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Freight Rail Bypass Project Opens in Chicago

One of the worst rail bottlenecks in Chicago
A new flyover is part of an $81-million project to add a 3.5 mi long third rail line to improve travel times at one of the worst rail bottlenecks in Chicago. Full operations began last week. Bondurant T. French

Part of an extensive program to improve rail service in the Midwest, an $81-million rail project that added a third line to one of the worst bottlenecks in Chicago’s congested rail system opened last week.

October 1, 2013—Chicago is the unofficial rail capital of the United States; in a typical day 1,300 trains—800 passenger and 500 freight—pass through the region, jostling for track time in one of the nation’s largest and most dense cities. However, being the nexus of rail comes with a cost: trains that can travel from Los Angeles to Chicago in 48 hours spend an average of 30 hours just crossing Chicagoland. Improving travel times for both passenger and freight rail is therefore a high priority for the city and is being addressed by the Chicago Regional Environmental and Transportation Efficiency Program (CREATE), an initiative begun in 2003. A combined effort of the Chicago Department of Transportation, the Illinois Department of Transportation, the U.S. Department of Transportation, and the Washington, D.C.-based Association of American Railroads, CREATE encompasses 70 projects that will cost a projected total of $3.8 billion. Last week, one of those projects began operation—an $81-million scheme that added a 3.5 mi long third rail line to one of the worst bottlenecks in the system, enabling freight trains to pass unhindered.

“Untangling Chicago’s rail infrastructure is absolutely crucial to improving the flow of rail traffic through the Chicago area,” says Joseph E. Shacter, the director of the division of public and intermodal transportation for the Illinois Department of Transportation, who oversees the CREATE program for his agency. “It keeps Chicago and Illinois—and frankly the nation—competitive.

“The faster we get goods through Chicago, the faster they get to where they need to be, both in the United States and around the world, so in terms of economic impact it’s immeasurable,” Shacter says. According to information from the CREATE program, a full 25 percent of all U.S. rail freight passes through Chicago at some point on its journey.

With so many projects in process, it is only natural that a shorthand would develop to refer to and track them. The current project, one of the 70 included in CREATE, is known as “B2,” explains Jeffrey Sriver, the CREATE program manager for the Chicago Department of Transportation. The B stands for Beltway and is one of 4 major CREATE corridors through Chicago and along which most of the projects are located. For the B2 project, a 3.5 mi main line capable of handling heavy-haul freight was built along the Union Pacific’s right-of-way extending from near 25th Avenue, in the city’s Melrose Park sector, west to the west end of the Proviso Yard, passing under interstates 290 and 294 in the process. The new line enables freight trains to operate during the morning and evening commutes for the first time, according to Sriver. Previously, freight trains were prohibited from operating during the three-hour morning and evening rush-hour time frames.

“Freight and passenger railroads in Chicago operate 24 hours per day, 365 days per year,” said William C. Thompson, P.E., M.ASCE, and the CREATE program manager for the Association of American Railroads, in written responses to questions posed by Civil Engineering online.

“Railroad construction in the Chicago railroad terminal is more like that of a doctor than that of a mechanic,” Thompson said. “The mechanic has the luxury of being able to shut off the engine while doing repair work. The doctor on the other hand must keep everything running while doing surgery.” Such is the case in Chicago, where improvements to the rail system must be fit into a tight schedule that already sees tremendous delays due to the weight of its rail traffic.

For the B2 project, the team added a new flyover over the main Union Pacific line and two new bridges over the nearby Addison Creek. The project also included the reconstruction of two passenger stations and, for safety and access purposes, added bored-tunnel pedestrian underpasses under live freight lines at each station. Ancillary—but by no means inconsequential—tasks included burying two major power lines that crossed the lengthy construction site, enlarging and deepening a major retention basin and creating a new drainage waterway, and building a new lift station and four new railroad interlockers to allow train movement between tracks and to other railroads. A new signal system was also added to the entire length of the project to control train movements.

A total of 119 trains—59 local commuter trains and 60 freight trains—will see improved reliability under the new system. To minimize disruptions during construction, work was scheduled around the passenger and freight rail operations. In some cases work was conducted off-site and the resulting elements were then brought to the lines for erection. “One example was the setting of the girders of the main span over the Union Pacific [for the flyover],” said Thompson. “The girder assembly occurred off site, girders were loaded on rail flat cars, the flat cars were pulled by train to the future bridge location, and in a single evening, all girders were lifted into position and tied together. In another example, two miles of new concrete tie track was constructed in four days using the latest track construction technology.”

With the completion of the B2 project, more than 25 percent of the CREATE projects are now complete, Shacter says. While 19 of the 70 projects are finished, approximately 29 others are in design or construction. “Within the next two [to] three years we’re going to be half way done [numerically]—however, from a dollar perspective we will only be about one-third done,” Shacter notes.

Federal funding is being sought for the final two major initiatives that form the bulk of the remaining work in the CREATE program, and which each contain multiple smaller projects, according to Shacter.

The first initiative is the approximately $1-billion 75th Street Corridor Improvement project that would “untangle the single largest bottleneck in the Chicago land area in one of the most congested sets of intersections in the country,” says Shacter. The work will untangle multiple freight railroads which share tracks, as well two lines of commuter rail and Amtrak service that pass through the city. “[It] would be just an enormous, enormous benefit to freight railroading in the nation,” he says.

The second initiative that is still seeking funding is the $1.2-billion package of 18 grade separations that would eliminate crossings with roadways. These separations would decrease motorist and freight delays and improve safety by permanently separating cars and people from trains, Shacter says.

While it is difficult to predict an end date for the CREATE program considering that almost two-thirds of the funding has not yet been found, theoretically it could be completed by 2020, Shacter says. “Our hope is that by demonstrating the benefits of what we’ve already built, we can get the folks, particularly out in Washington, excited about providing the remaining two-thirds of the funding over the next several years, so we can finish the job.”



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