The Chicago rail terminal is the largest and most complex in the United States, and not just for carload traffic. In terms of sheer volume, Chicago would qualify as the third-largest container port in the world. The fundamental need for GLBT’s proposed rail line arises out of the limited capacity at this already-congested rail hub.
Chicago is the preferred interchange point for much of the freight traffic carried by the six Class 1 railroads serving the city, with about 500 freight trains operating in the area on an average weekday. A substantial fraction of that traffic—estimated at 15 to 25%—does not originate or terminate in Chicago. Today, that traffic has to fight its way through a crowded terminal area that also hosts about 700 Metra and Amtrak passenger trains every weekday. To make matters more difficult, Chicago’s physical plant, although well-maintained, has not changed significantly in over a century.
The severe winters of 2012-13 and 2013-14 underscored how problematic the Chicago rail terminal can be. As weather delays grew, the terminal was quickly stretched beyond its capacity, creating severe delays for commodities moving through the terminal. And because Chicago is the most important hub for the six largest Class 1 railroads, those delays reverberated throughout the entire North American rail network.
These are the issues that exist today. In the future, as business and population in the Chicago region expand, even more rail capacity will be needed. But because the present Chicago rail network is surrounded by urban and suburban development, it would be extraordinarily expensive—if not impossible—to add additional main track capacity to the current Chicago terminal. That is where GLBT’s proposed new rail line comes in.
The purpose of the GLBR project is to construct and operate a safe, reliable, and entirely new freight rail bypass around Chicago that would link existing main lines entering the Chicago area, permit trains to bypass the congested terminal area, and add capacity to accommodate existing and reasonably anticipated future growth—all while avoiding major population centers along its route.
The proposed GLBR would provide additional capacity by giving the Class 1 railroads an alternate route for the 15-to-25% of current Chicago rail traffic that does not need to go into the terminal for sorting or delivery. By using the GLBR route, many unit commodity trains and mixed carload and intermodal trains could avoid Chicago’s congestion and transfer from railroad to railroad in eight hours or less under normal circumstances. The capacity relief resulting from the GLBR project should allow the railroads to better handle their Chicago proper and suburban traffic, and make room for potential future growth within the existing terminal network. What is more, the increased capacity offered by the GLBR will enhance the effectiveness of other projects designed to improve traffic flow within the Chicago rail hub, including the Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency Program (CREATE).
Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, GO TO 2040 Comprehensive Regional Plan, October 2010
City of Chicago Freight Rail Futures- Highlights of the Executive Summary, November 2003
City of Chicago Freight Rail Futures- Executive Summary, November 2003
CREATE Program, Status Update- February 2017