April 17, 2013
thought leaders | The DC Velocity Q & A

Creating a better rail hub: interview with William C. Thompson

Creating a better rail hub: interview with William C. Thompson

As Chicago goes, so goes the country's railroad network. It's Bill Thompson's job to see that the region's historically clogged rail system doesn't go to hell in a hand basket.

By Mark B. Solomon

By the turn of the century, Chicago, the nation's busiest rail hub which today accounts for one-fourth of the nation's rail traffic, had become intolerably sclerotic. Rail lines built in the mid- to late 1800s were inadequate to meet modern-day demands, let alone any future growth. A train that took 48 hours to travel 2,200 miles from Los Angeles to Chicago was, by 2003, taking almost that long just to get through Chicago.

On June 16, 2003, Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley announced the creation of an extraordinary public-private sector task force to tackle the problem. The "Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency Program," better known as CREATE, marked the first time so many competing railroads—the six big ones serving Chicago—would collaborate to improve the efficiency of an urban rail network.

The following year, William C. Thompson, a 35-year rail veteran—23 of those with Union Pacific Corp. —was named CREATE's program manager. Thompson was tasked with overseeing the development of 70 projects, 36 of them freight-specific. It is a work very much in progress, yet as Thompson tells DC Velocity Senior Editor Mark B. Solomon in the following interview, much progress has been made.

Q: It has been 10 years since CREATE's launch. Can you quantify the progress that's been made in reducing the amount of time to traverse Chicagoland?
A: The railroads have seen about a 30-percent reduction in cross-town transit times. In 2003, it was taking trains just under 43 hours to move through the Chicago terminal. In 2012, trains were moving through the terminal in 32 hours. The Chicago terminal is ringed by automatic equipment identification (AEI) readers that enable us to accurately measure performance. Each railcar in North America has an AEI tag on it. By using data from the AEI readers, the railroads are able to receive the real dates and times a car entered and departed the terminal.

Q: Have there been any forecasts of savings that would accrue to shippers by "unclogging the drain"?
A: Individual shippers have not notified us of specific savings or efficiencies. But we know businesses are managing inventory better than ever before. The goods held in railcars are part of their production or finished-goods inventory. Chicago is a very important link in the transportation chain. It makes sense that if the time it takes to move a shipment is reduced by 11 hours, there is added value for the shippers.

Q: What is CREATE's goal for reducing transit times through Chicago?
A: This is really a function of future traffic increases. The Chicago terminal was on a path to gridlock (0 mph) between 2020 and 2030 based on expected traffic growth if nothing was done. While speed and time are very important, the critical item is volume and carloads through the terminal, especially as traffic continues to increase.

Q: CREATE's existence has coincided with the "railroad renaissance" that began around 2004, and, in particular, the strong growth of intermodal demand. Did the program anticipate the dramatically brightening fortunes of the industry, and have increased traffic flows complicated your work?
A: Many in the industry have seen this coming for a while. In 1999, there were predictions of gridlock by 2030. Some early terminal modeling was forecasting gridlock conditions as early as 2020.

The Western Avenue corridor [one of four rail corridors running through the Chicago region] sees a tremendous amount of intermodal traffic. Some is destined for Chicago, some originates in Chicago, and some passes through Chicago. As the Western Avenue improvements are completed, the rails' intermodal product will move with greater reliability through the terminal. The CREATE program supports both domestic and international intermodal growth.

The industry has not changed its forecasts about future gridlock. In fact, the increase in fuel costs is driving more demand for rail services than perhaps many had earlier projected.

Q: Increasingly, intermodal equipment is being grounded and loaded in urban areas. Given intermodal's growth and Chicago's pivotal position in the country's rail axis, does the positioning of containers make your task more difficult?
A: The CREATE program effectively supports the logic the railroads are using for handling the intermodal product. While CREATE is not building upgrades inside any intermodal yards or terminals, it is improving access to some intermodal yards and between many. In addition, the railroads in recent years have invested over $3 billion in infrastructure improvements in the Chicago region that are not part of CREATE. The idea is to get the train with the containers to the location where they are loaded or unloaded.

Q: What are the major challenges still facing railroads in unclogging the region?
A: The major challenge is to obtain the needed funding to finish the remaining projects in the face of continued traffic growth. It is important to remember that CREATE is not just about freight. It is also about improving intercity and commuter passenger rail service, and reducing road congestion. The railroads have agreed that passenger trains will have top priority for movements. This is known as the "Chicago Protocol." The protocol results in a shutdown of much of the Chicago-area mainline freight operations Monday through Friday between 6 a.m. and 9 a.m. and between 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. This amounts to a 25-percent reduction in track capacity during that time. The challenge is to continue to build facilities that will permit the freight and passenger operations to be separated during those critical rush hours.

There are still many grade separation projects and passenger projects that must be cleared environmentally, designed, and constructed. The challenge facing the CREATE partners is to gather sufficient funding to complete the program. So far, we have received about $1.2 billion in funding for a $3.2 billion-plus program. Currently, 16 CREATE projects are complete, 12 are under construction, and 19 are in the design phase. Twenty-one of the 70 projects have not started design.

Q: Does CREATE's work have an endgame? If freight growth continues at the pace that many project over the next 20 to 30 years, is there a concern capacity in Chicago will not keep up with demand and the region will find itself back in the same situation?
A: The railroads believe they have a reasonable plan to address the expected continued growth of rail freight transportation. The 2008-09 downturn allowed for a small breather. But the respite was short lived, and traffic has continued to grow. The question is, if traffic growth projections are exceeded, when will Chicago reach gridlock? Should transportation demand continue to increase and if CREATE progress were to stop, it is estimated that in 20 years, freight delays could triple and passenger delays would increase fivefold.

Q: Is this a program that can be established in other cities, or is Chicago a unique case?
A: The railroads are working with the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development (LDTD) in New Orleans to address similar issues. The LDTD railroad program is still in development.

Q: How did you come to run CREATE?
A: In 2004, the railroads decided to hire a program manager to represent the entire industry in Chicago and to work with the Illinois and Chicago transportation departments and the Federal Highway Administration as design and construction efforts were ramping up. The industry also wanted to minimize disruptions to the current operation during construction. My work in the railroad industry for 23 years in construction and maintenance, along with three years in consulting, provided a good track record of skills the industry needed.

About the Author

Mark B. Solomon
Executive Editor - News
Mark Solomon joined DC VELOCITY as senior editor in August 2008, and was promoted to his current position on January 1, 2015. He has spent more than 30 years in the transportation, logistics and supply chain management fields as a journalist and public relations professional. From 1989 to 1994, he worked in Washington as a reporter for the Journal of Commerce, covering the aviation and trucking industries, the Department of Transportation, Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court. Prior to that, he worked for Traffic World for seven years in a similar role. From 1994 to 2008, Mr. Solomon ran Media-Based Solutions, a public relations firm based in Atlanta. He graduated in 1978 with a B.A. in journalism from The American University in Washington, D.C.

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