Rail Yard Aerial View

The Chicago Challenge, Part Two – by Bert Ruden


Forty-four years ago this July, I packed my belongings and headed west from our family home in New York City to start my career. Fresh out of school with a degree in transportation management, I landed a railroad job in the railroad capital of America – Chicago!

As it turned out, my new job involved working for short periods of time at a variety of railroad locations in the Chicago area, most of which were in northwest Indiana. So, I ended up living in Griffith, Indiana, a small town about 30 miles southeast of downtown Chicago. I found a small furnished place I could afford; the people were friendly, and the location was convenient for getting to all of the different places where I might be called to work.

Just a block north of my little apartment, five different railroad lines came together in a large, busy crossing. For someone just getting involved in railroad operations, this was more of a draw than a nuisance! The town’s business district started a block north of the tracks, so if I was going into town to get groceries or do laundry I could usually count on seeing a train or two. The Erie-Lackawanna’s main line from New York and the Chesapeake and Ohio’s line from Cincinnati came together at Griffith and the two railroads shared a pair of tracks from Griffith into Chicago. U.S. Steel’s Elgin, Joliet, and Eastern had a double track main line running from their big terminal in Joliet, IL that swung north at Griffith en route to the big U.S. Steel complex in Gary, IN, with a single track branch diverging at Griffith that went out east to Porter, IN. The Grand Truck Western’s busy Detroit to Chicago main line was the fourth railroad in the mix. Last, and definitely least, a neglected branch line of the Penn Central that saw very little traffic was still part of this complex of tracks.

Part of the experience in these early days of my career was not only learning railroad operations but seeing the transportation network in a very different environment than the one I grew up in. Working in the industrial environs of northwest Indiana in the middle 1970’s, one could see that heavy industry was feeling the impact of global competition and looking a bit ragged around the edges, but was still the foundation of the region’s economy. I had the opportunity to see and learn about customers’ operations and how they were served by the transportation network. I also had the opportunity to see and learn about things that were unique to the region, like the lake freighters that brought iron ore to Inland Steel at Indiana Harbor, or moved petroleum products to and from the big Amoco refinery at Whiting.

Fast forward four decades from 1975. Much of the heavy industry is either gone or is greatly reduced

in both size and influence. An area just south of Joliet, Illinois that had been home to a huge army munitions facility back then has been repurposed into what has become the largest “dry port” in North America, handling the flood of imported goods moving in containers from ports on every coast to the new distribution centers built along every interstate highway in the region. Griffith has changed from a bedroom community for the mill and refinery workers to an exurb of Chicago. Griffith’s massive rail crossing, once one of the largest in North America, has also changed. The Penn Central branch line was the first line to be abandoned in 1976, followed by the Chesapeake and Ohio line in 1983, the Erie-Lackawanna line in 1984, and the EJ&E’s branch to Porter in 1985. These abandonments resulted from declining rail traffic, changes in rail routes, and consolidation of ownership in the rail industry. The last two rail lines in Griffith are now both owned by the same railroad company, Canadian National Railway, and one of those lines has been reduced from a main line to a storage track.

When I go back to the Chicago area I see some things that directly affect how things work in the world

of finished vehicle logistics. First and foremost, is the explosion of truck traffic in the region. Chicago always had heavy truck traffic. With the changes in transportation and the flow of goods over the last forty years, truck traffic is more than just “heavy.” Driving I-80 from the Indiana border to the Iowa border you feel as if you are in the midst of a sea of big trucks.

Trying to merge into traffic on I-80 from one of the short ramps in the Joliet area can feel like trying to merge into the middle of a moving freight train. Where I-80 and I-57 come together are the UPS Willow Springs facility (the largest parcel distribution facility in the world) plus huge intermodal facilities belonging to Union Pacific and Burlington Northern Santa Fe, all three of which generate enormous volumes of truck traffic.

These are just three of eighteen active rail intermodal facilities in the Chicago area.

On my way back home to Michigan from my last trip to Belvidere, it took me more than an hour to drive the ten miles from the I-294/I-80 junction at Hazel Crest, IL to the Indiana border. There was an accident on the Indiana side of the border, and the traffic was bumper to bumper for miles. While there have been challenges to driving in Chicago for a long time, I don’t think anyone will argue that the region was completely unprepared for the traffic surge that began in the mid-1990’s and has accelerated ever since.

The BNSF’s Logistics Park Chicago auto compound is on the same site as the BNSF’s intermodal facility. This is where FCA vehicles out of Mexico are grounded for furtherance to destination dealers in northern Illinois, northern Indiana, western Michigan, southern Wisconsin, and eastern Iowa.

So, let’s say we have a driver that will be taking a load of vehicles from Logistics Park Chicago up to Madison, WI for delivery. That’s 180 miles each way, or about a six hour round trip. I’m not an expert on the new Federal Hours of Service regulations for truckers, but if I’m reading them correctly, any active role the driver plays in loading or unloading their truck counts as time towards their allowed eleven hour work day.

Haulaway drivers generally have to find their vehicles, drive them to the truck, load the vehicles, and secure them. Let’s assume twenty minutes per vehicle for a 7 vehicle load. That’s two hours and twenty minutes prep for departure. Add about the same amount of time to unload and do the delivery inspections at destination, and that driver (and his truck) are right on the edge of not making it back to the terminal within their eleven hour working limits. Add a traffic jam during the trip up or the trip back and the driver isn’t making it back without having to stop for at least some rest.

One round trip per day for a truck and driver is not a sufficient level of productivity to keep the network running effectively. Are there any solutions out there?

One solution might be to reduce the length of the haul by using an alternative rail facility. In this

specific case, moving vehicles into Belvidere by rail and trucking from Belvidere to Madison would reduce the mileage from 180 each way to 76 each way. There are two additional benefits, both of which are significant. First, the highway mileage being eliminated from the delivery route would be the mileage with the heaviest traffic density where delays are most likely to occur. Second, railing the vehicles into Belvidere generates empty railcars for outbound loading at Belvidere, with zero empty miles and no likelihood of the empty railcars going to another shipper.

Most situations don’t have alternatives quite this neat. A region that is choked with traffic, though, would seem to offer everyone who has to suffer either the traffic or its consequences the impetus to look at other options. There is a reason the Logistics Park Chicago has been under embargo for inbound shipments for considerable lengths of time, both this year and last. The haulaway carriers don’t want to add assets to solve productivity problems any more than the railroads do. But, if urban traffic issues in a big city like Chicago are doing serious damage to productivity for everyone, why not consider other options?

Other solutions out there include one that car manufacturers have been struggling with for a long time.

Dealers do not want to take deliveries outside of normal business hours as a general rule, and the car manufacturers have not been able to do much to change that way of thinking. That makes it difficult to have trucks out making deliveries in what are traditionally low traffic times, or making deliveries on weekends.

Being able to deliver around the clock, seven days per week would be a boost to haulaway productivity, but has remained an elusive goal.

As always, thanks for reading! More to come.