Tuesday, March 13, 2012

CREATE clears a way through Chicago

Written by  Luther S. Miller, Senior Consulting Editor
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Is it logical to give a federal “high speed” grant to a snarled inner-city network where trains move at a crawl when they move at all? It makes more sense than you might think.

When President Obama unveiled his multibillion dollar high speed rail initiative four years ago, with characteristic rhetorical flourishes, he called on Americans to “imagine” zooming through cities at 100 miles an hour and arriving mere blocks from their destinations.

Whatever Americans imagined, it probably wasn’t that such visionary thinking could in any way apply to America’s beleaguered rail capital, the Hub City of Chicago—a city where the progress of trains has long been booby-trapped by ancient technology and railroad rivalry, and where 1 mph speeds are not uncommon.

Shippers grumbling that it takes a train two days to get from the West Coast to Chicago, and two more to get through it, may be exaggerating, but not by much.

It is worthy of note, then, that a “high speed” rail grant to a public/private partnership known as CREATE (Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency Program) will play a major role in moving freight and passenger trains not only through Chicago faster but also markedly speed up trains in corridors flowing through the U.S. in various directions.

A $126 million grant will pay for most of the $133 million cost of a major component of CREATE, the Englewood Flyover, a bridge separating traffic along two railroads and speeding the movement of 130 trains a day at that particular bottleneck.

The grade separation project is at the intersection of the Metra Rock Island District commuter rail line and the Norfolk Southern/Amtrak line just south of 63rd St. (See sidebar, p. 20).

The groundbreaking for the Englewood Flyover on Oct. 10, 2011, was rich in promise for good transportation as well as for elected officials in step with the dictum that good transportation is smart politics: U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood was joined by the governor of Illinois, the mayor of Chicago, a United States Senator, two United States Congressmen, and a flutter of local officials.

As for the logic of spending “high speed” funds to achieve inner-city improvements measured by a single-digit mph, Secretary LaHood sought to lay doubts to rest: “Projects like this one are exactly why the President has made transportation such a big part of the American Jobs Act. We have workers on site today, American factories producing new supplies, and when the project is completed, people and goods will move more quickly and easily through the Midwest.”

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel was more to the point in describing exactly what CREATE is all about: “Every day, nearly 1,300 trains pass through Chicago , making it one of the busiest rail hubs in the United States. CREATE will invest in critically needed improvements to increase the efficiency of passenger and freight rail infrastructure.”

Improvements of international import

The benefits of CREATE far transcend local needs, commercial or political.

A CREATE statement-of-purpose notes: “Freight transportation efficiency in the region has a ripple effect on the movement of goods throughout the United States, into Canada and Mexico, and to other international destinations. Much of the traffic handled in Chicago moves to or from the nation’s coasts, including to or from every major seaport in the U.S. and Canada. Capacity and efficiency improvements in the region are vital to both economic and security interests in the U.S. and, due to greatly increased international flows under NAFTA, also to the rest of the continent.”

Local environmental and capacity improvements will flow from this one-of-a-kind public/private partnership: “CREATE benefits the community by removing automobile traffic from roadways, reducing emissions. This, in turn, reduces air pollution across the metropolitan area. Existing at-grade rail crossings diminish the reliability, capacity, and growth capabilities of commuter and intercity passenger rail lines. The project’s rail-over-rail grade separations will enable service to be added to these lines and will improve safety.”

The overall project consists of around 70 individual projects, of which 12 have been completed, ranging from costly grade crossing bridges to the elimination of hand-thrown switches. Chicago forms the main junction of four freight railroads and by one estimate handles 40% of all American rail freight. The project is funded by federal, state, and railroad grants. (Norfolk Southern has a CREATE earmark in its 2012 capital spending program.) The estimated cost has increased from $1.5 billion to more than $3 billion. CREATE notes that “while costs have gone up due to inflation, benefits have also increased commensurately.”

Lacking a single, guaranteed source of funding, CREATE has moved slowly from its starting point in 2003, but it has moved steadily. As of Jan. 1, completed projects had produced an estimated 28% reduction in freight train delays and a one-third reduction in passenger train delays, according to an end-of-year statement by the partners which include Amtrak, the Association of American Railroads, Belt Railway Company of Chicago, BNSF, CSX, CN, Canadian Pacific, Indiana Harbor Belt Railroad, Metra, Norfolk Southern, Union Pacific, and the Chicago and Illinois DOTs.

The estimates of progress so far were based on data from a Rail Traffic Control simulation model of Chicago’s rail network. That data also carried an implicit warning: “If no more CREATE projects were built, within 15 years Chicago’s rail capacity constraint would be so severe that shippers would have to use alternatives such as shipping by truck or rail through other cities, and passenger rail users would also suffer more significant impacts.”

In another context, a BNSF officer gave compelling reason for freight railroads to be concerned about congestion in Chicago: “If you’re going to hold a train outside Chicago for 12 hours, that cuts down the shelf life,” Assistant Vice President Paul Nowicki told the Wall Street Journal. “Meanwhile, a truck is coming through Chicago at noon at 60 mph.”

While the Englewood Flyover is one of the more costly projects, smaller ones can produce big returns. An example of the Broadview/LaGrange signalization, a new bi-directional computerized traffic control system along a seven-mile segment of the Indiana Harbor Belt Railroad to upgrade 21 hand-thrown switches. A TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) grant funded $11.7 million of the $13.7 million project.

Just what does this accomplish? CREATE said as construction began: “Most trains currently spend up to two hours traversing the limits of this project due to the hand-thrown switches and restricted speeds. The signal improvements will allow trains to move through this segment in as little as 20 minutes. These improvements will allow increased operating speeds to 30 mph from restricted speeds of 1-to-20 mph. At the northern end of the project area trains enter and exit Proviso Yard. With the signal improvements, more options will exist to move trains in and out of the yard and pass around stationary trains waiting for route availability.”

There’s more: “The signal system upgrades will provide greater visibility, enabling train dispatchers to know the exact locations of trains in the area. Additionally, greater flexibility to keep trains moving reduces conflict with at-grade crossings in the south end of the project area in LaGrange and LaGrange Park.” All together, CREATE includes six grade separations between passenger and freight railroads and 25 grade separations of highway-rail crossings, along with new rail connections, crossovers, and added trackage.