Few routines are more loathed than the daily commute.
Whether you are stuck in traffic or packed onto a crowded subway, delays, stress and frustration can quickly mount. Yet while millions around the country trade tales of commuting woes, a different story is being written in Chicago.
In the Windy City, the nation’s second-busiest commuter rail system carries 300,000 riders each weekday. Despite navigating the most complex and congested rail terminal in North America, Chicago’s Metra rail system has become a model of prompt and efficient service, boasting an on-time performance of more than 95% for 12 consecutive months.
That’s thanks in no small part to freight rail.
“The efficiency and effectiveness of freight rail transport in the Chicago region is critical to the economic development of Chicago,” said Jeffrey Sriver, director of transportation planning and programming for Chicago’s Department of Transportation. “Likewise, the efficient and effective delivery of commuters to and from the city every day is also extremely important for the economic vitality of our city. Freight and passenger rail have a shared interest in making sure all entities can come to mutually acceptable solutions to any issues.”
Every weekday, Metra makes more than 700 trips across the Chicago Switching District’s 980-mile rail network, the majority of which is owned by freight rail. In addition to Metra’s traffic, the network hosts an additional 500 freight trains and dozens of Amtrak trains each day. In the face of so much traffic, freight railroads execute a well-choreographed dance to keep trains running on time.
“We have an excellent relationship with our freight partners,” said Metra Executive Director and CEO, Don Orseno. “If we didn’t have these relationships, we wouldn’t be able to run our commuter system as well as it runs today.”
Collaboration Across Chicago
In 1999, a major blizzard shut down Chicago and caused disruptions in all rail service. In the wake of this storm, a consortium of freight, commuter and passenger railroads operating in the city established the Chicago Planning Group (CPG). Shortly thereafter, the CPG created the Chicago Transportation Coordination Office, or CTCO. Through the CTCO, railroads are working more closely to identify critical factors impacting rail operations within the Chicago region.
More recently, the CPG created a second organization, the Chicago Integrated Rail Operations Center, or C-IROC. C-IROC has direct connections to each rail carrier, and track views allow employees to monitor conditions around the clock, share real-time updates and take proactive steps to ensure that trains traversing the city’s rail network run as safely and smoothly as possible.
CTCO and C-IROC ensure that if, for instance, a blizzard threatens to cripple the city, pre-established action plans are used to safely and efficiently manage the anticipated volume of inbound rail traffic — based upon rail yard capacity — and prioritize the trains that do continue to run. The goal of this planning is to ensure that even if freight and commuter rail service slows in a snowstorm, it doesn’t stop.
“The number one thing CTCO and C-IROC allow us to do is openly communicate so that rail traffic issues will be quickly pinpointed and addressed through a detailed monitoring process,” – Don Orseno
“The global proactive approach to managing our network that the industry is taking now has really changed the reality of what’s possible.”
Even minor delays due to a passenger in need of medical attention or a faulty signal can be an opportunity to improve. Instead of holding up rail traffic across the network while an issue is resolved — as has often occurred in decades past — today C-IROC facilitates communication among railroads and coordinates potential alternate routes to keep trains moving.
Finally, freight, commuter and passenger railroads are also working together to untangle the web of railroad tracks that crisscross the city. Together with local, state and federal officials, railroads launched the Chicago Regional Environmental Transportation and Efficiency Program, known as CREATE, in 2003. With 70 projects planned and 25 already completed, this multi-billion dollar, public-private partnership is improving grade crossings, replacing aging infrastructure, improving connectivity and eliminating intersecting rail lines. When all CREATE projects are complete, freight rail delays are projected to be reduced by 50% and passenger rail delays by 75%.
Near 63rd Street and Wentworth Avenue on Chicago’s South Side, Metra commuters are flying high thanks to CREATE. In the fall of 2014, a new overpass dubbed the “Englewood Flyover” replaced two intersecting tracks — one that carried Metra passengers into downtown and out to the suburbs and one that carried Norfolk Southern Railway (NS) freight trains and Amtrak passenger trains east and west across the city. Formerly the site of one of the most congested rail intersections in the United States, today the new overpass carries Metra trains over NS tracks, allowing more than 130 trains each day to travel — without pause — in and around Chicago.
To Orseno, these types of improvements are a result of the collaborative spirit that is helping make the Chicago rail network more efficient every day. “Communication drives everything. You can have all the technology in the world, and without good relationships and open communications, everything would start to fail. But when you’re working together and can witness 1,300 trains moving smoothly through Chicago throughout the day, it’s an amazing thing to see.”