Freight Intro


As the nation's freight hub, metropolitan Chicago has significant economic opportunities and responsibilities. Simply put, our region is the preeminent freight hub in North America. A quarter of all freight in the nation originates, terminates, or passes through metropolitan Chicago, which is home to six of the seven Class I railroads, seven interstate highways, one of the world's busiest airports, and the only connection between the Great Lakes and Mississippi River systems.

Regional Strategic Freight Direction. This report provides near term direction for CMAP and key partners in its freight planning, policy, and programming work. The CMAP Freight Committee and other working committees helped develop the Regional Strategic Freight Direction, which was presented to the CMAP Board and MPO Policy Committee in January 2018. The document is supported by the ON TO 2050 Freight Snapshot, which reviews data and trends in the region’s goods movement system.

Regional Freight Leadership Task Force. CMAP convened a regional task force to explore institutional and funding barriers affecting the freight system in northeastern Illinois. The Regional Freight Leadership Task Force met from October 2013 through May 2014 before presenting a final report to the CMAP Board in June 2014. 

Freight Cluster Reports.  This infrastructure and volume of goods movement supports many jobs in the region, not only in transportation-related industries, but also in other industries such as manufacturing that directly rely on goods movement. Together, the larger freight cluster accounts for one in four jobs in the region.  Released in July 2012, CMAP's Freight Cluster Drill-Down report identifies key infrastructure, workforce, and innovation challenges and opportunities influencing future cluster growth and concludes with a set of regional strategies to better align resources and investments with the needs of the freight cluster.  In August 2013, CMAP published a follow-up report on the Freight-Manufacturing Nexus that examines how, due to the size and strength of metropolitan Chicago's freight cluster, the region is uniquely positioned to capitalize on the recent resurgence in U.S. manufacturing.

Freight Data and Resources.   CMAP maintains a collection of multimodal freight data and analysis for northeastern Illinois, including metrics of performance, volume, facility inventory, and more.

Freight Resources

GO TO 2040. The comprehensive plan's Regional Mobility chapter recommends that the region should create a more efficient freight system.  

Community Railroad Resources. CMAP has collected useful information about the rail system in our communities, including issues of local safety and maintenance.

Visualizations Explore the Metropolitan Chicago Transportation Network. Interactive mobility visualizations allow users to explore data on metropolitan Chicago's transportation system, including road, transit, and freight networks, which drive our regional economy. 

More about Freight

Freight has long been central to the development of metropolitan Chicago. Businesses have long utilized the region's transportation infrastructure as an economic advantage, first capitalizing on the region's geographic position at the nexus of the Great Lakes and Mississippi River systems, then its unmatched connections between eastern and western railroads, and more recently its extensive highway network and global air connections.

Today the region is the preeminent transportation and logistics hub in North America. A quarter of all freight in the nation originates, terminates, or passes through metropolitan Chicago. The region's concentration in intermodal moves—i.e., freight shipped in a standardized container easily transferred between modes—is even more striking. About half of all intermodal movements in the country touch the Chicago metropolitan area. Indeed, metropolitan Chicago's intermodal facilities vie with Los Angeles as the largest container handler in the entire Western Hemisphere.

Metropolitan Chicago's impressive transportation performance helps to drive the regional economy. The freight industry directly employs truckers, rail workers, terminal workers, logistics providers, and others. Together, these interrelated industries account for 200,000 jobs and provide over $13 billion in personal income for the residents of northeastern Illinois. A greater proportion of metropolitan Chicago's employment falls in these freight industries compared to the national rate, and this specialization has grown over the past decade.

Freight supports jobs not only in transportation and logistics but also in freight-dependent industries such as manufacturing and wholesale trade. Indeed, one-quarter of all jobs in the regional economy are in industries directly tied to freight. These freight-dependent industries add over $115 billion to the regional economy each year.

The region must address serious funding and governance issues if it is to maintain the vitality of its freight system. The Chicago area is routinely listed as having some of the worst highway congestion in the nation, costing billions of dollars annually in terms of wasted time and fuel. Furthermore, the region's rail system is beset by congestion, with numerous heavily-used freight lines crossing each other at grade and being used for commuter and intercity passenger services. Significant investments will be needed to bring the freight system to a state of good repair, as well as expand capacity to meet current and future demand. However, traditional revenue sources to support public investments in transportation have failed to keep pace with needs.

Northeastern Illinois contains seven counties, 284 municipalities, and 123 townships. Those general purpose units of government, along with the state, have jurisdiction over the highway network. Through that authority, they regulate truck routes, parking, and delivery restrictions, determine size and weight restrictions, and impose fees. Further, they zone to control and regulate land uses. While these decisions may reflect local preferences, they do not always aggregate to a coherent whole, and the multiplicity of local regulations imposes a burden on the freight system.

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Freight Updates

October 1, 2015

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.