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Rail News: Canadian National Railway - CN

CN, Durbin disagree on degree of Amtrak delays and blocked crossings in Illinois


U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) last week asked the Surface Transportation Board (STB) to investigate Amtrak delays and blocked grade crossings caused by what he characterized as CN’s failure to meet its obligations associated with the 2009 acquisition of the Elgin, Joliet & Eastern Railway (EJ&E).

The STB needs to determine the causes of Amtrak delays and enforce on-time performance standards, Durbin wrote in a letter to the board. As a result of "CN’s obstructions and delays," Amtrak trains along the Chicago-Champaign-Carbondale route – which is owned and operated by the Class I – arrived on time only 54 percent of the time during the past fiscal year, one of the worst-performing corridors in the nation, the senator said in a press release.

Durbin also claimed there was as a record number of blocked crossings resulting from unit trains – some of which transported crude oil and ethanol – through such suburban Chicago communities as Barrington and Aurora. There were 5,267 instances of crossings being blocked by trains for 10 minutes or more in the first quarter, the highest number since CN took ownership of the line, the senator wrote.

"I am disappointed … that I continue to hear reports of CN’s unwillingness to meet its most basic obligations in delivering safe and reliable rail service in Illinois," said Durbin. "CN has failed communities across Illinois, from the suburbs of Chicago that have experienced a record number of blocked rail crossings to towns in Central and Southern Illinois that must face repeated delays in Amtrak service."

The STB established an oversight period of five years to monitor the operational and environmental impacts of the EJ&E acquisition. Durbin again asked the board to consider extending the oversight period to ensure the issues are addressed.

In June, the senator wrote to CN President and Chief Executive Officer Claude Mongeau asking the railroad to address what he believes are ongoing safety and traffic issues. Mongeau in turn sent a letter to Durbin that month stating that as the weather improved, so did CN's operations. CN and other Chicago-area railroads were coping with operational challenges and delays due to harsh winter conditions, Mongeau wrote.

Crossing activations of 10 minutes or longer were 14 percent lower in April and 21 percent lower in May compared with March levels, he said. Just two weeks ago in CN’s most recent report of the operations along the EJ&E to the STB, the Class I reported that crossing activations of 10 minutes or more continued their downward trend, Mongeau said in an emailed statement.

With regard to Amtrak service, CN hosts two pairs of Amtrak trains between Chicago and Carbondale each day. Since winter ended, the Illini and Saluki trains’ on-time performance have improved significantly, with some trains’ contractual performance reaching 90 percent or more in May and June, said Mongeau. Per a contract, CN must operate the trains between Carbondale and Chicago in an agreed amount of run time.

"Under that contact, CN’s on-time performance is measured based on whether the train moves across the CN route in the pre-set number of minutes. So far this fiscal year, from October to July, CN’s on-time performance under that contract for the two Saluki trains is 84 and 82 percent, and for the two Illini trains is 61 and 82 percent," said Mongeau. "Additionally, CN has provided the state of Illinois and Amtrak several proposals for infrastructure investments to add capacity and reduce passenger delays, particularly for the Illini train, on this busy and congested freight corridor."