February 15, 2008

WASHINGTON (Feb. 15)—Illinois’ senior U.S. Senator, Richard J. Durbin, sent a carefully worded letter to the Surface Transportation Board (STB) today urging that the three-person panel withhold approval of Canadian National Railway’s purchase of the Elgin Joliet & Eastern Railway (EJ&E) until CN agrees to three conditions, including funding of a new access route that would enable Amtrak trains to reach CN’s main line to Southern Illinois.

Durbin’s letter came in response to a letter that CN Chairman Hunter Harrison sent a day earlier to him. In that letter Harrison said CN would continue to allow Amtrak’s Chicago-Champaign-Carbondale trains to use CN’s St. Charles Air Line until 2010. The Air Line is an essential connection between Amtrak’s terminal at Chicago Union Station and the CN’s former Illinois Central Railroad main line to Southern Illinois.

Critics noted, however, that Harrison made no commitment to maintain the Air Line once CN’s own trains stop using it, nor did he suggest how Amtrak’s access would be maintained after its current contract expires in 2010.

If an alternate connection is not built, elimination of the Air Line would leave two popular state-sponsored Amtrak trains serving Champaign and Carbondale, plus Amtrak’s overnight City of New Orleans, without an acceptable route alternative.

So Durbin asked the STB to compel CN to provide funding for a new Amtrak connection between the IC and Norfolk Southern at Grand Crossing, eight miles south of the current Air Line connection.

“If CN purchases the EJ&E Railway with no conditions, the transaction would effectively eliminate a CN rail line critical to the operation of six daily Amtrak trains,” Durbin wrote. “This would put at serious risk Amtrak service to Champaign and Carbondale.”

Durbin said any threat to the state-sponsored trains using the IC would be unacceptable.

“Last year those routes had the greatest increase in ridership of any Amtrak route in the national system—a 67.4 per cent increase,” Durbin wrote. “Compromising those routes would almost certainly jeopardize further Amtrak expansion in Illinois and devastate the Illinois communities along those routes.”

Durbin said he was “particularly concerned” about the fates of Champaign and Carbondale, which he called “the two most popular stations along the affected Amtrak routes.

“The STB should conduct public hearings in the cities along the affected routes to examine the economic loss this essential rail service would have on those communities,” he said

Durbin also told the STB he was concerned about how CN’s acquisition of the EJ&E would affect grade-crossing safety and noise levels along the EJ&E route. Currently, EJ&E operates an average of three freight trains a day in each direction over the busiest segment of its line. After CN trains are routed onto it, the EJ&E could see between 20 and 30 train movements per day.

“CN’s heavier use of the EJ&E would mean many more [traffic] backups in the communities along the rail line,” Durbin wrote. “Each year in Illinois at least 50 people are killed and another 50 are injured in rail grade-crossing collisions. Increased crossings also would contribute to local congestion, pollution and emergency response times in many communities. The STB’s analysis should include the acquisition’s impact on safety, congestion and environmental impact in communities along the line.”

Durbin also called on the STB to ascertain the effect of the CN’s acquisition on Metra’s plans to build Chicago’s first commuter rail line that bypasses the city’s downtown. The 55-mile proposed STAR Line would connect about a dozen outer suburbs with O’Hare Airport, using 36 miles of the EJ&E alignment before diverging into the center lanes of the Illinois Tollway for access to O’Hare.

“The increased freight along this track would likely require Metra to build additional track to operate commuter trains,” Durbin wrote. “The STB should require Metra and CN to provide an accounting of the increased costs to the STAR Line as part of any environmental analysis.”