As a developer of warehouse and distribution space in the Chicago area, CenterPoint Properties knows firsthand why the Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency program is so important to the nation’s largest rail hub.
Brian McKiernan, vice president of infrastructure transportation development at CenterPoint, told the Los Angeles Transportation Club in May the strategic plan of the eastern and western railroads is to connect New Jersey and Los Angeles with Chicago.
Those six Class 1 railroads in North America — BNSF Railway, Canadian National, Canadian Pacific, CSX Transportation, Norfolk Southern and Union Pacific — have been almost too successful in achieving their goal. Playing host to about 1,200 freight and passenger trains a day has created a black hole in Chicago. It often takes a day or longer to move rail freight through the metropolitan area. (The seventh Class 1 railroad, Kansas City Southern, runs north-south from Mexico to the U.S. Midwest. Its main network stops short of Chicago, but it has marketing rights there.)
The railroads have intermodal yards scattered throughout the region, so the interlining of intermodal freight from a western to an eastern railroad normally involves unloading containers from one train, trucking them crosstown to another yard and placing them on a second train. This adds unneeded truck traffic to roads and highways and compounds the conflicts between rail and vehicular traffic in the Chicago area.
To eliminate these vexing problems, local, state and federal agencies joined with the railroads almost a decade ago to establish the CREATE program. All of the agencies and each of the railroads participate in the effort that will cost about $3.2 billion by the time it is completed later in this decade.
“It’s a great example of a public-private partnership,” said Holly Arthur, a spokeswoman for the Association of American Railroads. As for actual accomplishments, however, railroads report progress has been “incremental,” she said.
According to the CREATE Web site, (www.createprogram.org), 14 of the 70 individual projects have been completed, 12 are under construction and another 19 are under review. Railroads to date report a 28 percent improvement in their freight operations in Chicago. Passenger trains have experienced a 33 percent reduction in delays, which is also important for freight operations because freight trains must let passenger trains pass first when there is a conflict.
Another large rail project, the Alameda Corridor in Southern California, was funded from beginning to end as a single entity and took three years to complete once construction began in 1999. If CREATE were built according to the same model, it would have taken so many years just for the environmental review process that nothing would have been built by now.
CREATE focuses on specific projects in specific trade lanes, with the strategy being that incremental completion of projects is better than no projects at all. “We felt this is the best approach,” said Bernardo Bustamante, the CREATE project manager at the Federal Highway Administration.
In addition to demonstrating physical results, the CREATE venture is forcing railroads to review their individual operations in the Chicago area and work together on a regional operation. This “Chicago protocol” also has produced tangible results in terms of efficiency, Arthur said.
Furthermore, each railroad is developing its own projects that technically are outside of CREATE but are adding capacity and efficiency to rail movements in the Chicago area. Union Pacific, for example, is adding a third mainline and is splitting the cost, with passenger authority METRA, on another project that is improving train flow and enhancing safety and has reduced gate down time by 11 percent, UP spokesman Tom Lange said.
The goal of the many grade separation, rail flyover and track development projects is to eliminate as much as possible the need to truck freight crosstown from one railroad to another. The “steel wheel” transfer of containers from one rail line to another is the most efficient way to interline freight, Arthur said.
Retrofitting a 100-year-old rail network, smoothing the flow of trains operated by six freight railroads and two passenger lines and doing so without hindering the daily commerce of the nation’s third-largest city is a herculean task. Doing so in an environment of tight federal, state and local government budgets makes it difficult to predict when the project will be completed.
Nevertheless, Bustamante said he believes CREATE’s freight elements will be largely completed in the next six years.