Rail Merger Would Mean Huge Spike in Freight Train Traffic, Suburbs Say. But Rail Companies Say Impact is Overstated

More frequent freight trains, some as long as 2 miles, dividing towns in two. That’s the fear of eight northwest suburbs that have formed a coalition trying to block the proposed merger of two major rail companies, Canadian Pacific and Kansas City Southern.

The suburbs are worried a significant increase in freight traffic along tracks shared by Metra’s Milwaukee District West line will mean big problems for commuters, residents, and first responders, but the companies looking to merge say those fears are overstated.

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The way interim fire chief John Buckley describes it, the Village of Itasca is basically split in two by train tracks.

“There are no underpasses, there are no overpasses. There’s four intersections we use to get to the other side of the tracks,” Buckley said. “Our fire station’s located on the south side of the tracks (and) about half the calls are on the north side of the tracks.”

He says crews get delayed by a train about 30 times a year. Occasionally it’s a freight train, but usually just the Metra for a minute or so it’s “not ideal, but something we’ve been able to manage here.”

But Buckley and other suburban officials are worried the proposed merger of two major rail companies would mean more frequent freight trains, which they say could take as long as 10 minutes to clear an intersection.

“Everything we do is time-sensitive,” Buckley said. “Someone who’s dying, who could … become brain-dead to the point where we can’t even help them. … Fire doubles in size every minute or so, and it can be even more.”

Last year, Canadian Pacific and Kansas City Southern agreed to merge. The deal’s being reviewed by the Surface Transportation Board, the federal agency that oversees rail companies. Canadian Pacific spokesman Andy Cummings says the new company would be the only line linking Mexico, the U.S., and Canada.

“We see the opportunity to take 64,000 trucks off the road and capturing those shipments to freight rail, which creates significant environmental benefits – including about a 75% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions compared to truck hauls,” Cummings said.

In the northwest suburbs, Canadian Pacific runs freight trains on the same tracks as Metra’s Milwaukee District West line. Right now, that’s about three to four freight trains a day. After the merger, the company says it plans to run seven to eight more, going about 40 miles an hour.

“At any given crossing, you’re looking at about a three-minute crossing blockage for a 10,000-foot train moving at speed,” Cummings said. “Certainly, that does have an impact. That’s a three-minute blockage. To put it in perspective, that’s spread out over a 24-hour period. That’s going to be about one minute per hour.”

But Elgin Mayor David Kaptain thinks it’s still a significant change. “This impacts your quality of life as a community,” Kaptain said.

That’s why Elgin and seven other suburbs have formed The Coalition to Stop CPKC. In a Monday filing with the Surface Transportation Board, the coalition says there’s just no way to mitigate the impacts of additional freight trains on their communities, which between them have 54 at-grade crossings.

“If there’s a breakdown on the freight line with a two-mile-long freight train, that will block all of our grade crossings downtown,” Kaptain said. “And these railroad tracks are 100 feet from the Fox River, so it can create an environmental hazard.”

Elgin estimates building tunnels or bridges to get past the tracks could cost as much as $8.9 billion. Other communities estimate infrastructure costs of anywhere from $4 to $265 million.

The merger’s not a done deal. There’s an environmental impact study expected this year, and public hearings are likely. If the deal goes through, communities in the coalition say they need to hear a lot more about how the newly formed company can mitigate the different impacts.

The coalition wants any merger to be conditioned on no additional freight traffic along this stretch and suggests things like alternate routes and a new intermodal facility west of Elgin. The group also wants detailed federal oversight and monitoring.

Canadian Pacific’s Andy Cummings says the coalition’s cost estimates are a big ask for a limited section of track, and he says their filing mischaracterizes a historically shared-use section of rail. Still, Cummings says, “we very much want to work with them to address the reasonable suburban concerns … We look forward to continuing to discuss with these suburban communities what solutions might be going forward.”

As for Metra, it says more freight traffic could create delays for commuters. It’s hired an outside expert and has a filing due this month.

“Over the years, our passengers have experienced many delays and other issues due to CP’s dispatching and operating practices and decisions. We believe that more freight traffic on the lines will only create more delays and worsen problems for our customers,” a Metra representative said in a statement.

A decision on the merger is expected within a year.

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