Chicago’s location in the center of America is as important as the human heart in the body. Each day, nearly 500 freight trains—with over 37,000 rail cars—and 760 passenger trains pass through the region, moving the goods and people that help pump life into the national economy. In fact, for 150 years, Chicago has remained the nation’s busiest rail hub and the world’s third most active rail intermodal hub, moving 25% of U.S. freight rail traffic and 46% of all intermodal traffic that begins, ends or travels through Chicago.
As freight rail volumes and demand for passenger rail service continue to rise, Chicago has become the largest U.S. rail chokepoint. Because freight and passenger trains operate almost entirely on the same regional tracks, an average rail car that may take only 48 hours to travel the 2,200 miles from Los Angeles to Chicago spends about 30 hours moving through Chicago alone.
To improve the flow of trains through the rail heart of America, the region’s six class I railroads joined forces with Amtrak, Metra, and state, local and county governments to form the Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency (CREATE) Program. Launched in 2003, the $4.4 billion plan involves 70 critical rail and highway infrastructure improvement projects in northeastern Illinois to enhance the efficiency and safety of the region’s rail network.
The CREATE program will allow the Chicago region to handle up to 50,000 more freight trains by 2051, which is good news because the U.S. DOT expects freight rail traffic to grow 40% over the next 30 years. Improvements to the Chicago regional rail system will help keep freight on trains instead of diverting it to trucks, which operate on increasingly-congested, crumbling highways. CREATE will also help improve the region’s economy by adding an estimated 44,000 jobs and generating $31.5 billion in economic benefits over the next three decades.
Twenty-four projects will directly benefit Amtrak and Metra by eliminating conflicts between freight and passenger trains in several locations on the south side of Chicago. Most notably, the 75th Street Corridor Improvement Project—the largest CREATE project—will reduce congestion where 30 Metra trains, 90 freight trains and two Amtrak trains cross each other daily. The project is in the final design phase, which is anticipated to take two to three years once funding is secured. With a continuous, adequate stream of funding, this major lynchpin could be untangled as little as five years after construction begins.
Safety is a never-ending pursuit for the freight rail industry. As part of the 70 CREATE projects, 25 will separate crossings with new roadway overpasses and underpasses at locations where pedestrian, auto and emergency vehicles travel over railroad tracks at grade level. Six projects will implement new rail overpasses or underpasses to separate passenger and freight train tracks. These improvements will allow emergency vehicles to move more efficiently, keep pedestrians and drivers off the tracks and save commuters 230,000 hours annually in grade crossing delays.
At least 42% of rail carloads are directly associated with international trade and Chicago is the primary hub where six class I railroads carry billions of tons of goods annually to and from east and west U.S. ports. According to the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP), exports from Illinois have more than doubled in the past decade and U.S. DOT predicts the volume of imported and exported goods transported via rail to, from or through Chicago will increase nearly 150% between 2010 and 2040. Infrastructure improvements planned through the CREATE Program are critical to fully unlocking the potential of the national freight rail system to meet this future demand.