Rail line relocation boosts O’Hare Airport expansion

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More than a half mile of back-to-back retaining walls were necessary to create the embankment.

When one of the world’s busiest airports expands, an existing UP rail line picks up and moves south

Rail and aviation continue to play major roles in Chicago’s economy. The modernization of O’Hare International Airport (ORD), one of the busiest airports in the world, is currently one of the largest transportation construction projects in the nation.

The O’Hare Modernization Program (OMP) is a multi-billion-dollar program that reconfigures O’Hare’s intersecting runways into a modern, parallel configuration to increase the airport’s efficiency and capacity well into the future.

“The objective of the expansion project is to realign ORD runways into a configuration that will decrease delays and increase capacity,” said Khaled Naja, chief operating officer for the Chicago Department of Aviation. “When complete, we envision six parallel runways in an east-west direction along with two crosswind runways. We will build four new runways and extend two while decommissioning two current runways. The $103-million dollar relocation of an existing Union Pacific (UP) rail line is an enabling project in order to extend runways and build new ones for the southern portion of the OMP.”

The UP rail line, as well as Irving Park Road, which is a state highway, and the Bensenville Ditch are all being moved south of the current alignment to make way for a new runway.

Union Pacific predecessor Chicago and North Western Railway built the line, dubbed the “New Line,” in 1910 through what would become O’Hare International Airport. The original line had to be moved when O’Hare airport was expanded in the 1950s. To accommodate construction phasing for new runways built under the OMP, the railroad had to be moved twice.

Martin Ross, P.E., TranSystems, Thomas Pavlick, P.E., Parsons Brinckerhoff and Christopher Arman, who at the time was with the OMP, provided details on the old and new alignments in a paper presented at the 2007 AREMA Annual Conference and Expositon. The existing Union Pacific two-track, freight-only line, which ends at Proviso Yard, crosses over Green Street on a 60-foot, three-span deck-plate-girder bridge, crosses Canadian Pacific’s Bensenville yard on an 89-foot through-plate-girder bridge and a 131-foot riveted through truss bridge. Next, the line crosses Metra’s Milwaukee West line on a 76-foot through-plate girder bridge before crossing Irving Park Road on a two-span, 145-foot through-plate-girder bridge.

The line curves westward, crossing Division Street at grade at an unsignalized crossing and then curves northward along the western perimeter of the O’Hare airport. Two Canadian Pacific tracks from B-17 Junction in Bensenville join the Union Pacific line at CP Bryn Mawr. The current UP line curves eastward around the northwest corner of the airport and continues north and northwest towards Deval Junction in Des Plaines and, ultimately, into Wisconsin.

The existing UP bridges are being replaced with new structures. New bridges include a 156-foot steel, three-span, open-deck temporary bridge over Green Street in Franklin Park (for a shoofly during the construction of the permanent bridge); a 77-foot, single-span, deck-plate-girder permanent bridge over Green Street; a two-span, through-plate-girder bridge over Canadian Pacific’s Bensenville Yard, with spans of 82 feet and 128 feet; a 107-foot, single-span, through-plate-girder bridge over Metra’s Milwaukee West line and a 158-foot long, two-span deck-plate-girder bridge over Irving Park Road.

The new alignment is approximately 2.5 miles long.

“The biggest challenge in the realignment portion of the OMP was acquisition and demolition of the properties needed to relocate the railroad,” Naja said. “There were numerous legal challenges, which forced us to carry out an interim rail relocation. That allowed us to continue with some of the critical projects and reduced the impact of the legal issues on the schedule. During this time, design work and coordination continued with UP for the ultimate project.”

Naja continued: “The major design challenge was to fit the railroad, a state highway and a major drainage ditch into a very narrow corridor bordered by Metra and CP tracks to the south and a new runway to the north. Due to these restrictions, the railroad has to be constructed on an embankment. There was not enough width for traditional slopes for a good portion of the railroad embankment.”

More than a half mile of back-to-back retaining walls were necessary to create the embankment next to the CP Yard and Metra tracks to the South and the new Irving Park Road to the North.

UP selected The T-WALL® Retaining Wall System as the optimal solution for the wall construction. The selection of T-WALL was based not only on cost, but also the expected speed of installation and long term durability of the heavy-duty precast concrete T-WALL system. 

The railroad contracted The Neel Company of Springfield, Va., to design and provide three large T-WALL retaining walls totaling more than 5,250 linear feet. The structures are designed for railroad freight loads and wall heights ranging from 15 feet up to 30 feet. A heavy cut stone architectural formed finish is incorporated into the precast T-WALL units. Dukane Precast,  Aurora, Ill., produced the precast units for The Neel Company.

Wet weather early on made it difficult to get the embankment in place.

“T-WALL was fabricated and delivered to site on the schedule as promised, so it worked out quite well,” Naja said. “The units came in on flatbed. The contractor unloaded the large precast units and positioned them directly into place.”

Dukane Precast worked six days a week to meet the delivery requirements for the accelerated construction schedule.
Many companies have been involved in the UP relocation project. BPC Partners and TranSystems/TSD Rail Specialists handled the design.

Construction work involved several contract packages. Paschen/S.M Nielson constructed the northern section of the railroad relocation. McHugh Construction is completing the construction of the southern embankment, a temporary railroad bridge and a 30-foot high T-WALL approach to the new permanent UP bridge over Franklin Avenue. Concurrently, Walsh/TJ Lambert, J.V., is constructing the middle section of the project. This work includes the major part of the T-WALL retaining wall construction for the railroad embankment between the new Irving Park Road and the existing CP Rail Yard, involving not only the new UP realignment but also relocating Irving Park Road, a major East-West roadway and the Bensenville Ditch, a major drainage source for the area.

DMJM Aviation Partners is the program manager and PB America is the construction manager for OMP.

UP expects the cutover to the new railroad alignment to be completed in early May 2012.

“It is noteworthy that the project is now three to four months ahead of schedule,” Naja said.

Once the UP relocation is completed, critical components of the Runway 10C/28C can be constructed. The railroad relocation will also allow for the completion of the Irving Park Road and Bensenville Ditch relocations, both enabling projects for the construction of Runway 10R/28L.

O’Hare is ranked the second busiest airport in the world. With the modernization and runway realignment increasing capacity, O’Hare hopes to reclaim its title of world’s busiest airport.

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