Panel: How to unclog Chicago

October 1, 2015

A Blue Ribbon Panel convened by Amtrak is recommending co-located train dispatchers, improved operating practices, and capital improvement projects to help relieve rail gridlock in and around Chicago and prevent an estimated $800 billion in nationwide economic impacts resulting from the congestion.Website Insert Turnkey Packages copy

The panel, chosen last year by Amtrak President and CEO Joe Boardman, reported its findings with two university and policy groups on Oct. 1, 2015 in Chicago. The panel released a study it commissioned from Frost & Sullivan and MSY Analytics shows that the massive delays to passenger and freight rail traffic in the Chicago Gateway create an economic vulnerability of up to $799 billion every year, impacting six key industries constituting 85% of U.S domestic product. The 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 U.S. rail hubs, and industry observers have referred to Chicago as America’s ‘rail traffic speed bump,’” the Blue Ribbon Panel noted.

The panel’s key recommendations include consolidating rail traffic controllers now separated by thousands of miles, improving operating practices by Amtrak and other railroads, and funding priority projects already identified, but unfunded, in Northern Illinois and Indiana. These include the locations identified as P2 and P3 (75th Street Corridor Improvement Program) and P4 by the CREATE Program. 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.

“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. He accepted the panel’s recommendations and said Amtrak “will continue to make certain it operates effectively in hopes other carriers will take similar steps. Our customers deserve on-time performance, so that’s number one. We’re also looking for a consistent solution, and we don’t want to run into this [congestion problem] every year, two years or five years.”

Boardman offered space in Chicago Union Station for a dispatching facility to bring together train dispatchers now “scattered throughout the country” and ranging from from Chicago and its suburbs to Texas, Nebraska and Minnesota. “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 panel member Howard Learner of Chicago, 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.”Website Insert Out of the Box Thinking copy

(Editor’s note: Boardman and Learner are likely referring to Class I centralized traffic control centers such as BNSF’s Network Operations Center in Fort Worth and Union Pacific’s Harriman Dispatching Center in Omaha. It is highly unlikely that BNSF and UP would relocate and consolidate these facilities in Chicago. Perhaps the Blue Ribbon Panel is recommending a consolidated dispatching facility for the greater Chicago area, with dispatchers from the individual railroads who have responsibility for Chicago territories located at one facility in Union Station. The traffic control technology to accomplish this is available and is in use on some carriers. Norfolk Southern, for example, utilizes several regional dispatch centers, each one of which is completely redundant with its counterparts and can, if needed, dispatch the entire NS system.)

Read Railway Age Editor-in-Chief William C. Vantuono’s full story by clicking here.


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