Developments in far off lands could have a big impact on everyone's drive to work in Northwest Indiana, with the number of freight trains lumbering through the region expected to double by 2035.
That is because a historic shift in shipping patterns has the potential to hit the East Coast with an "Asian tsunami" of seaborne freight over the next two decades, according to freight experts. Much of that freight will make its way to Chicago and the Midwest via a 15-mile-wide rail corridor in Northwest Indiana.
"There is a re-emergence of the Midwest as the new discretionary cargo hub for this recovery," said John Vickerman, an international freight consultant. "It leads me to believe the Midwest and Chicago will be the new epicenter of operations for logistics."
An enlarged Panama Canal, overburdened West Coast ports and renewed interest in the Suez Canal for shipping goods from Asia will drive seaborne cargo to the East Coast and then the Midwest via rail, Vickerman told business leaders and state officials last fall at the Indiana Logistics Summit in Indianapolis.
A 'freak of geography'
Virtually all rail freight coming from the East Coast must squeeze into Chicago through a Northwest Indiana rail corridor containing six mainline tracks, myriad rail connections and more than 864 at-grade highway crossings.
"Northwest Indiana is a freak of geography, where everything gets squeezed into a narrow corridor, and that makes the community impact so much greater," said professor Joseph Schwieterman, of DePaul University's Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development.
The greater Chicago region, including its south suburbs, is also in for a big increase in train traffic in the next two decades, according to several national studies. But trains make their way into the city along a 150-mile arc running from Waukegan in the north to Crete in the south. In the south, only Joliet comes close to having the same type of rail congestion as Northwest Indiana.
Half a decade ago, the Chicago region came up with the $3 billion Chicago Region Environmental And Transportation Efficiency Program, or CREATE, for dealing with rail congestion.
But Northwest Indiana has no overall plan for dealing with its coming deluge of freight trains.
Northwest Indiana's only stab at dealing with rail-crossing issues on a regional basis was the Four Cities Consortium formed by Whiting, Hammond, East Chicago and Gary more than a decade ago. That plan fell apart three years ago due to political infighting.
"I hope that plan is not entirely dead," said Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission Executive Director John Swanson. "I hope local communities can agree with railroads to move some of these projects forward."
The Four Cities plan would have shifted much of the train traffic on Lake County's far northern end to two lines known as the Porter Branch and the High Line. The Porter branch would have been used to carry trains south from the Hohman Avenue overpass in downtown Hammond to the High Line in Gary. The High Line has numerous viaducts that carry the tracks over Gary city streets. The move would have eliminated 38 at-grade rail crossings.
A Dec. 15 gathering of railroad representatives, transportation planners and economic developers at a freight summit at NIRPC identified grade-crossing improvements as the No. 1 priority for the region when it comes to dealing with increased freight traffic.
Improving at-grade crossings and, wherever possible, eliminating them would help speed rail freight and vehicle traffic, Swanson said. It also would improve air quality, as long lines of cars and trucks waiting at crossings are a leading source of air pollution.
And paramount for both railroads and residents is the increased safety that comes with crossing improvements, Swanson said. Highway-rail crossing accidents have claimed 39 lives in the past 10 years in Lake and Porter counties, according to Federal Railroad Administration data.
Who will take the lead?
Participants at the NIRPC rail summit criticized the current community-by-community approach to building vehicle overpasses at rail crossings, saying projects of that scale should be coordinated on a regional basis.
But, so far, there is no consensus on who should lead the charge.
NIRPC, the Northwest Indiana Forum, the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority and the newly created Northwest Indiana Economic Development District all get mention. But there are no volunteers to spearhead the effort.
"At least we are thinking about it again, and we are talking about it again," RDA Chairman Leigh Morris said.
Several studies have forecast large increases in U.S. freight rail traffic in coming decades, with the most detailed information for Northwest Indiana contained in a National Rail Freight Infrastructure Capacity and Investment Study done for the Association of American Railroads in 2007.
That report shows the rail system in Northwest Indiana already ranks among the worst 4 percent in the nation when it comes to rail congestion.
Experts such as Schwieterman and Vickerman, who is based in Williamsburg, Va., say communities not ready to deal with the big increases in rail traffic to come will be left behind.
"We can't just allow the current system to just keep increasing volumes and think it will take care of itself," Vickerman said.
A global effect
By 2014, the Panama Canal will have completed a $5.25 billion expansion. The project could double total cargo going through the canal and triple the number of shipping containers, according to a number of estimates.
The expansion is expected to greatly increase the amount of Asian cargo unloaded at East Coast and Gulf Coast U.S. ports. Much of that cargo unloaded in Norfolk, Va., Savannah, Ga., and other ports is expected to make its way to the Midwest by train via Northwest Indiana.
Also re-balancing world trade will be a shift in Asian manufacturing from China to Southeast Asia and India, according to Vickerman. That shift will make the Suez Canal competitive with trans-Pacific shipments for getting Asian goods to the United States.
Railroads such as CSX and Norfolk Southern Corp. already have spent hundreds of millions of dollars preparing for the shift.
Norfolk Southern has invested $140 million on its recently completed Heartland Corridor from Norfolk, Va., to Chicago via two mainline tracks passing through Northwest Indiana.
CSX is spending $300 million on its National Gateway project to increase capacity from East Coast ports to Chicago, again via two mainline tracks in Northwest Indiana.
Chicago's CREATE program never gathered all the funding it needs, but last year it received a big boost from the Obama administration's stimulus program, and some projects are getting under way. CREATE aims to build 25 rail/highway grade separations, mainly car overpasses. Other projects include rail-over-rail grade separations, state-of-the-art signal systems and other items.
So far in Northwest Indiana, with its municipality-by-municipality approach, only three vehicle overpasses at railroad crossings appear to have a prayer of becoming reality any time soon.
The coming surge in rail freight could throw cold water on the region's plans to diversify its economy through lakefront development and other projects, according to transportation planners at the Dec. 15 NIRPC freight summit.
"It seems that we really have to prepare ourselves for something that will really explode in the next 20 years or so," NIRPC Deputy Director Steve Strains said.