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updated: 6/10/2013 5:25 AM

Are you better off after CN/EJ&E merger?

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  • Cars wait for a freight train to pass at the former EJ&E tracks across Route 14 in Barrington. The smaller EJ&E was purchased by CN, which has resulted in more trains for some communities, less for others.

       Cars wait for a freight train to pass at the former EJ&E tracks across Route 14 in Barrington. The smaller EJ&E was purchased by CN, which has resulted in more trains for some communities, less for others.
    Dave Dvorak | Staff Photographer

 
 

"CN's plan to move many of its freight trains from rail lines mainly in the Chicago area onto the less-used EJ&E tracks has attracted both support and fierce opposition from towns along the route."

That brilliant wordsmithing came from yours truly five years ago. It was summer 2008 and the region was immersed in a battle over the Canadian National Railway's proposed merger with the "J," a smaller railway extending in a semicircle from Waukegan to Gary.

The U.S. Surface Transportation Board approved the deal Dec. 24, 2008, with some strict conditions. At the time, towns including Barrington feared an influx of freights would cause traffic gridlock while suburbs such as Des Plaines hoped shifting trains onto the EJ&E would ease rail congestion across the region and in their backyards.

So who was right? To a degree, both sides.

A CN report submitted to the Surface Transportation Board in May indicates the average number of freight trains on EJ&E tracks through municipalities like Barrington, Lake Zurich and Hanover Park increased from 5.3 a day pre-merger to 16.8 in April.

Further south, municipalities like Aurora and Naperville are experiencing 10 to 11 more trains daily.

"There's definitely a difference, particularly for anyone who lives close to the tracks," Barrington Mayor Karen Darch said. The extra trains are particularly troublesome when classes are starting or ending at nearby Barrington High School, she said. "There was a slow-moving train at 2:30 (p.m.) recently and it's unbelievable what it did for kids trying to leave," Darch added.

And when a truck on the tracks collided with a freight train May 24, shutting down Route 14 for hours, it added urgency to the town's push for a grade separation, she noted.

Conversely, suburbs such as Des Plaines and Buffalo Grove are getting a break with fewer freights on the CN tracks crisscrossing their towns. The count went from 19 trains daily to five.

"I'm on my bicycle all the time and I'm noticing a substantial drop in train congestion," state Rep. and former Des Plaines Mayor Marty Moylan said. "And, we're getting less complaints from residents."

Buffalo Grove Trustee Jeff Berman noted the results align with CN's promises.

"The fact that it has now come to fruition, and we have experienced nearly a 75 percent reduction in freight traffic, is a very positive outcome," he said.

It's interesting, however, that the most recent numbers don't match CN's original projections.

In Barrington, for example, estimates were at 15 more trains a day and in Aurora, up to 23 more. In Des Plaines and Buffalo Grove, freight traffic was expected to drop by 17 trains daily.

Former CN executive Eric Jakubowski acknowledged that because of the lackluster economy and a decline in coal shipments resulting from Chicago area plant closures, the volume of trains is off from numbers cited in official documents filed with the STB in 2008.

"Some of us recognize those projections were wild, but once you file them, you have to defend them," Jakubowski said speaking last week to the Sandhouse Gang (which is not a bunch of teen hooligans but a railroad discussion group run by the Northwestern University Transportation Center).

The official line from CN is that "on any rail line or segment, not just the EJ&E, train counts and frequency can vary based on overall market conditions and changing customer demands," spokesman Patrick Waldron said in an email.

"The (earlier) projections were made prior to the economic downturn and train counts in many segments do remain well under those 2015 forecasts. Where those numbers go in the future ... will continue to be influenced by market and economic conditions and customer demand."

Where indeed.

Is your life better or worse because of the train merger? Drop me an email at Fly on the wall

Jakubowski, who works for Anacostia Rail Holdings, was the chief negotiator for CN in the EJ&E deal and offered some intriguing behind-the-scenes take-aways.

He gave qualified props to the suburbs that fought the railroad -- "kudos to Barrington" -- grabbing the attention of politicians and the STB. Jakubowski focused on TRAC (The Regional Answer to Canadian National), the coalition of towns that lobbied against the merger.

"It was obvious to us we were not up against mom and pop," Jakubowski said, adding he thought certain "Madison Avenue" tactics bordered on "jingoism," referring to fliers warning of an influx of Chinese goods into North America.

But the campaign was effective and likely will cause federal regulators to rightfully pay more heed to environmental considerations in future votes, he added.

"We didn't go to New York or Madison Avenue," Darch responded, adding that a lot of the content on the TRAC website was citizen-generated. She cited a video made by a resident showing an ambulance waiting at the Route 14 crossing. "People are very intelligent ... they understood the impact."

Jakubowski rolled his eyes over the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink demands submitted by municipalities along the EJ&E that were negotiating settlements.

"The wish lists started coming thick and thin ... fire trucks, fire stations, every road an overpass, water distribution systems, fair market value guarantees for every house in community, baseball uniforms," Jakubowski recounted. "Someone thought there was a deep pocket."

I took notice of his comments about how politicians latched on to the EJ&E debate, unifying across party lines to condemn CN.

"The (merger) timing wasn't the best ... there were a lot of guys running for election and they swarmed to an issue like this like bees to honey," Jakubowski said.

(As a historical footnote -- all the effort Congresswoman Melissa Bean spent in fighting the merger, not to mention a gazillion news releases, came to naught when she lost re-election to Tea Partyer Joe Walsh in 2010.)

I was amused by the pointer, "Keep your CEO behind the scenes" on a "Lessons Learned slide."

Curmudgeonly railroader Hunter Harrison, CN's former CEO, alienated communities throughout the region and ignored his staff's pleas to stay out of the limelight -- "we tried our hardest not to send him out to meetings," Jakubowski recalled.

Your voice

Larry Mylin of Mount Prospect responded to a recent column involving road work, noting "last week I drove through Iowa, Missouri and Kansas. They had road construction too, but restrict driving speeds only where actual construction is taking place. Cones are pulled over to the shoulder where work is not going on. Construction speeds are 55 mph except where they are working.

"Maybe Illinois should fine the construction companies who get paid to put the cones up if they do not do any actual work for a week or two."

Gridlock alert

DuPagers should avoid Gary Avenue near Army Trail Road for a week for repairs to a railway crossing. Gary Avenue will close at the Chicago, Central and Pacific Railroad crossing starting today and reopen June 17. Detours will be posted.

Upcoming

This just in: The U.S. House Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials holds a round-table discussion at 10 a.m. today on relieving freight and passenger rail congestion in the Chicago region. The forum is on the 16th floor of the Thompson Center, 100 W. Randolph St., Chicago.">mpyke@dailyherald.com

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