'We have to prepare': Towns grapple with more freight trains heading their way
Barring a legal miracle, suburbs near the Canadian Pacific tracks will face an influx of eight more freight trains a day in the coming years.
The U.S. Surface Transportation Board's approval of CP's acquisition of the Kansas City Southern Railroad becomes effective April 14. So what's next?
A coalition of Bartlett, Bensenville, DuPage County, Elgin, Itasca, Hanover Park, Roselle, Wood Dale and Schaumburg fought the railroad merger, and officials are considering legal options. Those include requesting a stay, which is due today, or petitioning for reconsideration. That could be costly, however, and the odds of an overturn are slim.
"Speaking for Itasca, if others are willing to fight, we'll be joining it. We're ready to continue but I certainly can't justify doing it alone," Itasca Mayor Jeff Pruyn said.
"Our reality right now is -- it's going to happen. There are things we can do, but I do think that we have to prepare for (more freights) now."
Preparations may include keeping a police unit stationed north of the CP tracks for situations when long trains block Itasca crossings, Pruyn explained.
In Elgin, "our emergency responders are making plans as to how they're going to deal with the freight trains," Mayor Dave Kaptain said. One example is the fire department's contract with an outside firm to track train locations, he added.
Coalition members asked the STB to require the railroads to provide $400 million for mitigations such as underpasses and pedestrian gates, but they were unsuccessful.
"We'll have to find some sort of workaround now," Pruyn said. "Instead of the railroads paying, it will be the taxpayers."
No crossings in the region met strict STB criteria that would have triggered railroad funding for grade separations, explained Chairman Martin Oberman, a former Chicago alderman and a former Metra chairman.
"If we didn't have a factual basis for an order ... CP could get that thrown out in court," he said.
One bright spot may be that the federal government's Bipartisan Infrastructure Law runs through 2026 and funds are available for rail safety projects.
U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, a Hoffman Estates Democrat who opposed the merger along with other Illinois lawmakers, promised "to stand up and fight every single chance I get for our mayors -- to make sure they have resources to solve some of these problems."
Oberman said he's empathetic to residents' concerns over traffic delays and longer emergency response times, and he attended numerous public hearings, including one in Itasca. Public input is one reason the board will oversee CP's performance for seven years instead of the standard five years, he noted.
In that period, CP must report on numbers of trains that pass daily through the suburbs, the transit time and any trains over 10,000 feet, Oberman said.
The coalition and Metra, which also opposed the merger, estimated CP would run up to 18 trains a day instead of the railroad's projection of 11 -- three current and eight new ones.
Should CP surpass eight additional trains, "we will know it," Oberman said. "That won't escape us. We are requiring excruciatingly detailed reporting."
The board also ordered CP to adhere to rules stating "when practical, a standing train or switching movement must avoid blocking a public crossing longer than 10 minutes."
DePaul University transportation Professor Joseph Schwieterman thinks "the requirement of federal oversight over the merger for such a long period to monitor community impacts should be regarded as a partial victory."
But, he added, the fury brought by the merger shows that the region -- considered the busiest rail hub in the nation -- "needs to redouble its efforts to lessen the safety and traffic impacts of growing rail traffic."
"No other urbanized area in the country suffers from as many problem spots at highway-rail crossings," he said.
Barrington Mayor Karen Darch is no stranger to problematic mergers. In 2008, the STB approved the Canadian National Railway's acquisition of the smaller EJ&E that sent freight traffic soaring in her town. Regulators ordered a five-year oversight period and mandated CN to subsidize underpasses in Aurora and Lynwood, but not Barrington.
The slap in the face made village leaders all the more determined to pursue every federal grant out there. As a result, work begins this fall on a Route 14 underpass in Barrington, which will cost in the $75 million range.
"I'm so excited," Darch said. "It can't come soon enough."