After Controversial Freight Rail Merger Approved, Northwest Suburban Communities Weigh Next Steps

A new rail line linking North America is set to send more freight trains through Chicago’s northwest suburbs.

Federal regulators just approved a merger between Canadian Pacific and Kansas City Southern, with Chicago as part of the route linking Mexico, the U.S. and Canada.

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The deal’s backers said it’ll boost competition, reduce emission from trucks and boost the economy. But opponents in the Chicago area who have been fighting the deal for more than a year said the deal is dangerous.

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“We feel like they didn’t take people into account,” said Jack Schneidwind, chief of the Itasca Fire Protection District. “Instead, they took money into account.”

Itasca is split down the middle by train tracks. Those tracks are used by Metra’s Milwaukee District West line running from Union Station out to Elgin. Schneidwind said more than half the village lives north of the tracks — with the only fire station on the south side. He’s worried that more rail traffic and longer trains could have a human cost.

“Time is of the essence in every emergency,” Schneidwind said. “A house fire will double in size every minute. Brain cells start to die in four to six minutes.”

All of the rail crossings in Itasca are at street level, so first responders have to cross the tracks to get to another part of town. To demonstrate, Schneidwind took WTTW News on a drive from the fire station to a house a quarter mile away that took just a minute and a half.

But if the crossings were blocked for minutes on end by a freight train, Schneidwind said, “unfortunately, there are no good alternate routes.”

He said the only option is to go south, get on the interstate heading back north over the tracks, and then wind back south through neighborhood streets. When he showed WTTW News that route, it took more than 11 minutes.

That’s why Itasca’s Fire Protection District has been part of the Coalition to Stop CPKC, which includes DuPage County and a cluster of northwest suburban communities fighting the merger of the two rail companies — the merger that was just approved.

The newly merged company plans to run an additional seven to eight trains each day along the section of track in Itasca. Opponents warn of two-mile long trains, blocking crossings for ten minutes at a time. Speaking with WTTW News last year, company spokesperson Andy Cummings disputed that.

“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. “So 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.”

After the merger, Cummings told WTTW News the company is committed to an ongoing dialogue with communities along the rail line.

“This really felt like a David versus Goliath battle,” said U.S. Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, who also opposed the merger. He noted Canadian Pacific and Kansas City Southern have each had trains carrying hazardous material derail over the last several years.

“If you imagine a situation where what happened in East Palestine happened in the Chicago suburbs, it would be on a scale unimaginable compared to what we saw in Ohio,” Krishnamoorthi said.

As WTTW News reported earlier this month, there have been at least 272 hazardous materials incidents involving trains in 70 Illinois communities over the past decade.

But the head of the Surface Transportation Board, the federal agency that approved the deal, said 94% of hazardous material spills last year involved trucks, not freight trains.

“It is not a problem caused (by) or the result of this merger,” said Martin Oberman, who previously chaired Metra’s board of directors. “In fact, to the extent hazardous materials can be moved on rail rather than on highways, we are better off the more of that traffic that is moved to rail.”

In a statement, company leaders said the deal will “enhance competition, provide improved reliable rail service, take trucks off public roads and improve rail safety.”

But the fear of derailment is felt even more acutely in Elgin — where the train tracks run along Fox River.

“Rivers give life,” said Gary Swick of Friends of the Fox River. “I don’t meet anybody that doesn’t think the river is a wonderful place and worthy of protection.”

Swick said despite the safeguards in place, the increase in traffic can still create a risk.

“Any time there’s more of something, it’s more likely to happen,” Swick said.

“It really makes me angry that an unelected body made this decision,” said Mary Shesgreen of Fox Valley Citizens For Peace and Justice. “I would tell them to not put industry first, not believe industry’s claim that they’re acting in the best interests of the citizens.”

Krishnamoorthi said he also takes issue with how federal regulators approached the deal.

“The railroads are incredibly powerful, and they have, in my opinion, too much sway,” Krishnamoorthi said. “But I’m not going to stop fighting.”

Any requests to immediately stay the Surface Transportation Board’s decision are due Monday, and any petitions calling on the board to reconsider approving the merger are due April 4.

The company told WTTW News it plans to close the deal on April 14. The Coalition to Stop CPKC said members are weighing all their options but haven’t decided on next steps.

Community Reporting Series

“Chicago Tonight” is expanding its community reporting. We’re hitting the streets to speak with your neighbors, local businesses, agencies and leaders about COVID-19, the economy, racial justice, education and more. See where we’ve been and what we’ve learned by using the map below. Or select a community using the drop-down menu. Points in red represent our series COVID-19 Across Chicago; blue marks our series “Chicago Tonight” in Your Neighborhood.

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