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More than 8,400 rail cars a day run through lines operated by the Belt Railway Company of Chicago. Jamey Stillings for TIME

Can We Make Chicago’s Trains Run on Time?

Mar 30, 2017

The most congested choke point for train traffic in North America is here in Chicago. It's where trains carrying Iowa corn meet black tankers full of North Dakota oil, where railcars with Wyoming coal rattle past others with Michigan SUVs.

One-quarter of all rail traffic in the U.S.--1,300 trains a day--transit this city, including six of the seven biggest railroads in the country. Almost anything traveling from coast to coast comes through here, where train traffic has become so tangled that old railroad hands like to joke it takes trains three days to get from Los Angeles to Chicago--and three more to get through Chicago.

The massive traffic jam is made worse by the fact that the region's busy commuter rail systems must compete for limited track space with the nation's largest freight lines. Chicago operates 750 Metra trains a day that shuttle hundreds of thousands of passengers to and from the city alongside dozens of Amtrak trains carrying thousands more. An agreement hashed out between the city and the railroads gives commuter trains the right-of-way at morning and evening rush hour. Those commuter trains, says Don Orseno, Metra's CEO, all but shut down freight movement around the city during rush hour. "Things come to a standstill," he says.

Problems here have far-reaching effects elsewhere, adding costly delays. "If we were able to separate commercial and commuter rail traffic, everything across the country would run more smoothly," says Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. The mayor says he's met with the Trump Administration and discussed addressing Chicago's railroad issues in any potential infrastructure package but is skeptical a comprehensive bill will pass.

The city's train traffic is also an annoyance for residents. Russell Bartmes, 66, who lives on the north side of Chicago, says one of the worst congestion points he sees is in nearby Schaumburg, where cars can sit for 10 minutes to let trains pass. "That shouldn't happen," Bartmes says. "It's really a situation that cries out for some dollars."

A major fix is already under way. An ongoing project--Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency Program (CREATE), a $4.4 billion public-private partnership--is designed to untie the train lines and allow the rail network to operate more efficiently. So far, 28 completed projects have increased capacity by adding rail lines, removing tracks from street level by creating overpasses and underpasses, and separating freight and commuter trains. Officials say the project--an alliance of federal, state and local governments along with the railroads--could generate $31.5 billion in economic benefits and allow 50,000 additional freight trains to travel through the city's rail network in the next few decades while saving thousands of hours in motorist and commuter delays each year. And because of Chicago's vital role in sending goods around the country, a more efficient rail system could have salutary effects around the U.S.

"The public's probably not going to see 95% of what we do," says Bill Thompson, the CREATE program manager for the Association of American Railroads.

Fixing infrastructure is often less about flashy projects and more about ensuring that the nation's internal mechanics are functioning. That's clear at the 75th Street Corridor, a section on Chicago's southwest side through which 90 freight trains and 32 commuter trains pass along a stretch of rail that crosses, splinters and converges. It's the city's most congested area of track and the top priority for CREATE officials.

There, the Belt Railway of Chicago (BRC)--a switching-terminal railroad co-owned by several larger rail companies--is responsible for making sure the trains don't tie themselves in knots. Inside the railroad's dispatch center, a small, two-story brick building that sits among the high-pitched squeal of train cars entering the company rail yard, dispatchers monitor dozens of screens. One displays a digital version of BRC's 28-mile rail line, showing white track lines superimposed with stopped trains in red and moving trains in green.

On a recent day, a 100-car train of black tankers almost 6,700 ft. long and weighing 5,000 tons sat waiting for the BRC go-ahead, which came only after dispatchers picked up the phone and called CSX, a railroad that crosses BRC's lines. "There has to be that handshake and agreement on the phone," says Frank Izzo, BRC's superintendent of transportation.

On average, up to 30 CSX trains cross the BRC daily, and BRC's dispatchers are routinely forced to hold their trains back from an area called Belt Junction--a particularly sticky stretch of track where five lines become two. If BRC trains can't successfully get past CSX's line, those trains could then block Metra, the Chicago commuter service, which sends dozens of trains through Belt Junction every day.

To alleviate the congestion, transportation officials have proposed creating a "flyover" for the CSX line that would elevate freight above street level, allowing it to pass over the BRC. They also want to create dedicated rail lines for the commuter trains through Belt Junction, freeing up the BRC lines for freight only. But improving the 75th Street Corridor, along with dozens of other CREATE projects, is currently stalled, largely because officials don't have the money. 75th Street alone will take about $1 billion to complete.

The Chicago program can point to some visible successes, including the Englewood flyover, a $142 million project completed in 2014. Before the fix, the Metra commuter rail crossed the Norfolk Southern train line, causing delays for both commuters and goods trying to get across the country, making it one of the worst chokepoints in the U.S. at the time. Instead, Thompson showed me a Metra train at Englewood barreling 70 m.p.h. above a passing freight train that would've previously sat idle for hours until rush hour ended.

"This is exactly what we want to do," Thompson said as the commuter train passed overhead at full speed.

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