Train traffic along 16th Street to decrease, but timeline unclear
A freight to change
01/18/2012 10:00 PM
The Near South Side has changed a great deal over the past 15 years. Decaying housing and industrial sites gave way to condominiums, upscale stores and parks.
But one aspect of the area hasn’t changed — the St. Charles Air Line. Amtrak and freight trains continue to use it, much to the annoyance of the residents of the surrounding buildings. And while there are plans to move the traffic off the line, it will take at least two years for that to happen.
Most residents of Prairie Avenue Historic District and Central Station neighborhoods don’t know it by name, but they tend to be familiar with the railroad that runs on the embankment along 16th Street. The rail line connects the Canadian National Railway tracks along Lake Michigan to the BNSF Railway tracks that lead into Union Station.
It’s currently co-owned by three freight railroad companies — Canadian National Railway, BNSF Railway and Union Pacific Railroad. Three Amtrak trains — Illini, Saluki and City of New Orleans — use it to travel to and from Union Station six times a day. Canadian National uses it to move freight trains through Chicago. Patrick Waldon, Canadian National’s spokesman, estimated that the St. Charles Air Line has an average of four to five trains a day.
The presence of Amtrak and Canadian National trains has been the cause of contention for years. An informal survey of local residents indicates that the train noise affects people who live within a two-block radius, especially within the buildings located next to the Air Line. And the effects go beyond private buildings. Old St. Mary’s Catholic Church is located at the intersection of 15th Street and Michigan Avenue, less than a block north of the Air Line. Daystar School, a private elementary school, is located in a former industrial building near the intersection of 16th and State streets.
Neither Amtrak nor Canadian National are particularly happy with the current arrangement. In order to reach the Canadian National tracks, Amtrak trains have to ride south of Union Station, turn west along BNSF tracks and reverse direction, crossing the Chicago River and slowly traveling along the St. Charles Air Line. According to Amtrak, the process adds an extra 15 to 19 minutes to the trains’ travel time.
For Canadian National freight trains, the biggest issue is the size. Maneuvering trains that are usually over a hundred cars long is a complicated task in gridlocked city railroads, and the complex curves and inclines that connect St. Charles Air Line to Canadian National tracks only add to the complication.
The situation started to change in 2008, when Canadian National completed the acquisition the Elgin, Joliet and Eastern Railway, allowing it to bypass Chicago and move its trains through southern and western suburbs. However, it cannot move the trains off the St. Charles Air Line completely until it finishes traffic mitigation projects. As one of the conditions of the sale, the Surface Transportation Board ordered Canadian National to pay for the construction of two major overpasses at the crossings most affected by increased train traffic. Canadian National attempted to challenge the requirement and lost. As the result, the mitigation projects didn’t begin until last year.
According to Waldon, Canadian National has construction on the projects scheduled through 2013 — though not necessarily finished by then. He declined to comment on when the projects would actually be completed.
Meanwhile, Amtrak is trying to move its trains off the St. Charles Air Line as well. The Grand Crossing Rail project would build a new connection at the currently grade-separated intersection between Norfolk Southern Railroad and Canadian National tracks. This would allow Amtrak to reroute Illini, Saluki and the City of New Orleans along the Norfolk Southern mainline currently used by most of its eastbound trains. The trains would move south and turn southeast along Chicago Skyway until they reach the Canadian National tracks. The reroute would shave an estimated 10 to 15 minutes off the travel time.
But the relocation is not without downsides. Right now, the Norfolk Southern tracks along the Skyway host 14 Amtrak trains and 46 Norfolk Southern freight trains. The reroute would bring that number of Amtrak trains up to 20. As the project fact sheet acknowledges, it would lead to greater passenger and freight congestion.
The Grand Crossing Rail project is currently in the construction planning stages. The construction isn’t scheduled to begin until 2013 at the earliest.
Once Amtrak and Canadian National move the trains off St. Charles Air Line, the railroad may find a new lease on life. The 2009 Central Area Action Plan calls for it to be converted into a “recreational trail connecting to the lakefront.”
But before the city implements anything, it would need to get permission from all of St. Charles Air Line owners. Amy McBeth, BNSF Director of Public Relations for Midwestern states, indicated that the company has no intention of discontinuing its operations on the Air Line. At this time, it rarely uses the segment east of Chicago River, but it still reserves a right to use it in the future. McBeth did say that the company might re-evaluate its options once the Grand Crossing project is completed.