Trains roll on in region

2014-04-12T23:00:00Z 2014-04-14T08:14:07Z Trains roll on in regionBy Keith Benman, (219) 933-3326

Shifts in train traffic stemming from Canadian National Railway's purchase of the EJ&E line five years ago are causing a surge in blocked vehicle crossings in Northwest Indiana and nearby Illinois.

A Times analysis of Canadian National operating reports for February shows blockages of 10 minutes or more have tripled during the past two years on the EJ&E in the region while only increasing 32 percent on the 190-mile line as a whole.

And recently, Munster and Griffith have experienced a high number of CSX trains blocking crossings, which appears to be due to new trackage rights the railroad has obtained on Canadian National's Grand Trunk line.

"There certainly are more trains and they seem to be a little longer," said Griffith Council President Rick Ryfa. "But they also move a little quicker. Except for the ones that are sitting there not going anyplace."

The shift in train traffic on those two rail lines during the past five years is the most extreme example of what is occurring across the region, as freight volumes build and railroads compete to find quicker ways to get trains through Chicago.

Canadian National's operating report for February shows about 24 trains per day made their way through Griffith on the EJ&E. Before the purchase, eight trains per day made their way across the town's seven crossings. The same report shows 23 trains per day made their way through Schererville, Dyer, and Lynwood in February. Before the purchase, it was only about 10 trains per day.

In 2008, the railroad forecast Griffith would eventually have 28 trains per day passing through and the other communities about 34.

Nevertheless, local officials along the EJ&E route say they have found Canadian National's purchase of the line in late 2008 to have an upside.

That's because "quiet zones" have been instituted in Lynwood, Dyer, Schererville and Griffith. Those zones silence the warning horns trains normally blast as they pass through crossings. The peace and quiet has been made possible by millions of dollars in crossing improvements paid for by Canadian National.

"That has been an absolute lifesaver for our citizens," Ryfa said of the extensive crossing improvements in Griffith. "The quality of life here just improved by leaps and bounds."

Canadian National for the last five years has worked diligently to implement mitigation measures such as the above totaling $60 million, according to Canadian National spokesman Patrick Waldron. In all, the railroad entered into voluntary mitigation agreements with more than 20 communities on the arc of the EJ&E stretching from Gary to Waukegan, Ill.

Waldron acknowledged the shifts in train traffic have caused problems at times for towns and residents, but he said the railroad continues to work closely with local officials to resolve those. He also noted there was an uptick in crossing blockages on the EJ&E line overall in February.

"The winter weather has affected transportation systems around the country, and the rail system is no different," Waldron said.

In Dyer, the Town Council took action last week to use some of the last money Canadian National handed over under its mitigation agreement. The council voted 4-1 to ask the town's economic development corporation to release $180,000 so that trees can be planted to screen two subdivisions from the EJ&E tracks.

Town manager Rick Eberly said residents are not only contending with many more trains rumbling by, but the railroad is also parking train cars along the track.

Five years ago, the communities of Lansing and Munster figured to reap a substantial benefit from the EJ&E purchase. That's because Canadian National trains on the Grand Trunk line were forecast to fall from 22 trains per day to less than three. The Grand Trunk runs east-west and parallel to 45th Avenue in Munster.

But in early 2013 Canadian National ceded CSX more extensive trackage rights on the Grand Trunk line. CSX then turned around and granted trackage rights to Union Pacific Railroad on a portion of the line in Illinois.

In its monthly reports to federal regulators, Canadian National does not count the number of trains other railroads are running on the Grand Trunk through Griffith and Munster.

But in its own filings with federal regulators, CSX forecast it would run about 20 more trains per day on some portions of the line west of Munster. In addition, because of improvements to the EJ&E in Griffith and at Kirk Yard, CSX can now move trains more easily onto the Grand Trunk.

Those moves appear to have created congestion that is causing CSX trains to park for long periods in Munster and Griffith.

So far this year, Munster police have issued 12 tickets to trains blocking a Grand Trunk crossing for more than 10 minutes, according to Munster Police Chief Steve Scheckel. That compares to just nine all of last year.

On Feb. 7, a CSX train blocked the White Oak crossing for so long that one crew actually got off work and another had to come to replace it, blocking traffic from about 2 p.m. until midnight. Meetings between town officials and Canadian National at its Homewood headquarters appear to have improved the situation for now, Scheckel said.

"That was the straw that broke the camel's back," Scheckel said. "They have been trying to do a better job since."

CSX Transportation in an email response to an inquiry from The Times blamed the problems on "the brutal winter season." It stated the situation is improving.

"CSX works hard to minimize inconveniences to traffic, and greatly appreciates the patience of the communities in which we operate," the statement read.

Lynwood Mayor Eugene Williams has experienced crossing blockages first hand at the EJ&E crossing at U.S. 30 at the southeast end of his town. He has sat in lines of cars and trucks on the north side of the crossing with an ambulance with flashing lights in the same line.

But that is about to change. That's because the Illinois Department of Transportation is taking bids this month for a vehicle overpass at the crossing. The project has an estimated $25 million price tag, with 78.5 percent of the cost to be paid by the railroad as per federal Surface Transportation Board order. Construction is expected to start in June.

"The main benefit will be public safety," Williams said. "But it will also make the whole area look a lot more attractive."

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