Federal grant to increase efficiency in Midwest rail network, untangle Chicago bottleneck

By Michael Brenneis

Chicago has become a notorious rail bottleneck, responsible for delays that impede freight delivery, Amtrak, Metra passenger service, and even drivers trying to cross rail lines. Now, one of the worst tangles—the 75th Street corridor—is about to get a little better thanks in part to a federal grant.

Changes to five junctions, where eight rail lines converge, are expected to improve conditions in this corridor. Flyovers, grade separations, additional track, and rerouting will isolate Metra from freight lines, remove the conflict with autos at 71st Street, eliminate some crossings between east-west and north-south lines, and reduce the need to delay trains outside of the corridor until the way clears. Amtrak may see some service improvement due to this reduction in staging as well. These projects stand to reduce freight delay by 20 percent, eliminate 3,600 hours of daily driver delay, and increase capacity from 84 to 152 trains per day.

The recently awarded $132 million federal grant will be combined with funds from other public and private sources to cover the $474 million cost of the corridor reconfiguration.

Even in their current state Chicago’s railways annually serve one-quarter of the nation’s freight trains, and half of the intermodal trains, transporting goods valued at $1.4 trillion. Freight congestion is potentially holding back national economic benefits that the Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency program (CREATE) calculates at $31.5 billion over 30 years, with three-quarters of this to be felt outside of the Midwest.

Changes to Metra passenger rail will largely be due to rerouting. Corridor improvements are expected to reduce travel time by about 2 minutes by eliminating conflict between freight and passenger trains. The Metra SouthWest Service line would shift its terminus from Union Station to the LaSalle Street Station, making passenger connections to Amtrak from this line more difficult.

Efforts have been made to limit the impact on residents, including pedestrians and cyclists, in proximity to the affected area, but plans call for the removal of 15 residential structures, displacing about 0.05 percent of the population within 1000 feet of the rail lines in this low-income, majority African-American area. No businesses would require relocation. Flyovers are not expected to isolate areas of neighborhoods, but new grade separations may make some amenities more difficult to access. Ancillary reconstruction of viaducts are to include drainage improvements, ADA compliant sidewalk ramps, and bike lanes where appropriate. Changes to the corridor may reduce train horn noise and idling, but increase overall noise levels due to increased rail traffic.

In terms of size and freight movement, the U.S. freight railroad network is the largest in the world. With average efficiency exceeding 400 ton-miles per gallon, trains make economic sense. In addition, keeping freight off of trucks and roads as much as possible has environmental advantages. Improvements to the U.S. rail network, such as the 75th Street Corridor project, have the potential to provide far-reaching benefits and keep railroads the most economical mode of transcontinental freight transportation.

Michael Brenneis is an Associate Researcher at SSTI.