"The engines make ungodly noises and vibrations. ... They would wake the dead," said Michele Oehlerking, who lives across the street from the tracks in Hawthorn Woods. "The house shakes and the lampshades jiggle. In summer, you can't hear the TV when the trains go by."
Still, worried suburbanites haven't seen many of the problems that were predicted for the former Elgin, Joliet & Eastern Railway, a lightly used short line railroad running from Waukegan to Joliet to Gary. Equipment breakdowns have occasionally closed some crossings for excessively long stretches and delayed motorists, records show, but no horror stories involving blocked ambulances or fire trucks have been reported.
Overall, train volumes have decreased on most segments of the EJ&E since CN started operating on the line in March, according to monthly reports the railroad has filed with federal regulators. In December, the stretch from Mundelein to Bartlett averaged more than seven trains a day, only two more than ran on the EJ&E prior to CN's takeover. Most of the rest of the segments showed only one more train per day, or fewer trains, according to CN's report.
Eventually, CN plans to run three or four times more trains than historically have rolled along the EJ&E. First it needs to complete a three-year, $100-million upgrade of the century-old line's tracks and infrastructure.
Although freight traffic on all major rail lines dropped sharply in 2009 because of the struggling economy, analysts predict strong growth.
"While the traffic may be less (than expected), all the symptoms we predicted are there," said Aurora Mayor Tom Weisner, co-chairman of a coalition of suburbs that organized to oppose the CN's plans. "It's just a matter of time before we'll see the trains in greater volume."
As part of the EJ&E upgrade, CN told regulators it plans to enlarge three sidings near South Barrington, West Chicago and Aurora to accommodate 10,000-foot-long trains.
The anti-CN coalition known as TRAC, or The Regional Answer to Canadian National, continues to battle with the railroad, pressing its challenge to the transportation board's ruling in a Washington court. But 21 communities along the former EJ&E arc have made peace with the Montreal-based railroad. The suburbs have negotiated voluntary agreements with CN to help establish quiet zones, install cameras to monitor rail crossings and take other safety measures. Some towns have negotiated multimillion-dollar deals; others have settled for less.
Plainfield, which had once been a CN foe and had donated $10,000 to TRAC, made a deal with CN and quit the coalition in December . In addition to new safety fencing and a warning system to alert emergency workers about crossing gate status, CN gave Plainfield a small parcel of land.
"We tried to get the best bang for our buck, and this seemed to be about as good as it's going to get," Village President Mike Collins said. "That's why we agreed to it."
CN is working hard to resolve concerns by reaching agreements with individual communities, spokesman Patrick Waldron said. The accords are in keeping with the Dec. 24, 2008, decision of the federal Surface Transportation Board allowing CN to buy the EJ&E. The sale became official Jan. 31, 2009. In addition, the railroad says it has appointed a liaison to work with suburbs, updated warning signs at grade crossings and given several safety presentations at schools near the EJ&E tracks.
"CN takes very seriously the agreements we made when we took over the EJ&E line," CN Vice President Karen Borlaug Phillips recently told the transportation board.
The TRAC coalition, which includes Barrington, Aurora and Naperville, continues to press its fight before a federal appeals court in Washington and seeks to overturn the transportation board's decision. The coalition claimed an important victory recently when, in response to TRAC's request, the transportation board agreed to have an independent consultant verify CN's reports of grade crossing delays and accidents.
The number of grade-crossing delays along the rail line has dropped sharply. CN reported 49 delays of 10 minutes or more occurring in February and March. Since then, the number has ranged from 4 to 14 each month. The longest reported delay was in October when a Main Street crossing in Matteson was blocked for 4/5 hours when a train backed into rail cars in a freight yard.
Meanwhile, CN is pushing its own challenge to the transportation board decision. The railroad objects to the board's order that it must pay most of the cost for building rail-highway bridges in Aurora and Lynwood. The two overpasses could cost the railroad at least $151 million, more than half the $300 million the CN paid for the EJ&E.
Barrington President Karen Darch, a TRAC co-chair, said the group also stressed its concerns over several recent derailments involving CN trains. The most troubling incident, she said, was the June 19 accident in Rockford when a CN train left the tracks and several tankers filled with ethanol exploded into flames. A 41-year-old woman and an unborn baby were killed, and several others were injured. Officials evacuated about 600 homes in the area. Other accidents involving CN trains include a Dec. 22 derailment involving three cars on a CN train in Burlington, and a Jan. 16, 2009, derailment involving 17 train cars in Buffalo Grove.
Not all residents have been discouraged by CN's new operations on the EJ&E, however. Edward Benson, who has lived in New Lenox for 10 years, isn't troubled by delays from CN's freights.
"I see traffic back up, but I haven't seen the 'you killed my uncle because we couldn't get him to the hospital' kind of thing," Benson said. "I think the prediction of doom has been overblown."