Northwest Indiana business leaders want to capitalize on the coming deluge of trains expected to move through the region in the next two decades, but first they have to find a way to get some of those trains to stop here.
At a Dec. 15 rail summit at the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission, railroad representatives explained most products delivered to Northwest Indiana by long-distance rail actually go into Chicago first and then make their way back to the region by truck or short-haul railroad.
"Those are just the facts of life," said Chuck Allen, a transportation coordinator for railroad Norfolk Southern. "There is a huge investment in distribution facilities in Joliet (Ill.) The Kmarts, the Home Depots, do they want to come to Northwest Indiana and build distribution centers?"
Allen's mention of Joliet was a reference to the BNSF Railway's intermodal yard and the 3,600-acre logistics park opened by CenterPoint Properties in Elwood, Ill., in 2002. Retail and shipping giants such as Wal-Mart Stores; DSC Logistics, Georgia Pacific, and Maersk have giant trucking and warehouse operations there.
It employs upward of 6,000 people and is expected to employ 14,000 when fully built. Union Pacific railroad recently opened its own intermodal terminal nearby to compliment another it built west of Chicago.
Those sorts of intermodal facilities, where shipping containers full of consumer goods are unloaded from trains and onto trucks, have become the holy grail for economic developers in Northwest Indiana when they think of capitalizing on rail traffic through the region.
Northwest Indiana missed out on landing any intermodal facilities built in the Chicago region during the last rail boom, but still hopes to cash in on the economic recovery that is starting now.
The region remains one of the most rail-intense regions in the nation, where six of largest railroads squeeze hundreds of trains per day into Chicago through a 15-mile rail corridor. But according to summit participants, the area does not realize the large potential economic and jobs spinoff because most of those trains are merely passing through.
"It's just an enormous opportunity given our geographic location, so we are really focused on this," said Mark Maassel, CEO of the Northwest Indiana Forum, the region's largest private economic development group. "It's all about jobs."
That's not to say the region doesn't realize benefits now. The rail industry employs 2,895 people in Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties, with a total annual payroll of $111.5 million, according to figures collected by NIRPC.
It also is home to the largest automobile rail transfer yard in the nation, which is operated by the Indiana Harbor Belt Railway at Hammond's Gibson Yards. And Canadian National is building the Kirk Yard in Gary to be a major North American focal point for switching cars between trains.
Even during the recession, the region has been taking baby steps toward the goal of securing more benefits from all the rail activity in the region.
Earlier this month, the Ports of Indiana announced Norfolk Southern would become the first dedicated provider of switching services for the Port of Indiana Burns Harbor.
But previous excitement over railroad and developers' interest in building full-scale intermodal yards in the region never amounted to anything.
CSX Transportation confirmed two years ago it was seeking to locate a major intermodal facility in Indiana, with the most likely site apparently Union Mills in LaPorte County. But it ended up building a major intermodal yard in Northwest Ohio. Similar excitement over Norfolk Southern's interest in building such a facility west of LaPorte faded with the onset of the recession.
But planners and economic developers at the Dec. 15 rail summit in Portage said they will keep trying. And railroad representatives said there are opportunity's for growth in Northwest Indiana and their interest in the region remains active.
"If we don't try to capture some of that value, shame on us," said Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority Chairman Leigh Morris. "We believe there are significant opportunities for us in Northwest Indiana to capitalize on the movement of freight through our region."