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

January 21, 2016

Proposed railroad merger would have unknown but significant impacts on the region
In recent months, the Canadian Pacific Railway (CP) has expressed interest in purchasing the Norfolk Southern Railway (NS), which the NS has opposed.  CP argues that the combined company would improve efficiency and reduce congestion, particularly for the Chicago region.  However, these claims are difficult to assess without detailed information on the specifics of a merger.  Further, a merger could raise other concerns related to the economic position of the Chicago region, the completion of the CREATE program, and safety.  
The proposal has generated interest from a variety of stakeholders.  The Surface Transportation Board (STB), the federal oversight agency with the power to approve railroad mergers, has compiled recent publicly-available correspondence on the proposed merger, including letters from the Illinois Congressional delegation.  If successful, the merger would be the first combination of two Class I railroads in North America in over 15 years.  


CP is a transcontinental railroad, spanning Canada from east to west, with a significant presence in the upper Mississippi River valley.  NS is one of two railroads dominant in the eastern half of the U.S.  Both CP and NS have a presence in the Chicago area: CP facilities extend north and west from the O'Hare area, while NS facilities extend to the southeast from the south side of Chicago.  NS and CP facilities do not directly intersect in the region, although they are connected by the region's two belt railroads, the Indiana Harbor Belt (IHB) and the Belt Railway of Chicago (BRC), which are located in a northwest-southeast arc across the core of the Chicago Terminal area.  Belt railroads tie together the various lines of the Class I railroads, allowing trains to switch from one railroad to another.  The IHB and BRC are jointly owned by Class I railroads, including CP and NS, and as such both CP and NS currently have rights to traverse tracks through Chicago.
CP has stated that a merger would have numerous benefits, namely to increase capacity through more efficient routing decisions and use of equipment.  In particular, CP asserts that the merger is an opportunity to reduce rail congestion in the Chicago area.  NS, however, refutes those claims and argues a merger would increase rail traffic in Chicago.  According to this white paper from CP, a merger would allow greater use of the region's two belt railroads, bypassing congested yards in the city; it would also allow the combined companies to build trains outside of the Chicago area and to reroute trains by using facilities in Canada and other U.S. cities like Kansas City, St. Louis, and Buffalo.

Potential impacts on the Chicago region

These potential benefits are difficult to analyze without access to detailed information on the proposed merger, for example the changes in freight flows and use of facilities.  CP has not made detailed data available, and existing publicly-reported performance data on the Class I railroads are insufficient to analyze the proposed merger.  CMAP has long called for improved access to data, including rail data, in order to support the planning activities of both CMAP and the region's transportation implementers. 
Nevertheless, any proposal that would significantly reduce rail operations in the Chicago area is likely to have negative implications for the region.  Today, Chicago is the premier railroad hub in North America, home to six of the seven Class I railroads and serving as the main interchange between eastern and western railroads, and is particularly dominant in the fast-growing intermodal sector.  This unsurpassed level of connectivity and reach provides a significant economic advantage to the region, including many options for our region's firms to ship goods quickly and economically.  Reducing this level of rail dominance would decrease the economic benefits of the dense rail network in the region, while also decreasing the competitive advantage provided by the region's confluence of freight and manufacturing activities.
These potential economic impacts do not consider the substantial direct employment by the freight industry in the Chicago area.  According to CMAP staff analysis of Economic Modeling Specialists International (EMSI) data, the broader freight cluster -- of which the rail industry is a key component -- employed some 183,000 people in 2015.  It is unclear how a merger might reduce freight employment in the region.
Further, it is concerning that the proposed merger may affect the completion of the CREATE program, a long-term partnership between freight railroads and federal, state, and local agencies.  CMAP and GO TO 2040 strongly support the completion of the CREATE program, and the enactment of the Fixing America's Surface Transportation (FAST) Act in December 2015 provides an opportunity to capitalize on new federal funding sources to advance the completion of the program.  Both NS and CP are members of the CREATE public-private partnership.  NS is the lead entity for a number of projects, including high-profile efforts like the Englewood Flyover (nearly completed with Phase 3 construction) and grade separation at 130th Street and Torrence Avenue (completed in July 2015), both in Chicago; all of NS's projects have proceeded to some extent.  In contrast, CP is the co-lead for three CREATE projects, none of which had proceeded as of December 2015.  Additionally, CP is no longer actively participating in the Chicago Transportation Coordination Office (CTCO), a related effort to coordinate railroad operations in the region through more efficient use of existing infrastructure, having withdrawn its representative from CTCO last year.  To be most effective, CTCO requires full participation from all railroads operating in the region. 
Finally, a concern is how a potential merger might affect rail safety.  While the merger of any two large railroads could potentially raise safety concerns, the history and culture of both railroads in question could warrant attention.  According to recent articles, the Federal Railroad Administration, the rail safety regulator, intends to research the potential safety issues raised by the merger, including the challenges of reconciling two companies' operating systems and safety cultures.

Looking ahead

GO TO 2040 called for CMAP and its partners to develop a regional voice on freight issues that is in line with our national role as the freight hub of the nation.  GO TO 2040 also projects that the volume of freight moving through the area will rise 62 percent over 2007 levels by 2040, meaning both additional capacity and operational efficiencies will be needed to accommodate this growth.  Any merger that would reduce the Chicago region's rail dominance or dilute attention to CREATE would be concerning to the long-term competitive position of the region.  CMAP believes the region is best served by the industry strengthening their commitment to CREATE to grow infrastructure capacity, and by increasing industry cooperation through efforts like the CTCO and consolidated dispatching to better utilize existing infrastructure.  While no formal proceeding related to the merger is currently before the STB, the region should be ready to explore the consequences of any formal merger.  CMAP will monitor the proposed acquisition closely, given its potential impacts on the regional economy, CREATE, and safety.