A new railroad overpass in Chicago is helping untangle the worst choke point in the nation's rail network, speeding up passenger service and freight trains hauling everything from crude oil to electronics, officials said Thursday.
About 140 freight and passenger trains previously had to squeeze through the South Side bottleneck each day at a ground-level crossing, causing severe delays and filling nearby neighborhoods with exhaust from idling locomotives. The $140 million Englewood Flyover has untied that knot, carrying dozens of Metra commuter trains over top of another set of tracks used by Amtrak passenger service and Norfolk Southern freight trains.
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"This point right here was the largest congestion point for Amtrak traffic in the country," Amtrak board member Tom Carper said at a dedication ceremony Thursday, as trains blazed past unimpeded.
Chicago's rail congestion has threatened the city's once-vaunted reputation as the country's premier rail crossroads. Tracks carved into the ground 150 years ago were not configured to handle the number of trains now moving through the city — about a third of the nation's rail traffic.
A freight train from Los Angeles can make it to Chicago in just 48 hours, only to spend the next 30 hours crawling and stopping to get out the other side.
"That's changing," said U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, adding that the work is helping Chicago focus again on the competitive advantage that comes simply from being "smack dab in the middle of the country."
The overpass in Englewood is one of 70 projects meant to solve that rail congestion problem. Known by the acronym CREATE, the program was announced in 2003. About a third of the projects have been completed, though only half of the overall multibillion-dollar program has been funded.
Before the Englewood project, Norfolk Southern had to stop all traffic through the junction for eight hours every day to allow Metra passenger trains to cross. Time-sensitive intermodal shipments of everything from clothes and food products to furniture and home construction material passes through on the busiest route of the company's 23,000 miles of track.
"What happens here in Chicago basically impacts the rest of our railroad," Norfolk executive Darrell Wilson said.