December 24, 2003

CHICAGO (Dec. 24)—A crowd of transportation experts estimated at three times normal paid close attention November 13 when two members of an East Coast consulting firm warned that regional economic growth hinges on completion of massive investments in railroad infrastructure.

Andreas Aeppli and Jim Blair of Reebie Associates, a consulting firm retained by the Chicago Department of Transportation, said rail freight transportation is so important to the Chicago regional economy that a shift of only one or two percent in rail activity could cause the loss or gain of some 15,000 jobs.

The two consultants also said their study showed that the strategy most likely to boost economic growth would be “selective rationalization and reinvestment” in railroad infrastructure.

Specifically this would mean carrying out the proposals in the Chicago Regional Environmental and Transportation Equity (CREATE) program. CREATE would expand trackage, upgrade signaling and build flyover junctions at key choke points to eliminate congestion and move more freight trains at higher speeds.

Aeppli and Blair said speeding up freight and passenger trains through the Chicago area would persuade shippers nationwide to switch more freight from truck to train. It also would make the Chicago region more attractive to businesses seeking a site for a factory or distribution center, they said.

The consulting team presented their findings at a monthly meeting of the “Sandhouse Gang,” a loose affiliation of railroad executives, rail advocates, government officials and academics who meet monthly under the sponsorship of the Northwestern University Transportation Center. UTU Illinois Legislative Director Joseph C. Szabo represents rail labor at the Sandhouse meetings.

“Normally we have 20 to 25 people at a monthly Sandhouse meeting, but interest in the Reebie report was so high that we had to switch the venue to a bigger room at DePaul University in downtown Chicago,” Szabo said. “Seventy eight people attended, including some very high-ranking officials from the City of Chicago. Some people had to stand because the room still wasn’t big enough.”

Szabo said he found the overflow crowd “encouraging and rewarding” because it vindicated ideas he and other transportation activists have been advocating for several years.

Groups such as Metropolis 2020 and Business Leaders for Transportation (BLT) have long maintained that Chicago’s 150-year-old regional freight-rail network is not adequate to the demands being placed upon it. Szabo, a member of BLT and Executive Council member of Metropolis 2020 said, “The advocacy of these civic groups was a critical component in the rail industry’s development of the CREATE plan. I’m delighted to see that the City of Chicago retained a consultant who documented numerically what we had suspected about the need to update our rail infrastructure.”

Szabo noted that following the November Sandhouse Gang presentation the U.S. Department of Transportation issued its own report confirming what the two civic groups and the City’s consultant had found. USDOT said that since industry deregulation in 1980 freight rail traffic has grown 64 per cent and the nation’s rail carriers do not have the track or signal capacity to accommodate further growth.

“Many of our members could have told them the same thing,” Szabo said. “Not just Chicago, but the entire nation, needs a massive program of infrastructure investment so we can run more trains the way the shippers and travelers want them to run and use rail technology to grow the U.S. economy. I’m proud that UTU has taken a proactive, hands-on approach to growing this industry and ensuring freight moves by rail and not trucks. The growth of rail ensures a strong and stable future for our members.”