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As goods and raw materials make their way to all parts of the country, there's a significant possibility they'll pass through Chicago, a main transportation hub for all of North America and the busiest rail hub in the U.S. However the volume of rail traffic, and its expected doubling over the next 30 years, has created serious congestion challenges that the city and its partners are working collaboratively to solve.The root of the problemSix of North America’s major freight rail companies — BNSF, Canadian National, Canadian Pacific, CSX, Norfolk Southern and Union Pacific — are split among different regions, but they all converge in Chicago. The region's rail infrastructure was built more than a century ago and investments haven’t kept pace with volume increases and changes in freight types, meaning "Chicago has become the largest U.S. rail freight chokepoint," said Mike Claffey, Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) spokesman.
The city also has an abundance of shared freight rail infrastructure. Traditionally, carriers own and operate on their own tracks, but mergers and acquisitions over the last century have led to Chicago housing a significant amount of rail infrastructure that is owned by one carrier while others have rights to operate on it.
"That creates a lot of complications in terms of who is going to invest in this and how it’s done. That led to, over the course of decades, insufficient investment in Chicago," said Jeffrey Sriver, director of transportation planning and programming at CDOT. "Sometimes something that's everybody's problem ends up being nobody's problem."
The situation is further complicated by freight rail sharing tracks in Chicago with Metra, the country’s second-busiest commuter rail system, and more than a dozen Amtrak passenger routes. Each day, a whopping 1,300 freight and passenger trains travel through this hub, as does one-quarter of the country’s overall freight traffic. Commuter trains take priority on shared tracks because they’re shorter and travel faster than freight trains, adding to freight rail back-ups.
A number of factors contribute to the increase in freight rail volume, but it’s all "a function of the long-term growth of the national economy," Sriver said, not the least of which is America’s booming e-commerce sector. In addition to higher demand for finished goods and consumer products, economic strength drives a greater need for raw materials, which often are most efficiently and cost effectively transported by rail.
The transportation industry as a whole has become more adept at intermodal freight handling, in which the most efficient transportation mode is used at every leg of a shipment’s journey, Sriver said. The same shipping container that travels cross-country via train can be sent overseas by boat and then complete its journey on a truck trip. Over the past few decades, efficiency-boosting measures have contributed to long-haul truck trips decreasing and transitioning to more regional truck trips, while long-distance rail volume has increased. "Intermodal freight handling has grown tremendously on the railroads," Sriver said.
This article first appeared on www.smartcitiesdive.com
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