Proposed railroad merger will ‘degrade the safety and reliability’ of Chicago commuter rail: federal filing

John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune/TNS
·5 min read

A proposed merger between two major railroads will lead to “disruptive” delays to service on Metra, the Chicago metropolitan commuter rail system, and exacerbate safety issues for passengers, Metra said in a recent federal filing.

The merger would bring more freight trains to the Chicago area, and Metra said it could mean a 400% increase in delays per 100 miles along its Milwaukee District West and Milwaukee District North lines. Freight trains traveling through stations during busy commuter times could pose safety concerns, blocking access to trains and forcing Metra trains to pick up passengers at platforms opposite the side typically scheduled.

Metra’s filing was part of a merger application under review by the federal Surface Transportation Board, which would combine the Canadian Pacific and Kansas City Southern railroads in a $31 billion deal. In the Chicago area, Canadian Pacific shares tracks with Metra’s Milwaukee District West and Milwaukee District North lines, and Metra and west suburban communities have raised concerns about the potential increase in freight trains the merger could bring.

If approved, the merger would create the only railroad linking Canada, Mexico and the United States. It would be the first major railroad merger since the 1990s.

It is also expected to bring more freight trains to parts of the Milwaukee District West line, which runs to Schaumburg and Elgin. Canadian Pacific is projecting the merger could add an average of about eight extra freight trains per day to some parts of the line, bringing the total number to an average of just over 11 per day by 2027.

Canadian Pacific is not projecting an increase in freight traffic along the Milwaukee District North line, which runs to Glenview, Deerfield and Lake Forest, though Metra said in its recent filing it fears both Milwaukee District lines could be affected.

“The (Surface Transportation) Board should consider that CP has a history of noncooperation and contractual breaches with Metra, that CP’s poor dispatching leads to regular — weekly, and in some cases daily — interference with Metra’s peak and nonpeak train service, endangering and inconveniencing riders, and that the infrastructure on the Metra lines cannot accommodate the trains that the Transaction will bring to Metra’s lines,” Metra said in the filing. “The additional freight and Amtrak trains that Applicants propose to bring to Metra’s lines will degrade the safety and reliability of Metra’s service.”

Canadian Pacific also shares tracks with Amtrak trains, including the Hiawatha service to Milwaukee and parts of the long-distance Empire Builder service out of Chicago. Amtrak has supported the proposed merger, saying Canadian Pacific has consistently earned top marks for causing the least delay to Amtrak passengers and has committed to working with Amtrak to expand and extend service.

Kansas City Southern doesn’t operate in the Chicago area, though it does cross paths with Amtrak near East St. Louis.

Canadian Pacific spokesman Andy Cummings touted the Milwaukee District West’s on-time rate from 2016 to 2020, and said the proposed changes “do not represent a radical shift” in the historic use of the line.

The line between Chicago and Elgin is a double track, which will allow more freight trains without affecting Metra service, he said in a statement, adding that freight trains would not run during the busiest commuter hours.

“CP is keenly aware of the importance of efficient rail passenger services and CP has been a good partner to the passenger service operators that use our lines in the United States and Canada, including in suburban Chicago,” he said.

Canadian Pacific is talking with Metra officials about their concerns, he said.

But in the filing, Metra questioned Canadian Pacific’s train modeling, saying it conducted separate modeling that was more rigorous, and showed Canadian Pacific’s plan for train traffic could not work. The agency also said a separate stretch of track touted as a bypass to the congested Chicago area likely cannot immediately handle the amount of extra freight traffic proposed, meaning more trains would be shifted onto the Metra lines.

“The bottom line is that Metra’s passengers will suffer,” the agency said. “Serious delays and interference are inevitable.”

Already, the share of riders on the two Milwaukee District lines experiencing freight train-related delays has risen since 2016, and delays remained the same or got worse even as overall ridership fell during the COVID-19 pandemic, Metra said. And extra-long freight trains make the problem worse, because they “hang out” of the closest Canadian Pacific train yard and block sections of track.

Canadian Pacific will also continue to ignore commuter needs, Metra said. Even as the railroad proposes adding more trains to the tracks, in recent years it denied Metra’s requests to add or reinstate service, according to the filing.

On top of delays, the merger will create safety hazards for passengers, Metra said. The way trains are dispatched now “too often require passengers to cross tracks unnecessarily, dodge oncoming freight trains, or circumnavigate idling freight trains at Metra stations.”

Metra is requesting the board deny the merger application, or at least impose conditions on it. That includes measures like transferring to Metra control over who dispatches trains, track and flyover construction and financial compensation. Or, if Metra doesn’t get dispatching rights, oversight of Canadian Pacific’s dispatching of trains to make sure it doesn’t interfere with Metra service.