Federal regulators are expected to issue a decision in the coming weeks about a proposed rail merger that would bring more freight trains through parts of the Chicago area, a plan that has sparked opposition from Metra, suburban communities and Illinois members of Congress.
Their decision is expected weeks after a fiery train derailment in Ohio led to evacuations and fears of air and water contamination when toxic chemicals were released and burned. But in Chicago, a major rail hub, extra trains expected from the merger aren’t necessarily cause for new concerns about derailments and spills, experts said.
Illinois members of Congress have raised other concerns about the merger, urging federal regulators to pause a final decision until further study of the merger’s effects on the region can be completed. In a Feb. 17 letter, Democratic U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth and U.S. Reps. Raja Krishnamoorthi and Delia Ramirez said a recent environmental study “significantly underestimates the impacts of the merger” between the Canadian Pacific and Kansas City Southern railroads, and relies on disputed data provided by Canadian Pacific.
A spokesman for Krishnamoorthi said the congressman has consistently raised concerns about the effects of the merger and the Ohio derailment wasn’t a factor in his signing onto the letter. Duckworth’s office said she has also long opposed the merger because of the potential for increased noise, emergency response times and negative effects on commuter rail, pedestrian safety and the environment.
“What we’re seeing in East Palestine further illustrates the need for more transparency for rail companies and their operations,” Duckworth’s office said.
A spokesman for the federal Surface Transportation Board, which is responsible for making a decision on the merger, said the board “takes all filings seriously, including those submitted by Congress, and will consider them as they deliberate.”
Long before the Ohio train derailment, the proposed $31 billion merger of Canadian Pacific and Kansas City Southern drew consternation from west suburban communities and Metra commuter rail, whose Milwaukee District West line to Elgin is expected to be affected. Communities have raised concerns about traffic and commuter train delays, noise, vibrations, health and safety hazards, and potential problems for first responders trying to reach emergencies who find their paths blocked by trains at road crossings.
The merger would create the only railroad linking Canada, Mexico and the United States, and would be the first major railroad merger since the 1990s.
It is also projected to bring more trains to the Milwaukee District West line, where Metra shares tracks with Canadian Pacific. The railroad is projecting the merger could add an average of eight extra freight trains per day to parts of the line, bringing the total number to an average of just over 11 trains per day by 2027.
Several entities, including Metra, have disputed Canadian Pacific’s estimates and questioned the railroad’s modeling. In federal filings, Canadian Pacific has said concerns about higher-than-estimated numbers of trains passing through the area are unfounded and disputed that the merger will affect Metra, saying there is enough capacity on the line to handle more trains.
The railroad has also said it proactively reached out to communities to address concerns.
Regardless of the number, whether the extra trains bring extra derailment risk depends on what’s in the rail cars, said Ian Savage, a Northwestern University economics professor who specializes in transportation. Kansas City Southern is known more for transporting manufactured goods made in Mexico than for transporting chemicals, he said.
Though hazardous materials pose the biggest risk, even derailment of nonchemical materials can be a problem, he said. In 2012, for example, a Union Pacific coal train bound for Wisconsin derailed on a viaduct near the border of Glenview and Northbrook, causing the bridge to collapse and burying a car below in debris. A Glenview couple who were in the car were killed.
The speed of the trains will also matter, said David Clarke, director of the Center for Transportation Research at the University of Tennessee. Still, the proposed new cars will be traveling over tracks used for passenger trains, meaning they are likely very well maintained and scrutinized.
“I can’t say it’s impossible that (a derailment) would happen, I just don’t think it’s something that we can expect,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a high-risk type thing.”
Much of the traffic that could be added to the Milwaukee District West line might already be moving through Chicago on other lines, because Chicago is a major rail hub, Clarke said.
Every day, more than 1,300 freight and passenger trains pass through the Chicago region, according to the Illinois Department of Transportation.
Though the amount of derailments has been on a steady decline since the 1970s, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation, the number of tankers carrying hazardous materials on derailed trains has risen. In 2019, railroads in Illinois handled about 9.95 million tons of hazardous materials, according to the Illinois Commerce Commission.
Nick Little, railway education director at Michigan State University, said the U.S. freight system is one of the best in the world in terms of circulating goods around the country to support the economy. Moving goods in bulk offers a more energy-efficient and safer approach to transportation than road travel.
“Whenever a railway vehicle is moving there’s a risk involved,” he said. “The railways at the moment are about as safe as they have ever been.”
In 2021, hazardous materials were involved in train derailments — though not always released — or were released for another reason 64 times in Illinois, according to the ICC. That was the highest number of railroad hazmat events since 2018, but lower than the 91 events a decade earlier.
Fourteen of the 2021 hazmat events took place in the six-county Chicago region and involved the release of the materials, ICC figures show. The material most often released was diesel, such as from a locomotive or refrigeration unit on a container.
“We have a lot of train traffic coming here,” said Scott Bernstein, founder of the Chicago-based Center for Neighborhood Technology who has spent much of his life studying transportation. “Now the question is do we have a lot of through traffic of long trains of the type that was implicated in the Ohio crash? That’s a little harder to classify.”
According to the Association of American Railroads, the chemical industry is one of the largest in the United States, and 19% of its transport costs are attributable to rail. The highest-volume chemical carried by U.S. railroads is ethanol. Over half of all rail chemical carloads contain various industrial chemicals, including soda ash, caustic soda, sulfuric acid and anhydrous ammonia. Plastic materials and synthetic resins account for nearly a quarter of rail chemical carloads and most of the rest are agricultural chemicals.
According to a New York Times report, some lawmakers and activists say a 2015 safety regulation adopted by the Obama administration is an example of the changes needed to make railroads safer. The rule, requiring an electric braking system for certain high-hazard trains, was repealed by the Trump administration in 2018 after lobbying by the railroad industry.
José Holguin-Veras, director of the Center for Infrastructure, Transportation and the Environment at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, said the regulation required certain tankers to have electric braking systems as opposed to air brakes.
Air brakes, which transmit an air signal along the brake pipe, result in time lapses between leading cars and the ones in the rear. Especially for longer trains, air brakes cause braking to happen at different times, slowing some cars down while others continue to push. When releasing, the front of the train pulls the still braking rear cars, putting strain on the couplers.
Electric brakes seek to minimize operational restraint and give instant control to the driver, providing quick reaction times throughout the whole train. Since most older train models employ air braking systems, electric brakes are more expensive, according to Holguin-Veras.
“Electric brakes basically react immediately,” Holguin-Veras said. “The brakes are activated and they’re safer.”
Minimizing risk to railway workers and drivers on the road is also an important part of creating regulations. Little, who worked for the British railway system for 18 years, said larger, urban areas like Chicago have higher potential for accidents for maintenance workers and railway personnel, and cities can have many railroad crossings.
“It’s a very unforgiving environment,” he said, but “it’s a lot safer than the road.”
Maille is a freelance reporter for the Chicago Tribune. The Associated Press contributed