A group of metropolitan planning organizations in the corridor led by Greater Cleveland’s Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency want to address freight and passenger rail traffic congestion on the busy Norfolk Southern rail line to allow for expansion of both.
Amtrak, freight rail congestion, delays cited as problem
Agencies between Cleveland and Chicago have joined forces to request federal funds to identify how best to expand freight and passenger rail services on the busy Norfolk Southern (NS) Corp.-owned rail line that links those metro areas.
The agencies include several metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) led by the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency (NOACA) which submitted a $2.56 million request for funds from the Federal Railroad Administration’s (FRA) Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements (CRISI) program. The federal funds would be matched by a 20 percent share from the MPOs to fund a $3.2 million corridor service development plan.
There is $362 million available in this year’s offering of CRISI funds, which are highly competitive. Of that, $75 million is set aside for passenger rail development projects and plans, according to a program summary from the FRA. The deadline for submitting CRISI grant applications is today. In order for federal funding to be awarded for construction projects, a federally compliant plan must be developed first, which is what this application, if awarded, would accomplish.
Specifically, the plan would conduct computer simulations of all the scheduled freight and passenger trains displayed on NS’s Cleveland-Chicago corridor tracks. There are more than 100 daily freight trains and 14 daily Amtrak passenger trains, although only four go east of Porter, IN. The rest go up into Michigan which purchases service from Amtrak.
New stations, tracks and traffic control systems are in evidence at Dearborn, MI on the Detroit-Chicago “Wolverine Corridor” where Amtrak trains routinely travel at 110 mph. Those are the kinds of investments that a group of metropolitan planning organizations have in mind for the Cleveland-Chicago route to expand and improve passenger and freight rail services.
The computer simulations would identify existing areas of rail traffic congestion and planners would propose additional tracks at strategic locations to relieve it. Then, anticipated freight traffic growth would be added to the simulation to identify additional locations of traffic congestion. Finally, expanded Cleveland-Chicago Amtrak services, but operating on daytime schedules unlike Ohio’s existing trains, would be introduced into the simulation to see where further rail traffic congestion might occur and how to relieve it.
Additional tracks, station platforms, bridges, traffic control systems and other improvements are possible options. Those improvements could be proposed to relieve congestion to not only improve freight and passenger service reliability but also to reduce travel times to ensure car-competitive trips.
According to the FRA, the goals of the CRISI program are to “enhance rail safety, help to undo inequities caused by transportation and land use policies and create new opportunities for underserved communities, provide energy efficient transportation options to confront the effects of climate change, invest in projects that spur economic growth, and ensure our world-class freight network can meet the mobility demands of a growing population.”
The CRISI program that this plan would tap was funded before Congress on Nov. 6 passed President Joe Biden’s Investment in Infrastructure and Jobs Act which has budgeted up to $66 billion for passenger rail improvements over the next five years. The prospect of significant federal funding for rail expansion has encouraged Amtrak to propose up to 16 more daily trains to and from Cleveland, connecting it with Columbus, Cincinnati, Detroit, Buffalo, Pittsburgh and the East Coast. However, Amtrak’s expansion vision did not include the Cleveland-Chicago corridor.
The eastbound train between Chicago and New York arrives Cleveland at dawn’s early light in the spring and summer months. Despite these vampire-like hours of activity, crowds board the trains at Cleveland.
“It’s an unprecedented opportunity for passenger rail and we need to also accommodate freight rail,” said NOACA Executive Director and CEO Grace Gallucci during a virtual meeting of regional planners and politicians between Cleveland and Chicago in August. “I’m excited about Amtrak’s expansion proposal. I also want to ensure the Cleveland-Chicago Amtrak corridor is improved and enhanced.”
She said this plan is being pursued to improve existing transportation infrastructure and services and does not detract from NOACA’s work in planning for Hyperloop technologies should they ever become commercially practical in the future. No funding in the new infrastructure law was authorized for development of Hyperloop. At least $24 billion of the law’s expanded federal passenger rail program will go to improve tunnels, bridges and other infrastructure in Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor linking Boston, New York and Washington DC.
“I keep hearing a lot about the Northeast Corridor but we need to hear about the Great Lakes region,” said Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur (D-9, Toledo) who organized the August meeting. “We have something working for us as the Secretary of Transportation (Pete Buttigieg ) is from South Bend (Indiana). We are backed up with freight (traffic). We need better rail transportation.”
Even though Amtrak didn’t include the Cleveland-Chicago corridor in its expansion vision, its executives welcomed capital improvements here to at least improve the reliability of its overnight Chicago-East Coast trains that use the corridor. Those four trains carried more than 600,000 annual riders before the pandemic, equal to more than a dozen daily, fully-loaded Boeing 737 planes or several dozen daily Greyhound buses, according to the nonprofit advocacy group All Aboard Ohio.
This section could see the construction of new, passenger-only tracks to allow train speeds up to 110 mph and without freight train interference.
“We share everyone’s enthusiasm for this (Cleveland-Chicago) corridor,” said Joe Shacter, Amtrak’s senior manager, state corridors, in the August meeting. “There is no question that we want to invigorate this corridor.”
He said the existing NS-owned route needs “significant” new capacity because of heavy freight train traffic which causes Amtrak’s trains through Cleveland to frequently run late.
“Statistics don’t lie,” Shacter said. “We’re not proud of it. We must have better handling from NS. We stand ready to make that (corridor) work.”
Read more about passenger rail improvements at NEO-trans blog.