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Rail News Home MOW

July 2012

Rail News: MOW

Transportation improvement program posts progress in Chicago


By Jeff Stagl, Managing Editor

Relieving major freight- and passenger-rail congestion in the Chicago area isn’t just a good idea, it’s a crucial objective. By 2040, the value of freight moving in and around the nation’s largest rail hub is projected to skyrocket 304 percent from 2007 levels. And rail ridership continues to mount, meaning passenger trains are getting longer and more of them are traveling through the Windy City region, creating additional delays at hundreds of interlockings and grade crossings — some of which aren’t even a train length apart.

That’s why the partners behind the Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency (CREATE) program have been chipping away at rail congestion issues since the initiative was launched in 2003. Each day, 800 passenger and 500 freight trains move through the Windy City area’s rail network, which includes 2,800 route-miles of track, 1,100 viaducts and bridges, and 78 yards.

The $3.2 billion CREATE program aims to separate freight and passenger trains at six key junctions, increase freight-rail capacity, speed and reliability, and eliminate 25 grade crossings. The program involves a public-private partnership (PPP) comprising 14 constituents: Amtrak; the Association of American Railroads (AAR); BNSF Railway Co.; Belt Railway Co. of Chicago; Chicago Department of Transportation; Canadian Pacific; CN; CSX Transportation; Illinois Department of Transportation; Indiana Harbor Belt Railroad Co. (IHB); Metra; Norfolk Southern Railway; Union Pacific Railroad; and U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT).

CREATE includes 70 projects, including 36 designed to improve rail infrastructure (such as track, switches and signals) and upgrade technologies, and 25 aimed at constructing grade separations (underpasses or overpasses). The program also includes a viaduct improvement program designed to upgrade roadways, sidewalks and drainage at 14 locations, as well as crossing safety enhancements, and rail operation and visibility improvements.

As of mid-June, CREATE had capped off one-quarter of all planned work. Fourteen projects were completed, 12 were under construction, 15 remained under environmental review and four were in final design, says Bill Thompson, the AAR’s CREATE program manager, adding that 25 other projects remain on the docket.

The good news for CREATE partners is that every project so far is running 10 percent under budget, he says.

“Everyone is taking an interest in it and everyone is watching it,” says Thompson, referring to stakeholders and politicians at the local and federal levels. “And because of the economy, contractors are coming in with sharp pencils.”

The program also is drawing interest from other U.S. regions, such as those in New Orleans, Houston and Los Angeles, that are experiencing similar rail congestion and are pursuing or envisioning a comparable PPP to potentially relieve it.

“CREATE is serving as a great model because it’s working well,” says Thompson. "Trust is paramount and information is paramount. All the partners have agreed to be responsive.”

The partners have ponied up, as well. So far, the railroads have provided $170 million and USDOT has contributed $328.4 million via a $126.5 million high-speed rail grant, $100 million Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant, $100 million SAFETEA-LU appropriation and $1.9 million rail line relocation program grant. The program also obtained $286.5 million in pre-CREATE funding from various sources. In addition, the USDOT last month announced that CREATE would receive a $10.4 million TIGER IV grant to help fund 15 projects.

To garner more funding for CREATE, the partners have “explored all avenues,” says Thompson, including the new surface transportation bill.

Just in case other government money becomes available, the partners are following federal processes on every project to ensure each is totally compliant with all requirements, he says.

The partners also are trying to complete all engineering work for the grade separations, some of which are under way.

CREATE’s most complex and largest project by dollar value — clocking in at $165 million — is a grade separation that’s under construction at 130th Street and Torrence Avenue in Chicago. To be completed by early 2015, the work (CREATE project GS15a) involves three railroad bridges, one roadway bridge, and two pedestrian and bicycle bridges. CREATE partners plan to lower the profile of the roadways to fit under two new bridges hosting NS tracks and eliminate two crossings adjacent to a major Ford Motor Co. assembly plant. In addition, a bridge with two Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District/South Shore Line commuter-rail tracks that crosses over NS tracks and Torrence Avenue will be rebuilt on a new alignment.

Ford provided $1 million for the GS15a project, says Thompson. The reason: All newly manufactured cars have to be driven from the assembly plant over a crossing to a nearby shipping center, and freight trains can block the road into the facility for up to 20 minutes. The grade separation will eliminate the problem, says Thompson.

CREATE’s second-largest project by cost — the $140 million Englewood Flyover (P1) — also is under construction. The project calls for building a flyover at 63rd and State streets in Chicago to carry the north-south Metra Rock Island line over an east-west NS/Amtrak line. Bridges will be constructed to accommodate three tracks to carry Metra operations over four NS tracks and a possible future fifth track for a high-speed rail connection.

This P1 project is designed to eliminate conflicts between 78 Metra Rock Island trains and about 60 freight and Amtrak trains that cross at-grade through the Englewood interlocking each day.

Another grade separation that’s under way (GS7) is slated for completion in fall, says Thompson. The $59 million project involves the construction of an underpass at Belmont Road between Warren Avenue and Curtiss Street in Downers Grove, Ill., to benefit Metra, Amtrak and BNSF traffic.

Also in fall — perhaps in October, says Thompson — CREATE partners expect to complete the Blue Island Junction (WA10). The work calls for installing a series of crossovers along a two-mile corridor between CSXT’s Blue Island Subdivision and CN’s Elsdon Subdivision, and installing new signals at Blue Island Junction to facilitate bi-directional movements.

Because CSXT and CN have double-track mainlines that essentially are parallel without a connection, potential routes to traverse the junction — a major regional intersection where the IHB and CSXT connect, and the Belt and Western Avenue corridors cross — are limited.

Other work that’s nearing the completion stage will benefit the IHB, as well. Project B4/B5 involves the installation of a new bi-directional Centralized Traffic Control  (CTC) system along a seven-mile segment of IHB’s line between Bellwood and LaGrange, Ill. In addition, a new control point will be created by installing a universal crossover to CN — enabling trains to switch tracks when traveling in either direction — other control points will be added and a siding track will be upgraded to a controlled, signaled siding.

The project will upgrade the IHB segment from a siding track to a mainline track. Plus, the IHB will acquire a new CTC system where an automatic block signal system had been in place, says Thompson.

CREATE isn’t the only way railroads are trying to ease congestion in the Windy City. The Chicago Transportation Coordination Office (CTCO) — which was established by the railroads in 2003 as an outgrowth of their Chicago Planning Group — focuses on process improvements and enhanced communication to help trains flow better through the region.

For example, a “Chicago Protocol” launched in 2004 calls for representatives from CTCO members — which closely resemble the list of CREATE partner railroads — to jointly determine which train (commuter, intermodal, automotive, merchandise, etc.) has priority whenever freight and passenger trains encounter a conflict. Predominantly, the passenger train will gain priority, says Dave Nelson, general manager of operations-CTCO for CP. The office’s GM post rotates among CTCO railroad members every three years, with Nelson’s term expiring at 2014’s end.

“CREATE will reduce conflicts, but not all of them,” he says. “The CTCO has enhanced the level of communication and greatly improved flow in Chicago since we started in 2003.”

To further improve traffic flow, CTCO members are seeking the “best of the best” operational process improvements that can be replicated at other railroads, says Nelson.

For example, the office distributes a daily operating bulletin/scorecard that covers car inventories, dwell times, relief crew usage, held trains and other data. CTCO members are trying to develop a common operating bulletin that all the railroads can use.

“It will take a while to develop,” says Nelson. “We have found a delivery improvement going from one railroad to another.”

The CTCO also is working to ensure the twice-a-day conference calls held by members hold value and the CREATE projects completed so far work as intended, he says.

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