'They ignored our concerns': Suburban leaders blast approval of controversial rail merger
The U.S. Surface Transportation Board's approval on Wednesday of a controversial merger between the Canadian Pacific and Kansas City Southern railroads drew quick criticism from impacted communities despite conditions regulators imposed.
"We found that, on balance, the merger of these two railroads will benefit the American economy and be an improvement for all citizens in terms of safety and the environment," STB Chairman Marty Oberman said at a briefing in Washington.
The merger will create a railroad stretching from Mexico to Canada. It will bring jobs, increased competition and shift an estimated 64,000 truckloads from North America's roads onto railcars, the agency noted. It also will result in eight more freight trains a day in the region for a total of 11.
Members of Illinois' congressional delegation and numerous suburbs warned of gridlock at crossings and potential derailments, while Metra has predicted significant delays on its Milwaukee District lines, which CP uses.
"To say we're disappointed is an understatement," Bensenville Village President Frank DeSimone said at a Coalition to Stop CPKC news conference in Itasca. "They ignored our concerns for safety, they ignored our concerns for quality of life and they ignored our concerns about the negative consequences for economic development."
The coalition of eight towns and DuPage County disputes CP's train numbers and projects up to 18 freights will rumble through the suburbs each day.
"Disgusting," Hanover Park Mayor Rod Craig said, noting the coalition had asked for $400 million from CP to improve safety at critical crossings, but "this $31 billion merger was approved with our communities receiving little help. We expect better."
The STB did not recommend CP subsidize any grade separations in the area, but it imposed an "unprecedented" seven-year oversight period of CP/KCS freight traffic in the Chicago area to see if "operational issues" occur for Metra, and a dispute resolution process that will be triggered if commuter trains are late for consecutive months.
The railroads must also provide data on the length of trains as well as the number, and establish a community liaison for local leaders in Chicago.
"Metra remains concerned about the potential impact of this merger on our operations," spokesman Michael Gillis said. "We will count on the merged railroad's commitments and the STB's oversight to make sure we can operate safely and reliably and continue to provide service that meets the needs of the residents of the Chicago area."
Sens. Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth and U.S. Reps. Raja Krishnamoorthi and Delia Ramirez had asked the STB to postpone a ruling given the Feb. 3 derailment of a Norfolk Southern train in East Palestine, Ohio. Numerous railcars toppled and vinyl chloride was released, causing a health scare for the small town.
"As our nation contends with one of the most serious questions of railway safety raised in generations ... the STB has rushed through a decision without contemplating the impact" of the East Palestine disaster, Schaumburg Democrat Krishnamoorthi said Wednesday in Itasca.
However, STB's Oberman, a Chicagoan and former Metra chairman, said if "you look at the safety records of all the Class 1 (major) railroads -- CP has the safest record and KCS is just behind it."
In 2022, "94% of all hazardous materials problems (like) spills occurred on trucks. Only 1% have occurred on rail," he noted.
Coalition members said legal action is possible and continued to dispute CP's train estimates.
Meanwhile, CP CEO Keith Kreel hailed the benefits of the ruling. "These benefits are unparalleled for our employees, rail customers, communities and the North American economy at a time when the supply chains of these three great nations have never needed it more," Creel said.
The two railroads could unite as soon as April 14.
Itasca Fire Chief Jack Schneidwind said the STB was minimizing the negative impacts of blocked crossings.
"Our concern is the police officer caught up in a situation where he or she needs backup and that is delayed," he said. "Our concern is the survivability of a citizen who collapses and stops breathing but the ambulance is delayed because of a freight train."
Elgin Mayor Dave Kaptain, who has cautioned that a hazardous materials spill could impact the city's drinking water, said at a separate event that "a couple of minutes' delay for a firefighter or somebody that needs an ambulance can be life and death."
Oberman acknowledged community concerns, adding he'd attended every public hearing, but said a review of CP's data showed freights in the Chicago area would increase by about 10 railcars on average.
If CP's projections turn out to be inaccurate and "if there are blockings causing serious health problems -- that is why we have oversight and authority to order further mitigation. We will be there," Oberman said.
"I'm comfortable assuring all the first responders -- if they can demonstrate a problem, we will do everything under the sun to solve the problem."
• Daily Herald Reporter Rick West contributed to this report.