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It's another busy mid-July morning in the Clearing Yard outside Chicago. Several hundred feet overhead, a jet approaches a runway at nearby Midway Airport while a box car rolls toward a hump at the Belt Railway Co. of Chicago's (BRC) Bedford Park, Ill., switching yard.
From an air-conditioned control tower, Humpmaster Nick Pehlke watches the car make its way up a gradual incline and approach the hump beneath the tower. He turns around to see the car move downhill from the hump, pass two retarders and roll to its assigned location among three dozen classification tracks.
Within a minute, Pehlke watches another car roll over the hump and onto the same track.
At the 650-acre Clearing Yard — a seemingly never-ending maze of 92 classification, 44 departure and 40 receiving tracks stretching several miles East and West of the tower — workers hump an average of two freight cars every minute of every day. To get 3,000 cars in and out of the yard each day and help keep traffic flowing through North America's largest rail hub, the more than century-old BRC needs to be a 24/7/365 operation.
The intermediate switching terminal railroad separates, classifies and re-blocks cars — enough to build 32 inbound and 33 outbound trains daily — for the 14 railroads serving Chicago, including BRC owners BNSF Railway Co., Canadian National Railway Co., Canadian Pacific Railway, CSX Transportation, Norfolk Southern Corp. and Union Pacific Railroad.
Without the BRC, the railroads would have to switch their own cars en route and traffic — already at record levels — likely would come to a standstill in the Windy City.
And without a new game plan, the BRC would have a hard time keeping up with today's car volume, much less be ready to handle the projected increase in tomorrow's traffic.
BRC managers have a plan. They're implementing "lean management" initiatives to speed up switching and hasten train departures, and developing computerized reports to monitor and improve operations.
They're also modernizing infrastructure and equipment, such as by installing remote-controlled switches and implementing variable speed humping with help from Cattron-Theimeg Inc. and GE - Transportation.
If they execute the plan, they'll consistently process more than 3,000 cars within a 24-hour dwell period instead of the 26 or 27 hours the BRC has been averaging at times to switch 2,700 to 2,800 cars, managers say.
The road also will be able to handle traffic on an East-West corridor to be developed through the Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency or CREATE program, they believe.
"We see ourselves as a microcosm of the Class Is, a mini Class I, if you will, and we have to manage ourselves as such," says BRC President Patrick O'Brien. "The Class Is are finding ways to do it better and faster, like through the ONE Plan or Unified Plan or TOP. Their objectives are driving our objectives, and we have to perform as good or better than them."
The BRC will need to complete all switching operations within 24 hours to meet its owners' mandate: generate enough revenue to cover costs. Ninety percent of the BRC's revenue comes from contract fees that are negotiated with each Class I and other railroad customers; the remainder comes from 45 industries that pay the railroad to move freight along its 27 miles of single and 26 miles of double mainline.
"The driver is to continue to lower unit costs," says O'Brien.
But reining in operating expenses hasn't been easy the past two years for a railroad that primarily switches cars. Between June 2004 and May 2006, the yard's average monthly dwell time met the railroad's previous goal of 25.5 hours only once, in September 2004.
To reduce dwell time and the costs associated with car management — such as manhours spent to identify and repair bad-order cars, and weed out cars sitting in the yard for 48 or more hours — the railroad has been trying to do a better job of monitoring incoming traffic and tracking crews' performance in each operation, says O'Brien.
For example, BRC managers recently developed computerized inbound train forecast, outbound slot wire, train block turnover, outbound train performance and set performance reports. Earlier this year, managers also introduced a bad-order tracking report to reduce bad-order-to-spot, spot-to-repair and repair-to-en route dwell hours.
The reports are paying dividends. Between April and August, bad-order-to-spot, spot-to-repair and repair-to-en route dwell hours decreased by 26.4 hours, 19.4 hours and 11.5 hours, respectively.
In addition, the switching terminal railroad's average dwell time dropped from 29.7 hours in April to 23.7 hours in August. And between March and August, receiving yard dwell time fell by 5.9 hours and classification yard dwell time declined by 2.2 hours.
O'Brien believes the BRC can continue to reduce dwell time and improve service consistency for Class Is, as well as small-road customers Chicago Rail Link; Chicago SouthShore & South Bend Railroad Co.; the Elgin, Joliet & Eastern Railway Co.; Iowa, Chicago & Eastern Railroad Corp.; Indiana Harbor Belt Railroad Co.; Manufacturers' Junction Railway L.L.C.; South Chicago & Indiana Harbor Railway Co.; and Wisconsin & Southern Railroad Co.
To pull it off, BRC managers will need to ensure supervisors and workers understand the steps needed to be taken to complete a task, he says.
"At job briefings now, crews get specific responsibilities for each job instead of an overview and learn how to be proactive," says O'Brien.
BRC workers also will have to work with Class I traffic managers to better coordinate large road resources — namely crews and locomotives — so departures remain on time. Coordination has been in step of late, says O'Brien.
"We're more fluid now because of a higher availability of Class I resources," he says.
The railroad will have to remain fluid because BRC managers project intermediate switching traffic will increase to 819,560 cars in 2006 after falling from 817,445 cars in 2004 to 803,920 cars in 2005. Traffic tends to fluctuate depending on Class Is' decisions to add cars to haulage trains, or move unit trains of grain, coal and potash in lieu of classifying those cars, says O'Brien.
However, local switching traffic is expected to remain on the decline, decreasing to 71,840 cars from 2005's 72,050 cars.
Decades ago, the BRC served more than 100 local shippers, but the Bedford Park area's industrial base has been shrinking as companies relocate to reduce operating costs.
The BRC has survived a traffic pattern change or two since the railroad was formed by real estate promoter John Brown in 1882. During the 1920s and 1930s, many factories were built in the Clearing Industrial District adjacent to Clearing Yard, bringing thousands of cars to the BRC each day.
But in the 1970s and 1980s, as the U.S. economy weakened and other railroads built classification yards around Chicago, traffic dwindled. By 1989, the railroad handled 200 cars a day instead of 2,000 and employed about 200 people instead of 400 (today, the BRC employs about 500 people).
In 1990, the BRC's railroad owners and managers made a decision that turned the traffic fortunes around. They converted the intermediate switching terminal railroad from a jointly run to stand-alone company, and signed an operating agreement under which the BRC would negotiate service rates with each railroad customer and generate its own revenue to cover costs.
The BRC had previously interchanged cars at cost and later billed railroad customers if there were additional expenses.
"In essence, they built a high-production plant here to handle the traffic," says O'Brien, who's served as BRC president since early 2003.
It's a plant that O'Brien and his management team — which includes General Manager of Transportation Michael Paras; General Counsel, Secretary and Director of Human Resources Tim Coffey; Superintendent of Mechanical Michael O'Donnell; and Chief Engineer Ronald Strong — expect to keep humming to meet increasing intermediate switching demands.
But there have been a few screeches in the outbound train department. During the past few years, outbound on-time performance had been lagging because managers focused more on inbound trains, says Transportation GM Paras.
Earlier this year, managers implemented an outbound block count table to serve as a forecasting tool. BRC officials also hold service review meetings, provide railroad customers daily and monthly review and performance publications, and enlist a field worker charged with assisting carriers with outbound train departures.
In July, the BRC's on-time outbound train performance reached 75 percent and on-time set performance hit 89 percent.
"A few years ago, our on-time outbound performance was in the 50s," says Paras.
Managers also are concentrating efforts on reducing the number of cars that are re-humped because of incorrect humps. The BRC currently re-humps about 400 cars per day.
"Re-humps are at about 15 percent of humps, and we need to get that lower," says O'Brien.
Earlier this year, workers began handling re-humps four times per shift instead of only at the beginning and end of a shift. Between February and July, the railroad's average re-hump dwell time decreased by 7.3 hours.
In addition to outbound train performance and re-humps, aging infrastructure and outdated equipment are priorities.
The BRC is spending $2.5 million to replace an underground compressed air line that was installed in the 1930s. Workers have completed a new line in the yard's West hump area and are installing a line in the East hump area.
Earlier this year, the railroad also installed 16 of GE - Transportation's remote-controlled Hydra-Switch Machines in the West receiving yard so trains don't have to stop and block a grade crossing while a worker throws a switch. Next year, the BRC will install 33 of the switch machines in the East receiving yard, says O'Brien.
For the next six years, the railroad will be busy upgrading bridges, as well. Because most of its mainlines in Chicago are elevated, the BRC maintains 70 bridges, many of which were built in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The railroad will spend between $6 million and $7 million per year to rehabilitate about a dozen bridges and make the structures 286k-compliant, says O'Brien.
The same can't be said of a long-term investment in the BRC's locomotive shop. Built in 1914, the shop is used to service 650 of other railroads' locomotives a month, as well as maintains the BRC's 22 switchers — all of which employ locomotive remote-control systems — and five slug units. O'Brien wishes he had funds available to replace the facility.
"We want a new shop, but it would cost millions," he says.
However, the BRC already invested millions of dollars several years ago to modernize its car shop. The investment included a Wabtec Corp. billing system that helps track work orders and speed repairs.
Now, workers at the facility repair about 1,200 cars a month, including the replacement of about 450 out-of-round wheels, says Superintendent of Mechanical O'Donnell.
The BRC also is deriving benefits from a multi-million-dollar investment made in 2004, when the railroad installed
Digital Concepts Inc.'s Digital Traffic Control™ dispatching system. Used to dispatch more than 8,000 cars daily, the system enables dispatchers and railroad managers to exchange real-time operational data and graphical screen images.
For the most part, BRC managers have been willing to invest capital in the railroad. During the past seven years, the BRC has spent a total of $120 million on capital improvements, such as signaling all mainlines, installing heavier 136-pound rail and upgrading the entire locomotive fleet. The railroad spends about $16 million on capital projects annually and will continue to do so for the next few years, says O'Brien.
It'll take millions of more dollars and more work practice changes before the BRC reaches its goal of switching all cars within 24 hours. BRC managers know they need to do whatever it takes to get cars in and out of the yard quickly or the railroads they serve will be dealing with late trains and unwanted congestion in the nation's third-largest city.
"We're like O'Hare Airport," says Transportation GM Paras. "If everything is on time, it all clicks, and if not, the planes have to circle around."
"Or sit on the tarmac," adds O'Brien.
As Belt Railway of Chicago Co. (BRC) managers work to speed freight cars through the massive Clearing Yard, Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency (CREATE) program administrators continue to develop four projects that could help ease traffic congestion along the BRC's mainlines by 2009.
Designed to eliminate freight-rail bottlenecks and separate freight and passenger trains, CREATE calls for building five rail corridors, including one for passenger trains; grade separating 25 crossings; constructing six flyovers; and removing a downtown Chicago rail corridor. One of the freight-rail corridors will be an East-West route between the BRC's Clearing Yard and the road's connection with the Indiana Harbor Belt Railroad Co. near South Chicago.
"No one envisioned an East-West route to be a prime route when the track was built many years ago," says Earl Wacker, CSX Transportation's
superintendent of Chicago coordination and director of the Chicago Transportation Coordination Office, which works with all railroads serving the Windy City to reduce traffic congestion and is a member of the CREATE planning team.
The East-West Corridor involves four separate projects: upgrades to three existing double mainlines, including crossovers, and the construction of one double mainline.
Under CREATE's 2006-2009 plan — which is funded by $100 million each from SAFETEA-LU, the six Class Is and Northeast Illinois Regional Commuter Railroad Corp. (Metra), and the Illinois Department of Transportation; and $30 million from the city of Chicago — program administrators plan to build the Pullman and Rock Island junctions, and design the 80th Street Flyover by 2009's end.
The junctions involve two interlockings on the BRC; the flyover will enable Metra to separate traffic from BRC, CSX Transportation, BNSF Railway Co. and Union Pacific Railroad trains, and
administrators to reconstruct tracks for the intermediate switching terminal railroad.
"The flyover will [eliminate] lag time as freight trains won't have to wait for Metra trains to pass," says Wacker.
After 2009, CREATE administrators expect to begin designing the 74th and 75th street flyovers, which will separate Metra traffic from BRC and CSXT trains.
After the corridor's completed, the BRC's East-West traffic flows will improve and velocity will increase, says President Patrick O'Brien.
"Trains will go 20 to 30 mph instead of being restricted to 10 mph," he says.
— Jeff Stagl