Durbin: Feds’ oversight of CN must remain
BY SUSAN DEMAR LAFFERTY email@example.com August 1, 2014 8:28PM
U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., is calling for the Surface Transportation Board’s oversight of Canadian National Railway operations to continue in the Southland. | File photo
Updated: September 4, 2014 6:50AM
Citing continued Amtrak delays and blocked rail crossings along the Canadian National Railway lines, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., wants the federal Surface Transportation Board to extend its oversight period of CN operations, which is due to expire in January.
With the acquisition of the EJ&E Railway tracks in 2009, CN has increased rail traffic along the line, adding four to six times the number of freight trains. In a recent news news release, Durbin said CN has been unwilling “to meet its most basic obligations in delivering safe and reliable rail service in Illinois.”
In a July 31 letter to Daniel Elliott III, chairman of the Surface Transportation Board, Durbin asked the board to visit the Chicago area to see the traffic-related problems and to extend the oversight period to ensure the issues are addressed.
If that oversight period is not extended, CN no longer will be required to provide monthly operational reports. In the first quarter of 2014, there were 5,267 instances of crossings being blocked by trains for 10 minutes or more, the highest number since CN took ownership of the rail line, according to Durbin.
He also charged that CN has refused to work with towns along its rail line, including Richton Park, which needs an easement from the railroad to install a sound wall in a subdivision that abuts the tracks.
As a result of CN’s obstructions and delays, Amtrak trains along the Chicago-Champaign-Carbondale route, which is owned and operated by CN, arrived on time only 54 percent of the time during the last fiscal year, making it one of Amtrak’s worst-performing routes in the nation, Durbin said.
Additionally, CN has hindered efforts to allow Amtrak and Metra to expand passenger service, he said.
In June, Durbin outlined the concerns in a letter to CN chief executive and president Claude Mongeau, who responded that service disruptions and long crossing blockages were due to “an unprecedented combination of extremely cold weather and heavy snow” that caused problems for all railroads in the Chicago area.
“As the weather has improved, so have our operations,” Mongeau wrote to the senator.
CN spokesman Patrick Waldron said that since March the number of blockages has been declining, down 33 percent and down 14 percent from May to June.
CN’s most recent report to the Surface Transportation Board, covering its June operations, says there were more than 1,300 instances of crossings being blocked for 10 minutes or more. One of the longest (194 minutes on June 20) occurred at Torrence Avenue in Sauk Village, where the CN freight train had to wait for train traffic to clear.
There also was a 99-minute blockage June 20 at Euclid Avenue in Chicago Heights and one for 69 minutes at Western Avenue in Park Forest, which CN claimed were due to the intersecting CSX line changing its crews, according to the report.
Another train in Chicago Heights was delayed for 83 minutes due to a stalled locomotive, and there were several delays of 50 minutes or more at various crossings in Matteson due to brake problems, the report says. It says the Main Street crossing in Matteson was blocked 45 times for 10 minutes or more during June.
While delays are “to be expected when you have that many trains,” Richton Park village manager De’Carlon Seewood said the village is more concerned about installing a sound wall in the Meadowlake Estates subdivision to reduce the noise for residents. The village secured a grant to pay for the wall, but CN will not grant an easement to install it, he said.
“We’re not asking them to build it or maintain it,” Seewood said, adding that the wall must be as close as possible to the tracks to be effective.
He said Richton Park originally requested the sound wall when it negotiated a deal with CN but was unsuccessful and secured a grant to pay for it.
Mongeau said installing the sound wall on CN property would require someone from outside the railroad to inspect and maintain it, which could lead to “unnecessary safety issues” and limit CN’s use of its property. He suggested that the wall be placed on private property.
The sound wall was “not one of the issues Richton Park chose to address” in its agreement with CN and the railroad satisfied all requirements under that agreement, according to Mongeau.
But Seewood said neighboring towns have installed sound walls on CN land. Richton Park’s negotiations with CN are at a “stalemate,” he said.
“Our biggest fear is that once there is no more (federal) oversight, they (CN) will do whatever they want,” Seewood said.
Richton Park Mayor Rick Reinbold said CN needs “permanent oversight. They have a history of doing what they want. I commend Sen. Durbin for keeping their feet to the fire. They have displayed arrogance and disregard for the quality of life in the communities (along the CN line).”
Regarding delays on Amtrak’s popular passenger trains between Chicago and Carbondale, the Illini and the Saluki, which run on CN tracks, on-time performance has “improved significantly” since winter ended, Waldron said.
From October to July, on-time performance for the two Saluki trains was 84 percent and 82 percent, and for the two Illini trains it was 61 percent and 82 percent, according to Waldron.
CN’s on-time figures don’t agree with Amtrak’s, Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said. He said the worst on-time performance was on the Illini trains — 36.7 percent and 56.7 percent in June, respectively, and 29.9 percent and 50.3 percent for the past 12 months.
“When trains are delayed like this, it drives up our costs and drives down our business,” Magliari said.
He said Amtrak filed a complaint with the Surface Transportation Board two years ago but held off pursuing it, pending talks with CN. Last month, Amtrak decided to press on with its complaint when service did not improve.