Sunday, February 1, 2009

What to Do if the Tracks Make Tracks?

posted by Richard Gill




On Dec. 24, 2008, the U.S. Surface Transportation Board (STB) approved a railroad transaction that is likely to affect Hyde Park and neighboring communities. The ruling allows the Canadian National Railway (CN) to acquire the Elgin Joliet & Eastern Railway (EJ&E). The merger was made official Jan. 31, 2009. A number of suburbs are still contesting the ruling, but the decision most probably will stand.


Canadian National is the freight line that runs adjacent to Metra Electric. The CN and Metra share the right-of-way, but there is an ownership boundary between them. The CN-EJ&E merger will not impact the commuter service.


A 50-words-or-less history: Long time residents will remember the entire railroad as the Illinois Central (IC). Until 1987, IC owned and operated the electric commuter trains and tracks; in that year, Metra purchased IC’s commuter service. In 1998, CN acquired the IC freight railroad.


The EJ&E is a belt line that arcs around Chicago. CN plans to route most of its freight trains via that line, rather than through Chicago’s rail-congested center. This won’t fully happen tomorrow, because CN has to build $100 million in capacity improvements and voluntary environmental measures along the EJ&E, plus about another hundred million in environmental mitigation measures negotiated with ten suburbs or ordered by the STB as a condition of its approval.


CN’s operating plan says—and this may take a couple, or more, years—after the merger, there will be zero freight traffic on a number of lines. Their lakefront line, through Hyde Park, is one of those lines. Amtrak trains would remain until money is found to build new connections for them. Eventually, the CN is likely to abandon the lakefront line between 94th St. and 16th St., thence to some point on the West Side.


Canadian National Locomotive Near 53rd Street in Hyde Park


That leaves the question: How is it to be decided, in the open, what should be done with the right-of-way? I posed a similar question for the record during the EIS public comment period, and I communicated the issue to the 4th and 5th Ward Aldermen. If nothing else, my comment to the STB was probably unusual, for mostly they received objections from people living along the EJ&E, who fear a potential threefold increase in freight train traffic following the merger.


Abandonment will require a separate STB proceeding and approval, after which the railroad would have no control over the property. It is possible, though, that the railroad would reach an agreement, or sale, prior to, or as part of, the abandonment proceedings.


My immediate purpose for this post is not to propose any possible alternative use(s) of the right-of-way, nor to object to any. (I will let my opinions be known in the blog comments and other discussions.) In the U.S., the problem in not new, nor is it unique to Hyde Park or Chicago. Right now, I just want to say that the issue is a real one for our community, and that it is better to plan ahead than to be surprised.


The CN-EJ&E proceeding is in STB Finance Docket No. 35087.

See www.stbfinancedocket35087.com

36 comments:

chicago pop said...

I hear those freight trains a dozen times each day. I know the folks out in Barrington and Naperville won't believe me, but I'll miss those trains when they're gone.

How else will I know when it's 2 in the morning?

Aaron said...

Dare I say it...? Grey/Gold Line!

edj said...

When my wife and I were looking to buy in Hyde Park, we looked at a place in one of the high rises next to the rail lines. About 20 seconds after the real estae agent said that only commuter trains travel on those tracks, a long freight train went by. Needless to say, we moved to west Hyde Park.

It would be interesing if the mayor suddenly were to get funding to put in an el line on those track in advance of the Olympics. Get some stimulus funding to do it.

Greg said...

El line there probably wouldn't work out... would end up redundant with the Metra/IC. Plus the track is the wrong gauge and CTA would need to install the third rail.

I'm not sure that right of way could be used for anything except more trains. Provided we got the Olympics, I imagine Metra could expand the 55-56-57 station and run express trains on those lines. My guess is most folks would be riding the green line, though, since it's right next to Washington Park. My guess is the track will just end up abandoned (we already have countless miles of abandoned track/right of way in the US... real shame that we don't still ship goods to warehouses by rail instead of clogging the interstates with huge, fume belching trucks).

Speaking of the olympics, think about all the guests who will stay at the Stony Island Marriott and spend their money on 57th. Oh wait...

rdb said...

An El line is exactly what is needed -- it can and should replace the South Chicago Metra electric spur AND run down through Chatham, maybe beyond. The Metra is great as a suburban commuter line, but it's terrible as intracity rapid transit, and the south and southeast sides definitely need much more rapid connection to the rest of the city. Think about a new SE Side El paired with redevelopment of the SouthWorks site. Who cares if the track is the wrong guage? The hardest part about building an El line is the right of way, and you have that already. The Orange line developed in EXACTLY this way.

Raymond said...

Looks like the freights may begin to go away as soon as March 4.

http://www.chicagobreakingnews.com/2009/02/canadian-railway-closes-deal-for-eje.html

I predict that CN will "abandon" one of the two tracks soon thereafter and keep one in good shape for the Amtrak trains and the occasional freights. The Amtrak trains will likely be on the line for many years to come, though the connection they need to build at Grand Crossing is in one of the stimulus package bills working its way through Congress. But, it'll still take a year or two build it, I bet. But, the end of non-Metra trains in Hyde Park is near.

I'm with you chicago pop...I'll miss the sounds of those big diesel engines, but I'm guessing we're in the minority on that one.

Richard Gill said...

Raymond is correct, that CN is planning to initiate some freight reroutes in early March. CN has already taken over dispatching trains on the EJ&E. However, the present EJ&E line is mostly single-track and has limited track connections to the CN. The complete changeover will take some time. How much time is a good question.

Unfortunately for CN, opposition towns like Barrington have the resources to bring serious legal and political heat, and that's exactly what they did. I think CN was rocked by the ferocity and staying power of the suburban opposition to the merger, and it took the railroad some time to adjust its strategy. (I don't want to draw too strong a similarity to U of C's handling of the hotel proposal, but...)

I see some comments about CTA's track gauge. It is standard railroad gauge. What's different is the CTA narrow carbody width (and, of course, their cars' short length because of the CTA's extremely sharp curves). Until the 1970s, CTA actually handled some railroad carload freight on the North Side. The incline that carried the connecting track has remained standing for decades, just south of the Wilson Red Line station, although it has been scheduled for demolition.

I, too, will miss the freights, but i won't miss looking at all the graffiti on the freight cars.

Elizabeth Fama said...

I wonder if no freight trains means that the home values on the east side of 5700-5900 Harper Ave. will go up, and if so, by how much.

Charlie said...

What is the rail we're talking about here? Is this the same rail line as the Electric route? If so, is the only difference that freight trains wouldn't go through HP anymore?

This isn't actually going to result in any unused railway, is it? If not, I don't see what the fuss would be. It'd just get used less. Unless I'm missing something.

Greg said...

It's not that I oppose an El line replacing (or supplementing) the Metra Electric, it's that I don't think the RTA would go for it.

Because:

1. They just spent a pile of cash rebuilding the 51/53 and 55/56/57 stations 5 years ago. Converting the Metra stations to El stations would require another significant renovation, if not a total rebuild of all (if nothing else the platforms are the wrong height).

2. Metra just spent millions on (really nice) new cars for that line (that actually have restrooms!).

3. Removing the pantographs and installing a third rail would be cost-prohibitive. Also, (and correct me if I'm wrong) I think the El runs on DC while the Metra Electric is AC. If that's the case, they'd have to replace most, if not all, of the electrical service throughout the line.

4. How to extend the line so it meets the rest of the El system? I guess you could cut the branch and join it in the South Loop someplace. Or do we have one line by itself, separate from the others?

5. What about the Indiana South Shore trains? Do we let them continue to run on the existing Metra track and the brand new (and gorgeous) Randolph/South Water/Millennium Station is just for South Shore trains?

I'm not saying it couldn't be done or that I don't want it, I just don't think it WILL happen. The RTA would be hard pressed to junk all the renovations and upgrades they've done on that line and replace it with an El line.

What I think would make more sense (from a realistic standpoint) is to rebuild the Green Line extension to Stony Island that was demolished due to ignorance, NIMBYism, and poor leadership back in 1982.

Richard Gill said...

"What is the rail we're talking about here?"

There are two separate railroads in Hyde Park: Canadian National (the two east tracks) and Metra (the four west tracks). The abandonment issue only involves the Canadian National tracks. The Metra tracks and trains would not be affected.

The freights would stop coming through Hyde Park, and the two freight tracks would ultimately be removed. A substantial strip of land, about 60 feet wide would be vacant/available for whatever.

Metra would probably want to retain a small width as a service road. The present service road is itself where two more freight tracks once were. The Illinois Central pulled them up 30- 40 years ago when railroads were retrenching.

"I wonder if...home values...will go up..."

I doubt that absence of freight trains would do anything to bump up property values on the east side of Harper. There are about a dozen freights a day, on the far side of the embankment. There are more than 200 commuter trains each weekday on the side near the homes. I believe the noise of the commuter trains must be a lot more noticeable than the noise from the freights.

chicago pop said...

Richard's comment would suggest that an L line along the former CN right-of-way would not have to be fitted to the Metra stations and equipment, but built from scratch on the east side of the embankment, if I understand correctly. So you could have Metra AND the L running side by side.

And/or maybe a bike lane, too.

Charlie said...

Well, if it were up to me, we'd just split the four Electric tracks into two, with all Metra/South Shore trains using the two east rails and expressing from 59th (or whatever) to downtown, and local L service running on the remaining two rails, possibly all through the current South Shore line. If L service WERE installed (and that'd probably be cost-prohibitive anyway), the Metra would have no need to stop anywhere between Hyde Park and Randolph.

bornatreese said...

Why would a potential extension of the L need L tracks? Isn't it just an administrative matter of increasing train frequency and allowing transfers to the rest of the CTA? Besides the cost of running it, the only other thing worth investing is an additional station or two between 47th and 27th.

Richard Gill said...

If anyone would like to read up on this subject, I recommend "When the Railroad Leaves Town", by Joseph P. Schwieterman, Truman State University Press. It looks at a number of communities that lost rail service.

In response to some comments/questions posted:

Both Metra and CTA trains are fed by DC power. Metra is 1500V, CTA is 600V.

Metra and South Shore trains will continue running through Hyde Park, and will need Metra's tracks, whether or not any parallel or joint-track rapid transit ever would, or could, be established. Most of Metra Electric's riders come from suburban stations as far south as University Park. Probably Metra will eventually extend to Monee (and Peotone if the mythical South Suburban Airport is ever built).

Until the 1950s, the Illinois Central commuter service WAS, in effect, a rapid transit service, dominated by trains within the city. Train frequency, all day, between downtown and South Chicago was every 10 minutes; between downtown and Hyde Park, it was every five minutes. There were even trains that ran solely between downtown and 53rd Street, where there was a "tail track" for trains to reverse direction. (That's why the main tracks are so far apart just south of 53rd Street). There were local stops every half mile, all the way downtown. Between 51st St. and Roosevelt Road, there were six (!) tracks exclusively for commuter trains. But that was then. The auto, the express bus, and the suburbs arose. Over the years, the IC/Metra Electric has evolved physically into a suburban service railroad.

Nonetheless, as Bornatreese suggests, a rapid transit-esque operation could be possible on the Metra Electric, using Metra equipment, with lower capital cost than building a separate line. Rapid transit-style service would require alterations to present track, overhead power, stations, fare collection, terminals, other facilities, and even on-board systems. It may be quite costly to operate, given the power needs of Metra cars, Metra labor agreements, and the operation of Metra door controls.

'L' trains could ride the Metra rails, but even with dual power systems, they wouldn't be compatible with Metra station platforms. Further, their operational parameters and collision strength are very different, and that would not please the Federal Railroad Administration (even though the new U.S. Secretary of Transportation is from Illinois). I'm assuming that a proposed 'L' train on Metra, even if feasible, would have to be compatible with the rest of the CTA system, rather than "stand alone."

It's not clear that Metra could cede two of its four tracks to a local transit service and still be able to dependably and efficiently run its suburban service with adequate carrying capacity. Metra has recently enhanced its signal system, just to handle present traffic. Also, the South Shore, a tenant on Metra, will begin running new bi-level cars (they are gorgeous) this spring, and can be expected to add trains.

I have probably just scratched the surface. Let's just say the whole thing is really costly and complex.

Raymond said...

A friend in the rail industry tells me that the South Shore Line would like to run more trains downtown than it currently does. However, capacity on the Metra lines is constrained. They've raised the idea of obtaining at least one of the CN tracks to add capacity to downtown and back during the rush hours.

So, when the ultimate abandonment occurs, we may hear more about this. This would require the electrification of additional track (which is expensive).

Richard Gill said...

"South Shore...raised the idea of obtaining at least one of the CN tracks to add capacity..."

That could pretty much resolve the issue of future use of at least part of the right-of-way——keeping a railroad there. That may very well be the "highest and best use" for the land, with the greatest public benefit. It surely would be the easiest to implement. Also, it makes sense for Metra, the South Shore, commuters, and downtown employers.

The South Shore (technically, the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District) has been negotiating to use some Canadian National track at 115th St./Kensington, where the South Shore-Metra junction is. This will enable South Shore trains to bypass the 115th St. Metra station, which is a choke point. Using the CN track all the way downtown is a much larger enterprise. A worthy enterprise, I would say.

Yes, overhead wire would have to be put up, a substation may have to be added, and the track would have to be resignaled. But Metra and the South Shore are both very good at that.

Charlie said...

So South Shores express through on the eastern rails, maybe with one stop in Hyde Park, then nothing else til downtown. The Electric takes the western two rails, again making one stop in Hyde Park, then expressing to downtown. And the South Chicago route runs in the middle, making all stops from 93rd to Hyde Park to downtown, and running an L-style schedule with L-level frequency and service til 1 AM.

That's the gray line, almost completely. Except the fare collection, but with this all set up, that final step wouldn't be all that hard. Hyde Park gets more rail frequency at night, but we also get useful mass transit.

Greg said...

The main problem as I see it in running Metra E trains like the L is the size and quantity of cars.

Suburban direct service should retain current train size but a "gray" line, being much more frequent (every 15 minutes?) should only be 2 cars long.

That leaves us with the problem of "do we have enough Metra E train cars to do this?" Probably so, provided they've kept the old trains that were replaced by the new Nippon Sharyo cars.

FYI, the reason I thought the Metra E ran on AC is because the new N-S trains actually have an onboard inverter that converts the line DC power to AC (AC has many advantages over DC).

edj said...

There would still need to be Metra stops in Hyde Park from the suburbs because there are a lot of folks who travel to Hyde PArk to work from the suburbs and NW Indiana. It would be great to have more frequent stops in the city, but there'd need to be some new stps at 35th Street and a couple of other places

Richard Gill said...

The Metra and South Shore cars that are fabricated by Nippon Sharyo in Japan and assembled by Super Steel in Milwaukee have AC motors, as Greg says, but the overhead feed is still DC (a legacy from 80 years ago). The AC cars cannot be operated in the same train with the older cars.

Historical digression: The cab controls on the new cars are totally different from the older Highliners. However, the older Highliners, built in the 1970s, have cab controls almost identical to those in the 1926-vintage cars they replaced. That was largely to avoid the need for substantial retraining of engineers. Another tidbit: the 1926 cars did not have speedometers. The factory-equipment speedometers didn't work very well and were simply removed. That's one reason the Illinois Central's commuter service was a somewhat hot-roddish operation. The engineers knew, by feel, how fast they were going, and they pushed the speed limits. Those cars could stop on a relative dime, and would really come screaming into Randolph Street station.

Anyway, back to the present. Just for discussion, let's say the Grey or Gold (or whatever) line becomes a serious proposal. Whither, then, all the express bus service? Will there be enough money, or riders, to support both? It's doubtful. The CTA Orange Line, opened in 1993, supplanted perhaps a half dozen express bus routes. It was one or the other. A lot of people were very happy, and a lot of people were very unhappy. The #6, #14, and now the #26 and X28 are VERY popular. I can feel the heat even now, if a rail line put those routes in jeopardy.

In this neck of the woods, the close frequency of the #6 bus, and the very existence of the #14, are direct results of misbegotten RTA fare policy in 1981. Commuter rail fares doubled overnight, and IC ridership in Hyde Park and South Chicago nearly dried up. Two-car trains sufficed in the rush hours. The CTA found itself swamped with new riders, and, as a defensive measure as much as anything, added service in wholesale lots. (I don't know where they found the equipment).

A later RTA board reversed the rail fare increase, but the damage had been done. So, train frequency on the South Chicago branch is every 15 to 20 minutes in the rush; and on both the branch and in Hyde Park, it is hourly off-peak (same as service in the suburbs). Hyde Park's rush hour service is more frequent, simply because some trains to/from the suburbs stop here, primarily to serve U of C employees, and to facilitate transfers. Lucky us!

My purpose, in this comment, is not to promote one transit mode over another, but to say there are tradeoffs, and those tradeoffs go beyond bus vs rail, or commuter rail vs rapid transit, or any of them vs a currently popular mode—bus rapid transit. Saying "Let's put in the Gold Line" may sound great, but it won't happen in a vacuum. That's why public authorities conduct feasibility studies, mode choice analyses, and environmental impact statements, in addition to dealing with the politics and competing for scarce dollars.

GF said...

Metra has only replaced a small percentage of their old fleet with the new cars. They're waiting on funding from the state to complete the purchase -- good luck with that, eh? The old cars are almost 40 years old and have already been rebuilt once so I wouldn't think they have a whole lot of life left in them.

The cars that have been replaced are gone. They were in the Kensington Yard for quite some time before they were hauled off, presumably for scrap.

Richard Gill said...

Right, GF. Metra wanted to replace all 165 cars, but there was only money for 26 replacement cars. The number of old cars retired wasn't exactly 1 for 1, but it was a similar number. They retired the worst of the lot, stripped usable parts out of some of them and sent them to a salvage company. A half dozen or so were sold to a railroad museum, in Iowa I believe, to be pulled by a locomotive on excursions.

South Shore couldn't get public money for their new cars, either. So they went into the bond market and were able to eke out enough for 14 cars. South Shore needs the new cars for capacity...they are swamped with passengers. A nice problem to have.

Two of the 1926 IC cars are at the Illinois Railway Museum, in Union, Illinois, as is the big Santa Fe steam locomotive that used to be at the Museum of Science & Industry.

Steven Lucy said...

Turning off reality checks for a moment...

What really needs to happen with the IC tracks is to put them back to good use hauling long-distance passenger trains. And I don't mean Amtrak. A glorious re-build of Central Station at Roosevelt could be one end of a pilot high-speed, grade-separated, electrified line to New York. With comparable downtown-to-downtown latency as air planes, but without the hassle and chronic delays, and an affordable ticketing scheme that allows for last-minute bookings, this line would be competitive with air travel while offering an alternative to an economically and geographically disadvantaged class that must now rely on automobiles or Grey Hound for long distance travel. As the real high-speed rail network (outperforming the Acela nonsense by leaps and bounds) continued to grow, the antiquated, fossil-fuel-dependent airline industry would contract to its logical function of spanning large bodies of water, while eventually the independent rail networks on the west coast and midwest/east coast would merge at Denver, once again spanning this golden continent in a display of American engineering might -- though this time we would rely on our superior technology and research abilities, providing thousands of jobs to all economic classes, rather than relying on a subjugated ethnic class.

As cars and suburban-located airports fell into disuse, a surge of population and investment would return to walkable cities with good local transit. Rather than being routinely underfunded, transit agencies in major urban centers would be struggling to build and upgrade lines fast enough to handle the permanent swell in ridership. Rather than eliminating slow zones on the blue line, the CTA would be adding express tracks providing service from O'Hare (still a center of international travel) to the loop in under 15 minutes, in addition to the existing all-stop service.

Ok, so that's not going to happen -- back to running my produce store. I'll miss the freight trains, and I hope they don't break up the right of way like they did with the Kenwood Branch.

Greg said...

Considering how populations have increased, it would be nice to see the Kenwood Branch and even some of the other former L branches rebuilt and brought back into service.

#6 notwithstanding, the bus, frankly, sucks. They clog the streets, they don't run a consistent schedule, the older ones break down constantly, they belch exhaust. I took the bus to work for about a year before I got fed up and resumed my Metra monthly pass. Riding the train, any train, to me is blissful and stress-free (even the Red Line) because I know within a reasonable range of time when I'll arrive at my destination. With the bus, you have to contend with traffic and constant breakdowns. Just thinking about the bus makes my blood pressure go up.

Richard Gill said...

"I hope they don't break up the right of way like they did with the Kenwood Branch."

Well, If a list were to be made containing all of the possible futures for the Canadian National's side of the right-of-way, one of them would be removal to ground level. That is, cutting away the east half of the embankment and daylighting the east half of the bridges. An alternatives study would likely include it.

Ok, ok, ok, I am NOT advocating this outcome. Anyway, it would only be relevant in the extremely unlikely event that absolutely no feasible use could be found for the right-of-way.

But just think of the possible dispositions for all that rubble...a new revetment for the Point; a berm around the 39th Precinct; filling in the lagoon around Wooded Island; converting the Midway into a surface parking lot; a highway overpass above 55th Street; a ski slope in Nichols Park.

Nah. The preservationists would sue to save it all, in place. Those spalling bridge columns are irreplaceable Hyde Park history.

chicago pop said...

On the statement that "buses suck": I hear you, but they move more people than trains, and the roads would be more clogged if they didn't keep those people out of cars (and less indebted to all the creditors that finance cars and the things that go into them...)

Jennifer said...

"Just thinking about the bus makes my blood pressure go up."

Word. And it isn't even cheaper anymore.

Greg said...

The biggest mistake the city made was ripping out the streetcars and replacing them with buses. It was even worse when they replaced the nice, quiet, electric buses with the diesel ones.

A lifelong Chicagoan who grew up here in the 50s told me the city junked the electric buses in favor of diesel because Detroit basically gave the buses to the City in a kind of King Gillette business model. No comment on whether that's actually true or not.

I do recognize the place buses have in a public transport system but I think there's more room for trains/subways.

edj said...

Buses are good because they cost less to operate and maintain. They may suck, but they allow greater flexibility to meet changing transporation needs. New train lines are usually more expensive than hey need to be. Chicago is lucky it is a hub for railroads becasue we have the built in infrastrucure. Other cities that build light rail pay too much.

It would be nice if we could use the opportuniy to reroute the commuter trains to the old freight lines over the overpasses so that thye could be reconstructed. Probably logistically difficult given the reconxruction of the stations a few years back.

Richard Gill said...

The most notorious case of Detroit undoing a functioning electric railway system was in Los Angeles. The piecemeal purchase and shut down of the sprawling Pacific Electric transit system by General Motors has been well documented. It even formed the backdrop story for Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Southern California's obsessive car culture didn't just happen by itself.

Transit systems today are owned by public authorities, but in the years following WWII, they were mostly in private hands. The fact that these privately owned transit systems began to bleed money after WWII made them easy targets for purchase.

edj said...

The biggest legacy of the multiple privately owned bus lines are the numbers for different bus lines that make absolutely no sense.

Greg said...

Tried to post this yesterday but lost it.

Buses are good because they cost less to operate and maintain.

I dispute this. Are there any in-depth studies that prove it? Although I'm not an expert on citywide transit, it seems to me comparing light rail to buses is apples and oranges. Each form of transportation serves its purpose in a complete transit package.

1. For example, do the studies take into account the large fuel expenditures that buses need, not to mention the nearly constant maintenance our older bus stock needs just to stay on life support? Repairing these buses every time they break down isn't cheap, especially when you're swapping parts in and out on a weekly basis.

2. Additionally, do the studies take into account gridlock traffic (wasted fuel, lost productive time at work or home, damage to the environment due to excessive exhaust).

There's more but it was lost yesterday. :-) Buses offer more immediate flexibility and can more easily be changed to serve quickly changing demands, but that doesn't mean they're better than rail.

Richard Gill said...

"Are there any studies that prove [that buses are less costly to operate and maintain than rail transit]?"

One of the more comprehensive studies concludes the opposite: in seven urban areas combined where rail transit is a dominant form of transit (eg Chicago region), both commuter rail (think Metra) and heavy rail (think the 'L') have operating cost per passenger mile of about 35¢; bus operating cost is about 70¢ per passenger mile. Light rail (think modern trolley cars) has per passenger mile operating cost of about 60¢; Chicago has no light rail. This is operating cost only; capital cost is another subject, as is farebox recovery ratio, net operating loss, etc.

The report is Rail Transit in America: Comprehensive Evaluation of Benefits, Victoria Transport Policy Institute, 2004. See Fig. 16, p. 22). It can be found on the website of the American Public Transportation Association, apta.com. (http://www.apta.com/research/info/online/rail_transit.cfm#_Toc84986595).

Another site for perusal is the US Federal Transit Administration, fta.dot.gov.

A wade through the Metra and CTA budgets will probably show each specific agency's numbers.

Over the past few decades, there have probably been enough studies on this and similar topics to fill a library.

neroden@gmail said...

"Buses are good because they cost less to operate and maintain."

This is absolutely backwards. Rail costs less to operate and maintain, provided the trains are running fairly full. Less to operate, because it requires fewer employees per passenger to drive; because it requires less fuel per passenger; etc. Less to maintain, because railcars and all the parts in them last twice as long as buses, there are fewer engines, and even the locomotives last longer than buses. Even the rail right-of-way is cheaper to maintain over the long run than the roads.

The advantages of buses are: low upfront costs; and the fact that "someone else" is paying for the roads.

Also, of course, if you just don't have enough people to fill a train up, it makes more sense to run something smaller like a bus. This only applies to low-volume routes, however -- most of the "busy" CTA bus routes really would work better as trains.

I really really hope that the CN/IC tracks are used as a railroad. They should be -- the South Shore and Metra Electric can certainly use the capacity, and there's plenty of demand to fill up all six tracks (especially with planned South Shore extensions).

Richard Gill said...

Neroden is right, that trains are more efficient than buses, provided the trains don't run with too many empty seats. Three barriers to rail development are the cost (financial, political, environmental, and time) of obtaining right-of-way, capital cost of fixed facilities, and capital cost of vehicles. (A single 'L' car with capacity roughly equal to a bus) costs about four times as much as a bus.)

Metra moves a lot of empty cars around during off-peak times. There are various reasons given for this: the cost of switching offsets the added cost of moving empty weight; off-peak trains get blended into rush hours, and there isn't time to cut or add cars; cars are in semi-permanent "married" sets of two or more; on the Electric line, motors may "cut out" on the older cars, so more backup motors are needed.

The pure operating efficiencies come during the rush hours. The down side is that so much labor and equipment is needed only a couple of hours a day; idle equipment requires big yards and the accompanying land costs; and many crews work only rush hours, but are paid for the day anyway (lots of seniority on those runs). You've heard the stories about the train conductors who "conduct" inbound in the morning, work as day traders or store clerks during the day, and then "conduct" back out at night? They're true.