might hear that the train is blocking a resident’s commute. Rep. Nekritz also noted that the biggest disconnect comes from the fact that businesses and people don’t receive their goods directly from rail. Just like the delivery to my door, people and businesses see a truck delivering their goods; they don’t connect the fact that most of the trip happened by rail and they just received it by truck. Wes Lujan, Senior Vice President of Union Pacific and moderator of the panel, noted that, “During peak season, 92 trains arrive daily at various Chicago terminal rail yards for UPS service (including UPS’ Willow Spring Distribution Center), delivering 1.5 million boxes that are transferred to trucks for delivery.”

Pres. Preckwinkle also noted that we need money to build and maintain our rail infrastructure. She discussed how motor fuel taxes that fund our nation’s infrastructure have diminished considerably because the tax is flat and has not been increased in decades, and all the while cars are gaining better fuel economy. Both panelists agreed that it is critical the state enact a new capital bill, since the last bill, 2009’s Illinois Jobs Now!, has expired. According to Rep. Nekritz, there is a growing sense in Springfield that the General Assembly needs to pass a new capital bill, and that a freight powerhouse like Illinois can’t wait five or 10 years for a capital program; it should be annual. But she cautioned that roads and bridges are always at the top of the list of critical projects people bring to legislators, so it’s up to the industry and freight advocates to be better communicators, to tell the story to elected officials and the public that an efficient freight rail network is critical for delivering our goods, ensuring commuters get to work safely and on time and growing the region’s and nation’s economy.

To continue growing the region’s and nation’s economy (and to simply get your holiday packages on time) it is essential that the region, state and nation make strategic investments in its freight assets and fund the remaining 48 projects.

Head to the event wrap-up page to watch our brief video about CREATE, or the recording of the entire roundtable discussion.