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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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