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Amtrak Blue Ribbon Panel issues report

On Thursday, October 1, 2015, the Chicago Gateway Blue Ribbon Panel released a report containing recommendations to address rail congestion in the Chicago region.  These recommendations include operational and capital improvements aimed at both passenger and freight rail improvements.  Amtrak announced the establishment of the panel in October 2014.

More specifically, the panel's report calls for increased coordination of railroad operations in the region, including a joint dispatching center where multiple railroads work together in a single location.  While communication among the railroads has improved in recent years, the panel believes that real-time information is necessary to efficiently move trains through the region.  There are ten separate dispatching centers -- some located hundreds of miles away -- governing the movement of trains in the region, and any individual train movement may be subject to several different dispatchers over the course of its journey through metropolitan Chicago.

The report also identifies what it views as the highest-priority capital projects in our region.  These align with the Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency (CREATE) program, a collection of 70 projects aimed at improving rail operations in the region.  The 75th Street Corridor Improvement Project (CIP) is the panel's top priority -- with its passenger rail components identified as the highest priority of that program -- followed by improvements at Grand Crossing.  Finally, the report also recognizes the need for additional improvements in northwest Indiana, building on planned improvements as part of the Indiana Gateway project.

The report also calls for a long-term commitment of public funding for rail improvements in the Chicago region, noting that funding to date has come mainly from individual competitive awards or other one-time sources of federal or state funding.  It also calls for greater application of innovative financing approaches, namely the federal Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing (RRIF) credit enhancement program. 

Looking Ahead

GO TO 2040 supports a more efficient freight, commuter, and passenger rail network for the region.  It supports the implementation of the CREATE program and periodically monitors the program's progress.  The 75th Street CIP and Grand Crossing projects are key components of the CREATE program; the northwest Indiana improvements are not included in CREATE, lying outside the state of Illinois.

The panel's report goes beyond CREATE, calling for stronger, real-time coordination of rail operations.  While GO TO 2040 does not address the specific issue of joint dispatching, it supports greater coordination among transportation agencies and the more efficient use of existing infrastructure.  Further, the plan supports freight efficiency more broadly, in particular the use of operational improvements to reduce congestion and related concerns that joint dispatching might help mitigate. 

The panel also recommends sustained funding for freight improvements, a policy goal consistent with CMAP's established freight policy principles and the recommendations of the Regional Freight Leadership Task Force.  Recent legislation passed out of the U.S. Senate would establish a first-ever national freight funding program, including both formula and competitive funds.  While the overall emphasis of these funding streams would be on highway improvements, the Senate bill does allow for some funding to be used for other modes, like rail.

Lastly, the panel calls on the region to begin planning now for additional investments beyond CREATE to prepare for future growth.  Several stakeholders are currently engaged in an important related effort, the Terminal Planning Study and Service Development Plan, announced in April 2015 and funded by the Federal Railroad Administration.  This $7 million project has the potential to provide a thorough analysis of all freight and passenger operations today, as well as a review of all the rail plans affecting the Chicago region (e.g., CREATE, intercity passenger rail initiatives, shifts in freight rail traffic).  The terminal planning effort will also point toward potential next steps.

The recent attention paid to improving efficiency of the region's rail network, including both operational and capital improvements, is a good step in support of GO TO 2040's goals for improving the region's freight network and the efficient movement of people.  More needs to be done, however, to identify sources of both public and private funds to move improvements forward.  These funding sources should be more specific, and the public and private sectors' relative contributions should be commensurate with the benefits received.  Given the complexity of the region's rail system and the often shared benefits of rail improvements, this issue merits a regional conversation and a transparent assessment.  Such a conversation should be structured with a broadly-accepted set of performance measures to evaluate and prioritize improvements.