Monday, March 01, 2010

One year after the CN/EJ&E merger: How train traffic changed

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For Faith Rawley, the difference between life before and after the merger of the Canadian National Railroad and the EJ&E railway is measured in vibrations, the Daily Herald reports.

"The windows rattle, the walls vibrate," said Rawley, who can see the tracks from her backyard in Warrenville.

For Marty Moylan, Des Plaines mayor, the difference is measured in happier residents.

"We've noticed because residents are not calling and complaining" as much about freight trains, Moylan said.

Nearly a year after CN began shifting freight trains from its rail lines onto the EJ&E, a Daily Herald analysis shows mixed results for the suburbs.

After a slow start, train numbers are trending up along the EJ&E compared to before the merger _ and that will increase. On one major CN line, traffic is down. The number of delays lasting 10 minutes or more at crossings actually has dipped. But the length of trains has doubled.

CN's intent was to ease freight traffic on its tracks through a Chicago bottleneck by moving trains to the EJ&E, which runs in a semicircle between Waukegan and Gary, Ind

Towns along CN tracks backed the merger, eager to see some relief from blocked streets, noise and environmental concerns. Municipalities near the EJ&E opposed it, saying they didn't want the problem in their communities.

Before the merger, the underused EJ&E carried about three to 18 trains daily. CN plans to increase that by up to 24 trains. The company started moving freights to the EJ&E on March 11, 2009. But instead of a dramatic boost in trains on the EJ&E, change was slow in 2009 partly because CN is still improving the old railroad to handle extra capacity. The other factor is the recession, which caused the Freight Transportation Services Index, a measure of freight shipments, to decline by 12.4 percent in 2008 and 2009. But an upswing occurred in the last seven months of 2009, the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics reported.

That growth in train traffic was apparent in sections of EJ&E track between Mundelein and Aurora where freight volumes spiked in December and January compared to the dog days of spring 2009.

CN spokesman Patrick Waldron confirmed the railroad is seeing an uptick and anticipates a gradual recovery.

Right now, "we're in the midst of an artificial situation," said Aurora Mayor Tom Weisner, whose town led the merger fight along with Barrington. "The economy is such, the anticipated volume is less than what would be expected."

Here's a look at some changes in train traffic using March 2009 to January 2010 data CN provided to the U.S. Surface Transportation Board. Comparisons are based on average daily train numbers before the merger. The analysis showed:

• A 42 percent drop in freight trains on a CN line between Schiller Park and Mundelein.

• A 14 percent rise in trains on the EJ&E between Mundelein and Bartlett.

• A 6 percent uptick in freights on the EJ&E track from south Bartlett through Wayne to West Chicago, near Geneva Road.

• An 18 percent decrease in trains on the EJ&E from West Chicago through to Aurora, near Aurora Avenue.

That drop, however, tightens to just 5 percent from July through January, when the daily average number of trains, 11.4, topped the pre-merger number of 10.7. But while the growth in train traffic may be incremental, the length of trains is not. Previous trains on the EJ&E were 3,300 feet on average, now the range is 6,000 to 8,500. Most last year were around 6,000 feet, Waldron said.

"The number of trains is one thing. The length is another," Barrington Village Manager Jeff Lawler said.

CN has allocated $60 million to distribute to towns along the EJ&E for mitigation such as fencing, safety improvements and soundproofing for residents. Twenty-one municipalities have signed mitigation agreements, while 12 hold out. Some towns including Aurora and Barrington are suing to reverse the merger decision.

Funding Warrenville received from CN to reduce train noise is a sore point for Faith Rawley, who calls the system of determining which homes qualify for soundproofing grants haphazard. While train noise reverberates throughout her neighborhood, some households including the Rawleys aren't eligible for funding. Yet the noise and vibrations are inescapable, she said.

Delays of 10 minutes or more at crossings have decreased since the takeover, CN reports. In February 2009, blocked crossings of 10 minutes or more totaled 25. In April, that number was down to 14 and the monthly average is around 8.4. The railroad identified where chronic blockages occurred and made operational changes to minimize them such as introducing power switches so crew don't have to hand-throw switches, Waldron said.

"In a sense, communities are better off because of safety initiatives CN is doing that the EJ&E didn't have to do," University of Illinois at Chicago transportation expert Joseph DiJohn contends.

Some blockages have been significant, however. Those include: 76 minutes on March 31, 2009, in Naperville; 43 minutes on June 6 in West Chicago; 88 minutes on July 28 in Barrington Hills; 272 minutes on Oct. 3 in Matteson; 62 minutes on Oct. 21 in Bartlett; 95 minutes on Nov. 27 in Wayne; and 165 minutes on Dec. 4 in Bartlett. Out of 84 delays of 10 minutes or more from April 2009 to January, 38 percent were between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m.

"We haven't reached the full range of the negative impact," Weisner predicted, adding he's concerned about derailments. A fatal derailment occurred on CN lines in Rockford last June.

But for municipalities on CN lines like Des Plaines and Buffalo Grove, there's cautious optimism.

"It appears freight traffic is down and interference with surface traffic has been reduced," Buffalo Grove Trustee Jeff Berman said.

Too soon to tell, said DePaul University transportation expert Joseph Schwieterman. "I think the jury is out on CN's performance until we see traffic patterns during normal economic times."

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