Biden Infrastructure Package Could Unlock Nation's Worst Railway Bottleneck
The Chicago region has a well-earned reputation as one of the nation’s top logistics hubs, but for generations, it has also been hobbled by railway bottlenecks that delay trains moving both commuters and freight. Work has already begun untangling the longstanding mess, but several key projects remain unfunded. The passage in November of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which sets aside billions for railway improvements, has raised hopes these final pieces of the puzzle will fall into place, finally allowing goods to flow into the region’s warehouses and distribution centers without lengthy delays.
Most of the bottlenecks are on the city’s South Side, around 75th Street near the Dan Ryan Expressway, where east-west freight lines and Amtrak trains transporting goods and people from both coasts intersect with other freight and commuter lines going north and south. The trains are at the same grade and have no easy way to get around one another.
“It’s a crazy quilt of intertwining railways, so once a slow-moving freight enters the crossing, it has a ripple effect,” said Joseph Schwieterman, director of the Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development at DePaul University. “The whole thing is a jigsaw puzzle that has no easy fix.”
Ninety freight trains from companies such as Norfolk Southern, CSX and Canadian National Railway cross paths each day with roughly 30 Metra trains emerging from the southwest suburbs as well as two Amtrak trains, according to the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, a government agency responsible for transportation planning across Chicagoland.
“It’s a huge chokepoint — perhaps one of the largest in the country,” Association of American Railroads Program Manager Bill Thompson told Progressive Railroading in 2018. “It needs to be removed.”
At times, all these trains can make it across the city without major delays, Schwieterman said, but problems in the supply chain, which have become more common during the pandemic, or even bad weather can set off a string of delays.
“On a normal day, we can muddle through, but if one component gets thrown out of whack, the delays start multiplying,” Schwieterman said.
It isn't a new problem, according to CMAP senior planner Tom Murtha. The reconstruction of the rail systems within the city has been going on for decades, moves that made train transit a lot more fluid.
“The saying used to be, ‘You can get from the West Coast to Chicago in two days on a train, but it’ll take you two more days to get through Chicago,’ but that’s not true anymore,” he said.
Still, the bottlenecks remain around 75th Street, and trains currently can be forced to sit around in South Side railyards across Chicago’s Ashburn, Englewood, Auburn Gresham and West Chatham neighborhoods for 10 to 12 hours, he added.
A coalition of federal, state, municipal and county transportation officials, as well as the Association of American Railroads, formed the 75th Street Corridor Improvement Project, and in 2018, it secured a $132M federal grant, allowing the group to start designing a series of bridges, or flyovers, that will eliminate the need for trains to wait for others to pass. In addition, the group plans to add tracks, realign others and eventually funnel Metra trains away from the congested Union Station downtown and into LaSalle Street Station.
“[Freight] trains will be able to move through the region without waiting for each other,” Murtha said.
Commuters will also benefit, according to Metra spokesperson Michael Gillis.
“The work is projected to reduce [SouthWest Service] delays by more than 50%, and passenger travel times through the corridor will be reduced by 18%,” he said.
Project officials estimated all the components will cost more than $1B. They have secured a total of $474M, including $111M from railroad companies and other funds from the federal government, the state and local governments. That was enough to start construction on the first phase, a freight rail flyover next to CSX’s Forest Hill Yard at 75th Street and a road-and-rail grade separation a half-mile to the north at 71st Street.
It isn't an easy task. Freight trains can now stretch for 2 miles and may need around a half-mile to gradually ascend to the new flyover’s level, according to Schwieterman.
“Building a railroad flyover is infinitely more complex than one for a highway,” he said.
It will take until at least late 2024 to finish. And officials still need to secure funding for subsequent phases, including another freight rail flyover at 74th Street, as well as the new commuter track and freight line realignment near 80th Street that will untangle Metra’s trains.
The IIJA will provide $550B in new federal spending for infrastructure across the U.S., but although it is one of the nation’s largest-ever commitments to infrastructure, that doesn’t mean untangling the South Side railway system is a done deal. Decades of deferred maintenance and a reluctance to spend government dollars on new infrastructure have left a long list of proposed projects across the U.S., and the 75th Street Corridor Improvement Project will have to line up and compete for those dollars.
That will be a challenge, yet Murtha said it is a big improvement over how scarce dollars were allocated until congressional earmarks were banned a decade ago. Members of Congress would often fight to fund as many projects within their own districts as they could instead of directing funds toward the most needed improvements.
“A little bit of money would be sprinkled everywhere, but never enough to complete a project,” he said. “Now, you either get a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down.”
Funding the railway improvements will still be complex, and like this first phase, the money is likely to come from a mix of federal contributions as well as state and local governments and the railroads, Murtha said. But Illinois may have an advantage over other states and regions. Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s $45B infrastructure fund, created in 2019, makes available a huge pot of funds, potentially cutting down the amount of federal funds needed to solve the South Side bottlenecks and increasing the chances of getting that thumbs-up.
“It will help Chicago maintain its status as a freight hub and all the economic benefits that come from that,” Murtha said.