Solutions Suggested to Solve Chicago Rail Back-Ups

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  • October 1, 2015

Marc Magliari

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Amtrak panel recommends co-located dispatchers, improved operating practices and projects to prevent $800 billion in impacts from rail gridlock

CHICAGO – Bringing together rail traffic control dispatchers now separated by thousands of miles, improved operating practices by Amtrak and other railroads and funding for priority projects already identified in Northern Illinois and Indiana are top recommendations of the Blue Ribbon Panel appointed by Amtrak in response to massive “Chicago Gateway” delays to passenger and freight traffic.

The panel, chosen last year by Amtrak President and CEO Joe Boardman, reported its findings with two university and policy groups today in Chicago. The panel released a study it commissioned that shows the Chicago congestion problem creates an economic vulnerability of up to $799 billion every year, impacting six key industries constituting 85 percent of U.S domestic product.

The named industries are agriculture and natural resources, automotive, manufacturing, retail and services. The congestion challenge in Chicago poses the largest potential economic vulnerability to the U.S. economy of all the major rail hubs in the United States and industry observers have referred to Chicago as America’s “rail traffic speed bump.”

“The panel interviewed experts with the freight rail industry, Metra commuter rail, the states of Illinois, Indiana and Michigan and others and the verdict was unanimous: the implications of failing to act are dire for the economy of the nation in general and the Chicago area in particular,” Boardman said. The panel’s report, the study it commissioned from Frost & Sullivan and MSY Analytics, animations showing the benefits of various projects and a video overview are now posted at Amtrak.com/ChicagoGateway.

National Magnitude: “It’s the busiest rail hub because all the major railroads run through that hub and all the commodities that we think of: grain, crude oil, coal, manufacturing goods, intermodal (that’s product that’s on rail and at some point on truck for a period of time), all of that’s moving through Chicago,” said Linda Morgan of Washington, D.C., a Panelist who was the first chair U.S. Surface Transportation Board, the railroad financial regulatory agency.

Local economic impact: “If something doesn’t happen, transportation experts are going to figure this out. Now it may be leaving the Midwest, it may be opening ports on the east coast and transferring it other ways. It’s a huge risk to the Midwest, but it’s affecting the country,” said Tom Carper of Macomb, Ill., a Panel Member and an Amtrak Board Member.

“Our customers deserve to have on time performance on their trains, so that’s number one,” Boardman continued. “We’re also looking for a consistent solution; we don’t want to run into this every year, two years or five years.”

Boardman accepted the panel’s recommendations and said Amtrak will continue to make certain it operates effectively in hopes other carriers will take similar steps. He offered space in Chicago Union Station for a dispatching facility to bring together the rail dispatchers now scattered from Chicago and the suburbs to Texas, Nebraska and Minnesota.

Co-located dispatching: “Get Amtrak, Metra and the freight rail operators together in one room so that they’re operating and coordinating and making all those trains run on time,” said Howard Learner of Chicago, a Panel Member who is President and Executive Director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center. “If you had every airline at O’Hare Airport with their own air traffic controller doing everything on their own it’d be a mess.”

The panel endorsed prioritization of projects designed to improve the flow of passenger and freight trains – but unfunded – in Illinois and Indiana. These include the locations identified as P2 and P3 (75th Street Corridor Improvement Program) and P4 by the CREATE Program, a concerted effort by freight railroads, Amtrak and other stakeholders to address rail congestion issues in Chicago. The panel cited the completion of CREATE’s P1 project at Englewood as an example and made recommendations for next-steps in the Indiana Gateway Project across the northwest corner of the state and a future dedicated passenger rail route connecting to Michigan and the East.

Funding: “We have a really good news story to tell about the railroad industry in this country,” said Jack Quinn of Buffalo, N.Y., a Panel Member who is a college president since his retirement from the U.S. House after serving as chairman of Railroads Subcommittee. “We have to make sure that everybody gets the message so that they can walk hand in hand when it comes time to try to get that money, which is really tough.”

“Certainly for Amtrak and some of the freight railroads there are real opportunities there and I think we always have to be looking for creative options moving forward,” added Morgan.

Boardman agreed the cases need to be made in Congress, Statehouses and elsewhere for a Chicago Gateway Initiative to address passenger and freight railroad issues rooted in the Midwest. This is similar to the New York Gateway Initiative to address similar issues in the Northeast, where Amtrak has been participating in detailed talks regarding funding and has made investments.

Chicago Gateway Initiative Blue Ribbon Panel Members

Thomas Carper joined the Amtrak board of directors in March 2008, and was reappointed in August 2013. He served as chairman of the board from January 2009 through March 2013. Mr. Carper was a small business owner from Macomb, Illinois, and served as mayor of Macomb from 1991 to 2003. He was appointed by the Amtrak board of directors to serve on the Amtrak mayor’s advisory council and served as its chair from 2000 to 2001. From 2003 to 2010, Mr. Carper was regional director of the West Central region for Opportunity Returns, a state economic development program. He received his B.A. degree from Western Illinois University, and served in the U.S. Army from 1967 to 1970 in both Thailand and Vietnam.

Howard Learner is an experienced attorney and the founder of the Environmental Law & Policy Center (ELPC) in Chicago. As president and executive director, he is responsible for ELPC’s overall strategic leadership, policy direction and financial platform. Before founding ELPC, he was the general counsel of Business and Professional People for the Public Interest, a public interest law center, specializing in complex civil litigation and policy development. Howard is also an adjunct professor at the Northwestern University Law School and the University of Michigan Law School, teaching advanced seminars in environmental and energy law and climate change solutions policy.

Linda Morgan is a partner in the Washington, D.C. office of the law firm Nossaman, LLP, where her practice is focused on railroad transactions and disputes and associated legislative and policy issues. From 1994 to 2002, Ms. Morgan was chair of the U.S. Surface Transportation Board and its predecessor, the Interstate Commerce Commission, where she presided over railroad regulatory proceedings including mergers and rail-service matters in the Houston/Gulf Coast Region and elsewhere. Prior to joining the STB, Ms. Morgan served for 15 years as counsel with the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science & Transportation, including seven years as general counsel. She received an A.B. degree from Vassar College, and a J.D. degree from the Georgetown University Law Center.

John Francis “Jack” Quinn, Jr. is the president of Erie Community College. He was a member of the United States House of Representatives from 1993 to 2005, representing a Buffalo, New York area district and serving as chairman of the Railroads Subcommittee of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Prior to his election to Congress, he was a public school teacher in Orchard Park, NY; served as a member of the Hamburg, New York town council from 1982-1984, and was Hamburg town supervisor from 1985 to 1993. Mr. Quinn holds a B.A. degree from Siena College and an M.A. from the State University of New York, Buffalo. His father was a locomotive engineer.

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