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Federal stimulus dollars help Chicago-area trains pick up the pace

by Ryan Craggs
March 03, 2010

Project goals

  • Reduce rail and motorist congestion
  • Improve passenger rail service
  • Enhance public safety
  • Promote economic development
  • Create jobs
  • Improve air quality
  • Reduce noise from idling or slow-moving trains

Key Chicago-area railroad figures

·         Up to 1,200 passenger and freight trains pass through Chicago every day

·         Trains pull approximately 37,500 rail cars through the region

·         The Chicago area comprises 2,800 miles of track

·         One-third of U.S. rail freight is shipped through the Chicago region.

Waah, waaaaah—whoooosh. 

The sound of a freight train whizzing by at top speed. 

Ka-lunk.  Kal-unk.  Ding-ding.  Ka-lunk.  Ka-lunk. 

The sound of a freight train slogging by at 9 mph—a common sound in Chicago. 

The idea is to get more whoosh and less ka-lunk. 

Last month the federal government allocated $100 million of stimulus money to Illinois. The goal is to fund projects that will increase the snaillike pace at which most trains travel on their way through Chicago.  

“Anything that keeps the network fluid will benefit both freight and passenger trains,” said Larry Wilson, spokesman for the Illinois Department of Transportation.  “In general, this money allows us to build projects that are shovel-ready so that the region can start drawing benefits.”  

A partnership created in 2003 between the Association of American Railroads and the Chicago, Illinois and United States departments of transportation will funnel the $100 million grant. Funded projects will help reduce the bottlenecks that afflict all forms of rail traffic in the seven-county Chicago area—commuter, freight, and Amtrak alike.  

The Chicago bottlenecks are fearsome. It can take a train more than 36 hours to pass through the city at a top speed of 9 mph. At that rate, it would take a train close to 10 days to travel the 2,000 miles between Chicago and Los Angeles.

The projects also will benefit local automobile traffic.    

“It will remove bottlenecks both on highway side for people trying to get past the trains, and also for trains coming through Chicago,” said Richard Harnish, executive director of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association.  “It’s exciting that the money is going to [those projects].   

For long lines of drivers at railroad crossings accustomed to cursing slow trains, faster-moving trains mean less time wasted at the tracks.  And that translates into less fuel wasted on idle—a benefit for both the pocketbook and the environment.  

In addition to speeding up rail and car traffic, the federal stimulus money will be used to improve sidewalks, curbs, gutters and roadways under area viaducts.  

“It’s about aesthetics as well as utility,” Wilson said.