Could railroad merger lead to more freight trains in the suburbs?

  • Cars wait for a freight train to pass on Route 14 in Barrington.

    Cars wait for a freight train to pass on Route 14 in Barrington. Daily Herald File Photo

  • The Canadian National Railway's proposed takeover of the EJ & E Railroad prompted protests by community members in Barrington in 2008.

    The Canadian National Railway's proposed takeover of the EJ & E Railroad prompted protests by community members in Barrington in 2008. Daily Herald File Photo

 
 
Updated 5/13/2021 10:11 AM

A replay of a 2008 battle to stop the Canadian National Railway from acquiring another railroad is emerging in the suburbs with similar concerns about spiraling freight train traffic.

There's a twist this time, however, as both CN and its rival the Canadian Pacific Railroad are vying to merge with the Kansas City Southern Railway, a major freight carrier whose reach extends to Mexico.

 

Any merger, regardless of whether it's CN or CP, would require approval from federal regulators, but the prospect of Canadian National joining with the Kansas railroad is already raising hackles in suburbs from Barrington to Bartlett.

A number of communities are asking the U.S. Surface Transportation Board to carefully scrutinize CN's proposal before taking any action.

There is potential that "CN's freight trains will further burden the Chicago area with increased road network congestion by adding a significant increase in freight rail volumes," Bartlett Mayor Kevin Wallace wrote the STB on behalf of the Metropolitan Mayors Caucus Executive Board, of which he is chairman.

In 2008, CN received STB approval to purchase the smaller EJ & E, which passed through the northwest and southwest suburbs.

Attorney Richard Streeter, who is representing Barrington, characterized the new proposal as a "traffic congestion nightmare" in a letter to the STB.

"EJ & E communities have now been left coping with longer and slower trains, which would only increase yet again with the proposed merger," Streeter wrote.

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A CN spokeswoman described the plan as avoiding congestion in the city of Chicago. "Canadian National uses a simple strategy to solve Chicago's long-standing rail congestion problem: We go around the core of the city by using the EJ & E to move freight faster and more efficiently in all directions, thereby relieving congestion on the tracks and taking trucks off of the local roads.

"This benefits customers and commuters alike, and our proposal would not impact Amtrak or Metra services whatsoever."

CN said the plan will remove trucks from roads, which will reduce greenhouse gases, "on a path from Mexico and Texas to the Upper Midwest and Southern Ontario. Our routing for this traffic growth would actually bypass Chicago -- not go through the city."

Barrington Mayor Karen Darch, who fought against the EJ & E acquisition, called the new merger plan "déjà vu," and noted that it's important community concerns be heard by the STB.

So far comments to the agency are mainly from freight shippers, Darch said.

"This is a big deal. Two Class 1 railroads merging. We want to be sure the Chicago area has a stake in this, and that the STB takes a good, solid look."

For its part, Canadian Pacific officials contend their proposal is superior to CN's and allows more competition among shipping companies.

"The transaction will combine the two railroads to create the first rail network connecting the U.S., Mexico, and Canada," CP officials said in a statement. The combined network's new single-line offerings will deliver dramatically expanded market reach for customers served by CP and KCS, provide new competitive transportation service options, and support North American economic growth."

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