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Canadian National Operations on the EJ&E - Past, Present, Future

Post Date:09/21/2016

 Click here for a printable copy of this article.

  For an update on the Lake Zurich Road realignment and Route 14/ CN grade separation, click here

“Today before 8 am, I encountered a CN train just standing without movement, blocking (the) crossing…. There is a definite unpleasant odor emanating from the train. Train was there for over 15 minutes.  I had to drive around and when I drove around (6 miles out of my way and 20 minutes of my life later) I saw the train from the Lake Cook Rd., Barrington crossing -- still standing with headlights on. I was prevented from traveling along my route, along with an emergency vehicle and many other cars. This is UNACCEPTABLE and dangerous. People’s lives, time, jobs are at stake while CN is just running a business.  

Reasonable solution: Pay for overpass/ underpass out of profits. These repeated delays and violations are dangerous, infringe on people's lives and cannot be tolerated.”

This complaint about Canadian National (“CN”) operations was registered with federal regulators and the Village in July and it speaks eloquently to a frustration we all share – the negative regional traffic impact of CN’s freight operations on the former EJ&E rail line. 

Brief History:  Since 2008, the Village has been working to secure funding for a grade separation at Northwest Highway from both CN and the federal government.  The latter efforts are based on the reality that it was a 2008 federal action that is creating a problem on a federal highway of regional significance that runs through the Village, so there should be some federal role in remedying it if federal regulators will not require the railroad to do so. 

While CN commenced operations on the line in March 2009, its train volumes have not ramped up as quickly as CN had projected in its application – 21 trains per day within three years.  A year-by-year chart of average daily train counts details that reality:

YEAR

AVG. # OF TRAINS THROUGH BARRINGTON

2009

6.4

2010

8.5

2011

7.9

2012

13.9

2013

16.5

2014

17.6

2015

19.6

YTD 2016

17.5

 

The number of daily trains, however, doesn’t fully reflect the impact of CN’s operations on Barrington and the region, as additional CN operational factors create vehicular gridlock in the Village of Barrington as well. 

In its initial application, CN projected that the average length of the trains running on the EJ&E would be 6,800 feet.  This has not proven to be the case.  The most recent data that Barrington has collected shows that the average length of CN’s trains has been 7,800 feet long, with 72% being longer than 6,800 feet in length and a full 17% being longer than 10,000 feet in length (just under 2 miles.)  CN’s traffic has also been operating at a much slower speed than the railroad had anticipated.  Rather than the projected 39 mph, 100% of CN’s trains are operating at the markedly slower speed of just 28 mph.  In a nutshell, while the number of trains running through the Village are fewer than had been expected, they are considerably slower and longer than expected.  This results in unacceptable levels of traffic congestion in the Village stemming from the nearly 57,000 vehicles that cross the EJ&E at our four affected roadways daily.

Current Situation:  The Surface Transportation Board (STB) is the federal regulatory agency that approved CN’s purchase of the EJ&E rail line.  The STB has maintained a period of oversight to monitor the impacts of this transaction that has enabled the Village to seek additional mitigation from CN.  It was Barrington’s efforts that resulted in an extension of the oversight period based on the fact that CN had falsified in its favor data relative to incidents of blocked crossings in its monthly operations reports to the Board.  That being said, however, absent some unforeseen and unlikely event, on January 23, 2017 the STB oversight of CN’s acquisition of the EJ&E ends. 

The reality that Barrington never settled for a meaningless offer of token mitigation from CN and has continued to petition the STB for a grade separation during the STB oversight period has kept CN on its “best behavior” while operating through the Village.  The following chart, which is based on CN’s monthly reports to the STB, details the number of grade crossing blockages lasting longer than ten minutes on the segment of the EJ&E line that cuts through downtown Barrington.  That data underscores the scope of the eventual regional congestion in the post-oversight future.  The lengthy blockages already occurring to either side of Barrington’s crossings suggest that CN has purposefully avoided stopping trains on the 5,918-feet span that encompasses all four Barrington crossings during the present STB oversight period to avoid the possibility that the STB would require the railroad to finance additional grade separation mitigation on the EJ&E.   Once the STB oversight period ends, our Village will no longer be exempt from the significant intersection blockages that other nearby intersections outside the Village have experienced since 2009 as shown in the chart below.

Darch Table 2

Reinforcing the Village’s belief that CN has attempted to minimize the congestion impact on the four (4) Barrington intersections during the STB oversight period is the anecdotal incident of our police department receiving a call from a Wisconsin police department in a town plagued by frequent CN stoppages on the rail line running through it.  A public safety official there had learned from a CN crew member that CN tells crews to avoid stoppages in Barrington to the greatest extent possible.  This town’s public safety leaders had called our police department wanting to know how Barrington had merited that preferential treatment.

Future Expected CN Operations:  But what can residents of Barrington and the region expect after the STB oversight period ends?  What better guidance than what CN itself says.  To that end, the Village has closely followed and noted CN’s own words when it comes to speculating about what the post-oversight timeframe might portend.  During the Phase 1 environmental impact study for the grade separation at Northwest Highway, CN demanded that the future rail bridge be built to accommodate a second rail line.  Since CN’s right of way through the Village is 100 feet wide (125 feet in certain areas) two or more tracks can already easily be accommodated next to the current rail line and CN would not be required to seek regulatory permission to build them. 

The potential for a second rail line recognizes the reality that the EJ&E is the only Class I Chicago rail bypass line and constitutes a major marketing and operational asset that CN exploits to the fullest.  In its Q2 2016 earning conference call on July 25, 2016 with investors and the media, CN’s senior management discussed a number of issues that impacted its freight traffic in 2016.  CN believes that it is currently at the bottom of the business trough and its freight traffic will rebound in 2017:

  • “Our goal is always to minimize train starts and move cars as fast as we can.We've been incrementally increasing the size of our grain trains, in line with our capital investment in new locomotives. … We have about CAD 300 million to CAD 400 million [$1 USD currently equals approximately 1.29895 Canadian Dollars (“CAD”)] slated for new locomotives, the 90 new GE locomotives. … from 5:00 in the morning on, we're looking at every opportunity we can to increase both length and both the train weight. … With our capital purchase of new locomotives, it just makes it all the easier.”

  • “Our network is built to meet and pass trains that are 12,000 feet and longer, and our grades in all locations are in line with allowing us to do this safely and reliably. … With our new AC locomotives, we're able to increase the amount of tonnage pulled with the same set of locomotives.”

  • “We have a diversified market portfolio that benefit(s) from an array of economic drivers, an array wide choice of customers. We're connecting the North American consumer in service-sensitive industries to the world via our 3-post network pivoting around our Chicago EJ&E Advantage.

  • “So when you look at [the Port of Prince] Rupert … the expansion is really coming on stream in July, roughly July 2017. … (W)e are the railroad that serves three coasts, right? People want to go East Coast we're going to operate in Halifax to the Midwest. You want to go Gulf Coast via Panama Canal we're going to get you Mobile to the Midwest. You want to stay in the West Coast, we'll get you to Midwest with the West Coast.”

In regards to the last point, CN is the only railroad that serves the Port of Prince Rupert, which is located on the Canadian west coast and is the closest port in North America to China. Port experts[1] are projecting very robust growth for Asian products traveling throughout the U.S. right through Barrington on the EJ&E that CN originates at Prince Rupert:

 “Prince Rupert is progressing smoothly with the first of two projects to expand its Fairview Container Terminal. The project at the north end of the terminal is scheduled for completion in the third quarter of 2017, or possibly a month or so earlier than that, Schumacher said. The north expansion will increase the port’s annual capacity to 1.3 million TEUs from the current 850,000 TEUs. A possible expansion of the terminal to the south is being studied, and if the project moves forward, it will give Prince Rupert a total capacity of about 2.4 million TEUs.”2

  The net result of all of CN’s ambitious business plans (and CN’s careful manipulation of its present operations) will be ever-worsening freight train-induced traffic gridlock in the Village which can be expected to reach nightmare proportions in the years ahead until the Northwest Highway grade separation is built. 

 



[1]      “Pacific Northwest ports prep for alliance-operated mega-ships” July 30, 2016 by Bill Mongelluzzo, Senior Editor, www.IHSMarkit.com.

2      A “TEU” is a twenty (20) foot equivalent unit and is an internationally accepted measurement of container ship capacity.  International shipping containers come in standardized twenty (20) foot or forty (40) foot lengths.   

 

 

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