What if freight trains skirted suburbs via new rural railroad?
In the 21st century, the plan by Great Lakes Transportation Inc. is rare to the point of being unbelievable: Building an $8 billion, 278-mile-long, two-track freight railroad through northeastern Illinois.
And for suburbanites, the plan hints at some incredible possible benefits:
• Fewer waits for drivers at the Canadian National's former Elgin, Joliet & Eastern street crossings while two-mile-long trains crawl through such places as West Bartlett Road and downtown Barrington.
• Fewer -- or maybe even no -- potentially explosive crude-oil trains rolling through crowded suburban and city neighborhoods, such as downtown Aurora.
• Fewer Metra and Amtrak passenger trains held up by "freight train interference" as trains on Chicago's overcrowded rail system pile up at various interchanges and rail yard entrances.
• Fewer semitrailer trucks on Chicago-area expressways.
But most of the more than 400 people who showed up Tuesday morning at a federal "scoping" hearing in Belvidere weren't thinking about convenience to people living 50 miles to the east in the suburbs. Many wore stickers showing their opposition to the project, called the Great Lakes Basin Rail Line.
Instead, they told the U.S. Surface Transportation Board's environmental studies staff that such a railroad would split up farms that have been owned by their families for 100 years. That it would threaten underground water supplies with pollution from spilled chemicals, would slow local ambulance crews and firefighters, would take the world's best soil out of agricultural production, would lower their property values, could cause drainage problems on their farmland and would fill their quiet rural townships with train noise.
Great Lakes Basin Transportation Inc. is headed by former software entrepreneur Frank Patton and reportedly is supported by 14 investors. The proposed railroad is designed to give the area's six "Class I" railroads -- BNSF, Union Pacific, Norfolk Southern, CSX, Canadian National and Canadian Pacific, plus the small Wisconsin & Southern Railway -- a way to send long-distance freight trains around metropolitan Chicago rather than through it.
The former Elgin, Joliet & Eastern Railway, bought by Canadian National Railway in a hotly debated deal in 2009, is a one-track line that runs from Waukegan to Gary via Barrington, Hoffman Estates, Bartlett, Wayne, West Chicago and Aurora. It also connects the six big railroads' various Chicago-area lines. If the other railroads were spokes in a wheel whose center is downtown Chicago, the former EJ&E would be the rim of that wheel.
Before CN took over and started using the EJ&E to connect the various spoke lines CN owns, the EJ&E was nicknamed "Chicago's Outer Belt."
The proposed Great Lakes Basin Line could be called "Chicago's Outer Outer Belt," another rim connecting all those spokes. It would be built through farm country, purposely bypassing cities and towns but intersecting with other railroads in more than 25 places.
The line would begin in northwest Indiana, head west between Kankakee and Joliet, then go north to west of Morris, Yorkville and DeKalb. South of Rockford, it would split in two, with one branch heading west of Rockford and one branch reaching north through the Belvidere area into southern Wisconsin.
David Navecky, an STB environmental analyst who emceed Tuesday's hearing, said the board had already held six hearings and three more were scheduled -- in Rockford Tuesday night, in Rochelle Wednesday and in Seneca on Thursday. An "online hearing" also will be held on April 27, and the board will accept written comments through June 15.
The next step is an environmental impact statement, which will recommend whether the full board should approve the project, recommend "mitigation" for specific environmental problems if the project is approved, and perhaps recommend alternative routes. That will be followed by more public hearings.
It will probably be two to three years before the impact statement is finally finished, Navecky said.
The full board then must decide whether to give Great Lakes Transportation a green light to start acquiring land and laying track.
After Tuesday's hearing, Navecky said Great Lakes estimates the line could handle up to 110 trains a day. But he said the STB still needs to hear estimates about how many trains would be using each segment of the line. He said the board also has not yet received comments on the proposal from any of the existing railroads that would be its customers.