Senator Durbin: Amtrak On-Time Performance Suffering From CN Obstructions & Delays

Senator asks STB to visit Illinois communities & investigate safety and traffic issues along CN rail lines

WASHINGTON, D.C.–(ENEWSPF)–July 31, 2014.  With both Amtrak delays and blocked rail crossings reaching record levels on Canadian National’s (CN) rail lines, U.S. Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) invited Surface Transportation Board (STB) Members to visit Illinois and observe firsthand the results of CN’s failure to meet its obligations to local communities. This week, Durbin met with STB Chairman Dan Elliot to discuss these and other ongoing issues resulting from CN’s 2009 acquisition of the EJ&E Railway. A photo of Durbin’s meeting with Elliot is available here.

“I am disappointed – but not surprised – that I continue to hear reports of CN’s unwillingness to meet its most basic obligations in delivering safe and reliable rail service in Illinois,” Durbin said. “CN has failed communities across Illinois, from the suburbs of Chicago that have experienced a record number of blocked rail crossings to towns in Central and Southern Illinois that must face repeated delays in Amtrak service. Today, I asked the STB to come to Illinois and observe these issues firsthand, so that we can work toward a solution.”

Today, Durbin called on the STB to exercise its existing authority under the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 to investigate the causes of Amtrak delays and enforce on-time performance standards. As a result of CN’s obstructions and delays, Amtrak trains along the Chicago-Champaign-Carbondale route – which is owned and operated by CN – arrived on-time only 54 percent of the time during the last fiscal year – one of the worst corridor routes in the nation.

Durbin also called attention to the record number of blocked rail crossings resulting from large unit trains – some of which are transporting crude oil and ethanol – in suburban Chicago communities like the Village of Barrington and City of Aurora. Despite CN’s claims that track upgrades would decrease the number and duration of blocked crossings, there have been 5,267 instances of crossings being blocked by trains for ten minutes or more in the first quarter of 2014 – the highest number since CN took ownership of the rail line.

With the acquisition of the EJ&E Railway, CN plans on significantly increasing freight rail traffic along the line (a four to six time increase in trains per day). In the decision to approve CN’s acquisition of the EJ&E, the STB established an oversight period of 5-years to monitor the operational and environmental impacts of the acquisition. During this week’s meeting, Durbin again raised the possibility of extending that oversight period in order to ensure that the issues outlined below are addressed.

In June, Durbin wrote Canadian National CEO and President Claude Mongeau, calling on the rail company to address ongoing safety and traffic issues including: CN’s lack of cooperation with the State of Illinois and Amtrak, which has hindered efforts to expand rail service in Northern Illinois between Galena and Rockford; increased rail traffic that has resulted in a record rate of blocked rail crossings; and CN’s refusal to work with local communities, like Richton Park, to resolve safety issues. A copy of that letter is available here.

Durbin has been working to address community concerns about blocked crossings that exacerbate traffic bottlenecks and challenge emergency responders’ mobility, rail safety, noise, air pollution from additional congestion, and interference with proposed Metra expansions. In 2010, Durbin announced the City of Barrington received a $2.8 million grant to fund the planning, designing and engineering of a grade separation at the U.S. Route 14 and EJ&E crossing through the Department of Transportation’s Transportation Investments Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER II) program.

In 2011, Durbin and Senator Mark Kirk (R-IL) sent a letter to members of the STB regarding the Village of Barrington’s petition seeking additional mitigation efforts from the Canadian National. The Village also commissioned a study regarding the impact of Canadian National’s increased use of the EJ&E line that bisects the community. The Village’s review found that the STB’s previous study contained several flaws in the methodology and provided results that diluted actual traffic congestion and traffic delay impacts.

In 2013, after learning of CN’s efforts to avoid paying its fair share of mitigation efforts in Lynwood and Aurora, Durbin sent a letter to the STB urging the agency to extend the deadline by which construction must start on critical grade separations, preventing CN from running out the clock on meeting their responsibilities to those communities. The current monitoring and oversight period is set to expire in January 2015.

The full text of today’s letter to the STB is available below.

July 31, 2014

Chairman Daniel R. Elliott III
Surface Transportation Board
395 E Street, SW
Washington DC 20423

Dear Chairman Elliott:

Thank you for meeting with me this week to discuss passenger and freight rail service issues in Illinois. I wanted to extend an invitation to you and other Board Members to visit Illinois to see first-hand the issues we discussed.

As you know, the STB placed Canadian National (CN) Railroad under an unprecedented six year monitoring period after CN completed the controversial purchase of the EJ&E. The monitoring period was put in place to ensure CN fully complies with the promises it made when CN acquired the EJ&E.

Several suburban communities in Illinois have contacted the STB with their concerns about increased rail traffic along the EJ&E. The Village of Barrington and City of Aurora in particular have been vigilant in promoting increased rail safety, especially for trains carrying crude oil and ethanol. These large unit trains, and other freight trains, are blocking crossings and increasing delays throughout the EJ&E corridor. In fact, despite CN’s claims that track upgrades would decrease the number and duration of blocked crossings, there have been 5,267 instances of crossings being blocked by trains for ten minutes or more in the first quarter of 2014 – the highest number since CN took ownership of the rail line.

I believe it is important for you to visit these communities and hear their ideas about how the STB can ensure CN is operating safely and honoring their commitments to protect the quality of life of families living along the EJ&E.

I also encourage you to visit Illinois to investigate ways the STB can take a more active role in improving the on-time performance (OTP) for Amtrak trains. Amtrak OTP has suffered significantly this fiscal year along all lines, but none worse than the Chicago-Champaign-Carbondale route owned and operated by CN. The Illini and Saluki trains are consistently delayed by freight trains, resulting in trains arriving on-time only 54 percent of the time this fiscal year, including one scheduled train arriving on-time only 34 percent of the time.

These figures are unacceptable and deserve the Board’s immediate attention and action. Amtrak recently filed an updated petition with the STB citing CN’s obstructions and delays that resulted in the dismal OTP for Amtrak passenger trains.  I strongly encourage you to visit Illinois to investigate this matter further and use your authority under the 2008 Amtrak Reauthorization law I promoted to enforce OTP standards when a railroad, like CN, fails to keep passenger trains on-time at least 80 percent of the time.

Reliable, safe and on-time rail service is vital to the Illinois economy. The STB can help us achieve these goals by practicing rigorous oversight of railroads who fail to meet their legal requirements or keep their commitments made before the STB.  I believe you can help improve these issues by visiting Illinois and bringing your findings back to the full STB for action soon.

Sincerely,

Richard J. Durbin

United States Senator

Cc: Vice Chairwoman Ann Begeman; Debra Miller

Source: durbin.senate.gov