What’s still holding back rail service?

Pictured above, The Belt Railway is the largest intermediate switching terminal railroad in the United States, employing approximately 520 people. The Belt has 28 miles of mainline route with more than 300 miles of switching tracks, allowing it to interchange with every railroad serving the Chicago rail hub. The Belt’s Clearing Yards span a 5.5 mile distance among 786 acres, supporting more than 250 miles of track.

When I looked at my inbox and saw an article from Larry Gross at JOC.COM about “What’s still holding back rail service?”, my first thought was Chicago. I was right, He cut right to the chase. Blamed last winter on the polar vortex. Now, I have some great Winter stories on Chicago too. Belt Railway on it’s back, Indiana Harbor Belt stuck in snow, etc.

But then Larry climbed out of winter and points out some of the rest-of-the-year problems with Chicago. Not going to repeat his excellent explanations. Instead, I’m thinking of new ideas today.

Limited space for trains are a problem. Even the Circus Train can’t find a good parking spot for a show in Chicago. Then crowded highways for intermodals to get out of Chicago.

I route an article on Chicago Bypass. No, I’m not going to go out and suggest we bring back the Peoria & Eastern. Once upon a time it was “quicker via Peoria,” 210 direct, unobstructed miles on the Peoria and Eastern between Peoria and Indianapolis instead of 350 miles via Chicago and congestion. Much has changed in the quarter century since the P&E was an unbroken route. For over a century the railroads had an overcapacity problem, one solved by the mid-1990s by increasing traffic and decreasing route-miles.

37,000 freight cars move through the Chicago area every day (CREATE brochure). Some 25% does not originate or terminate there (“Freight Rail Futures,” Chicago Department of Transportation website). That is over 9,000 cars a day, easily 90 or 100 trains, merely moving through the area.

Indiana Harbor Belt's Gibson Yard in 1950
Indiana Harbor Belt’s Gibson Yard in 1950

Do they all have to go through Chicago? Is Chicago always on the shortest, most direct route? Obviously not.

There is a deeply encrusted practice of “long-routing” to increase the originating road’s cut of revenues. Obviously it requires a longer route, with the obvious disadvantages of greater travel time, more expense, less reliable service, and poorer use of now scarce rail resources.

Running everything through Chicago is defended in rail circles on grounds of more frequent connections and keeping crews in position. Those are usually compelling advantages, to be sure, but not always. Bigger is not necessarily better.

Maybe Chicago has seen it’s time as the “intermodal capital”? Again, does all rail freight have to go through Chicago?


We recently wrote about Union Pacific Intermodal Is Really Rolling Along. Let’s think of ways to better accommodate more intermodal.

Louisville and Indianapolis provide some ideas. Like I said above, we are not going to go out and suggest “new” railroads. That is like tilting windmills. The “grand highway” to Indianapolis is NOT a railroad, it is Interstate Highway 65. But I-65 does not start in Chicago. Instead it starts East of Gary, Indiana. Gary has more railroads running through it than you can shake a stick at. Lots of nearby land for intermodal terminals too. Now how can we bypass Chicago? The obvious way is CN’s old Elgin, Joliet & Eastern. Before you say, what would this save? Just drive Interstate 90 going East of Chicago and observe all the trucks turning South on Interstate 65.

Elgin Joliet & Eastern
Elgin Joliet & Eastern

Yes, I know all about railroad mileage and short hauls. Maybe we need to initiate something I will call: a “Negotiated Switching Rate”. This way no railroad gets hurt. Have the government throw some ecology money in there to save the environment.

Can’t believe Western railroads, with a little help, could not block their trains better to cut down on some of the Chicago switching.