Signs everywhere in Braceville, Illinois, say trains could come barreling through at 80 mph.
But workers at the Union Pacific intermodal terminal in Joliet can’t always unload freight that fast. So lately, said Braceville Mayor David Wright, trains have been screeching to a halt three or four days a week.
They’re stacked 20 feet high with shipping containers from China. Some stretch 3 miles through Braceville and the next town. Most stay for a short time, but Wright remembers one train that Union Pacific didn’t touch for more than 24 hours. Another lingered so long schoolkids crawled underneath to get home.
When asked about the yellow cranes Union Pacific just built to double unloading capacity at Joliet, Wright laughed.
“The railroads can’t manage what they’ve got coming now,” he said. “If they double, they’ll have trains backed up all the way to St. Louis.”
A town of 886 people, Braceville lies 60 miles southwest of Chicago where urban sprawl gives way to corn and soybeans.
But stalled trains don’t just afflict Braceville farmers. They’ve been clogging up all 18 intermodal terminals that dot Chicago’s suburbs and its inner city.
Two years after COVID-19 sent freight traffic soaring, some of the big terminals still can’t find enough truck drivers, shipping containers, rolling steel chassis, or laborers and warehouses to unload their freight.
Chicago’s truck and rail backups aren’t as visible as Chinese container ships waiting to unload in Los Angeles. But they’re both menacing reminders of the world’s wobbly supply chains.
Despite a nagging threat of recession, the backups have lingered in Chicago all through 2022.
And they threaten public health.
“Are there more emissions because it’s taking longer per move? Absolutely,” according to Mike Burton, president of the Illinois Trucking Association.
“The amount of emissions released is probably a third higher,” said Burton, who also runs C&K Holdings, a Chicago Ridge company with 1,300 drivers.
The backups force the older and dirtier diesel trucks used for crosstown and regional freight to spend more time crawling along already-congested highways.
Carbon dioxide from these trucks contributes to global warming. Their soot and smog damage the health of all Chicagoans, especially the mostly low-income and largely Black and brown residents of the city’s traditional freight corridors.
Meanwhile, as the railroads plan expansions in these same neighborhoods, state officials predict freight demand will double in northeastern Illinois in 20 years.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker set lofty goals with the passage of his renewable electricity plan last fall. But the law contains no incentives or mandates to reduce diesel-powered truck traffic.
According to the Clean Air Task Force, a Boston-based nonprofit, 340 people are expected to die in metropolitan Chicago next year from diesel soot alone. Los Angeles County leads the United States with 622 expected deaths, the task force says.
Many thousands in the Chicago region will face elevated risks of heart disease and lung cancer, plus acute respiratory infections in children. The region will spend an extra $3.8 billion on health care, the group estimates in a report based on data projections from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Nationally, a 2019 report from the EPA found that diesel soot, or PM2.5 pollution, is responsible for thousands of premature deaths each year.
The health impacts of intermodal backups are most significant in a neighborhood like Brighton Park, said Michael Cailas, a University of Illinois at Chicago environmental science professor. This part of Chicago, 5 miles southwest of downtown, already has more truck traffic than any other, he said.
Its congestion got worse as pandemic shutdowns began to end last summer, said Lorena Zepeda, 46, a Whipple Street mother of two who volunteers as a crossing guard at Columbia Explorers Elementary Academy.
Zepeda said she wrestles with traffic every day at the school, which is a half a mile from a BNSF Railway terminal.
As students surge across Kedzie Avenue to enter and leave the school, Zepeda said, tempers sometimes flare as drivers try to nudge their cars and trucks forward through the crowd. One freight truck nearly tipped over as it swerved to avoid a car near the crowd.
“The smell is unpleasant and the exhaust of the trucks sometimes gives my child a cough,” Zepeda said.
The congestion will get worse, she added, if Amazon proceeds with plans for a major new warehouse a few blocks away.
The new warehouse would be within 2 miles of an existing Amazon distribution center, plus two intermodal terminals, four industrial sites registered with the Environmental Protection Agency as air polluters, two abandoned factories with toxic soil and six public schools, according to maps from Cailas and his team.
At the Columbia Explorers academy, 98% of students are Hispanic and 78% are low income, Cailas said.
Since January, the daily average for diesel soot or PM2.5 particles at the closest EPA monitor, 4 miles away from the school, has been 8.6 micrograms per cubic meter of air. That’s down from an average 9.7 micrograms last year and 8.7 in 2020.
Prolonged exposures above 5 micrograms are enough to damage human health, according to the latest findings from the World Health Organization.
“An increased burden of truck traffic will have an increased health outcome, a bad one,” Cailas said.
One of Maersk’s specialties is hauling containers from Shanghai to Los Angeles on ships and then on to Chicago via trains.
Maersk is contributing to chronic backups at Chicago’s biggest intermodal terminal, the BNSF yard in Elwood. It’s doing so by insisting that BNSF unload containers onto rolling chassis built by a company Maersk selected for its low price, even though it can’t produce enough chassis for Chicago.
BNSF, meanwhile, charges storage fees for containers left on its property for more than 48 hours, even if the delays stem from a chassis shortage truckers didn’t cause. The truckers pass these costs on to owners of the cargo, who in turn raise prices for everyday consumers.
Even as they cut such private deals, BNSF and other railroads have been reluctant to publish traffic data from their Chicago terminals, said Burton, of the trucking association.
Basic information, like how many containers are arriving from domestic or overseas sources and whether they leave by truck or rail, is posted routinely by publicly owned freight hubs like O’Hare International Airport. This data would help truckers plan their equipment and manpower needs, and help local governments manage street traffic, Burton said.
But the six big railroads and the hundreds of trucking companies operating in Chicago are privately owned. “Everyone competes against each other,” he said, so they keep a tight grip on what they regard as proprietary information.
The U.S. Department of Transportation came up with a solution in March by promising to act as “an independent steward of supply chain data across a largely privately operated enterprise.”
With that pledge, ocean shippers, truckers, warehouse operators and major retailers began providing the DOT with regular updates on, among other things, how long containers are remaining stacked up on their property.
They’re doing so through a voluntary program called FLOW, or Freight Logistics Optimization Works.
Burton’s C&K Trucking joined the FLOW project in August. So did BNSF and its major trucking partner, J.B. Hunt. No other railroads have joined.
Port officials from Savannah, Georgia; Los Angeles; and Long Beach have joined FLOW. Savannah’s container imports have more than doubled since the pandemic as shippers seek alternatives to crowded ports on the West Coast. But no government representative has signed up for FLOW from Illinois, where officials seem resigned to railroad intransigence.
“Unlike the port and terminal operators participating in FLOW, the City of Chicago does not own or operate any significant freight rail-related assets and therefore is unable to collect data in the same manner,” said Erica Schroeder, a spokesperson for the Chicago Department of Transportation.
The Illinois Commerce Commission “does not have the authority over supply chain operations,” spokesperson Victoria Crawford said. However, the commission will investigate if congestion near intermodal terminals threatens public safety, she said.
Activists in Little Village, home to more than two dozen industrial facilities that use medium or heavy-duty diesel trucks, want Springfield and Chicago to do more.
“It’s crazy to me, with so much happening on climate change, that the railroads still want to be able to say, ‘We’re not going to share information,’ “ said Kimberly Wasserman, executive director of the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization.
“It’s like you want to just walk away from the impact you’re having on these communities.
“We should be making greater use of railroads to lessen the number of trucks,” Wasserman said. “If the railroads don’t want to talk about it, then that would require the city to get tough on business.
“And that’s the one thing they don’t want to do.”
Chicago is still the country’s largest freight hub, handling half of all U.S. intermodal trains and a total of $3 trillion worth of cargo each year, according to the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning.
Despite this rich legacy, Chicago is doing less to change the nature of how freight moves than the city of Savannah, which is building inland terminals connected to its dockside facilities by rail.
It’s doing less than the state of Michigan, which is loaning money so factories can build rail spurs.
It’s doing less than the Port of Los Angeles, which has twice-weekly conference calls with ocean shippers, railroaders, terminal operators, truckers, retailers and federal officials to keep containers moving.
In doing less, Illinois is sending a signal.
“Only two states really care about air pollution in the trucking world. That’s California and New York,” said Azmi Kiswani, citing their subsidies for the purchase of electric trucks.
“I don’t operate in either one of them,” said Kiswani, vice president of Kiswani Freight, a company with 80 drivers in South Holland.
Despite a possible recession, all six big North American railroads say they want to expand their Chicago intermodal operations.
For BNSF, planned expansions in the Chicago region are part of a multipronged effort to take business back from trucks. And a cornerstone of this plan is to tout the environmental benefits of trains, said Katie Farmer, chief executive officer.
“Relative to our counterparts over the highway, we’re three to four times more fuel efficient,” Farmer told a retailing webcast in April.
BNSF plans to cut carbon emissions from fuel by 30% over the next decade by, among other things, buying new locomotives and using more renewable diesel, Farmer said. The railroad is taking these steps, she said, because they dovetail with efficiency improvements BNSF needs for its own survival, and because its customers are moving to reduce carbon dioxide throughout their own supply chains.
BNSF doesn’t include emissions from the trucks that haul containers in and out of its terminals in its carbon dioxide reduction goals, said spokesperson Ben Wilemon. But BNSF is reducing idling time, he said, by making it easier for truckers to check in at terminal gates.
BNSF has launched a multiyear expansion of its Cicero yard, the railroad said in February. And 8 miles northeast of Braceville, in Wilmington, BNSF is meeting with public officials to plan an entirely new terminal that could eventually employ 400 people, Wilemon said.
State Sen. Sue Rezin, R-Morris, said she worries about the proposed yard’s impact.
“Moving goods via rail cuts down on the truck traffic except if you’re at the endpoint where the trains are unloaded, like I am,” Rezin said.
Many of the trucks from the new Wilmington facility would spend time on a 16-mile stretch of I-80 through Joliet that already carries 7 million trucks annually.
Last year, the state announced a $1.2 billion, six-year program to rebuild that part of the highway. The road construction is causing massive traffic backups on an already overloaded intermodal system.
Seventy trains now pass through Wilmington and nearby Coal City each day, Rezin said, compared with just 10 or 15 a decade ago.
“They’re a monopoly,” she said, referring to federal laws that won’t allow municipalities to issue traffic tickets even for trains that stop for hours in the center of town. “I would just say there’s not a lot of negotiation because it’s their right of way,” Rezin said.
But running more trains down an existing set of tracks may be a lot easier than expanding a rail yard built just after the Civil War. Norfolk Southern has been trying to double the size of its terminal at 47th Street and the Dan Ryan expressway in Chicago since 2013, when it purchased 105 city lots out of bankruptcy. These purchases sparked a public outcry even as the railroad continued buying hundreds of additional lots.
Willie Cochran, then Englewood’s alderman who was convicted in 2019 of diverting charitable donations to pay personal expenses, led negotiations in which the railroad promised to spend $3 million for low-emission terminal equipment and neighborhood improvement projects.
So far, Norfolk Southern has spent $2 million of this money, according to Peter Strazzabosco of the city planning department. But it’s also looking for public dollars for the expansion.
A year ago, Norfolk Southern proposed a “partnership” with the state in which they’d jointly spend $50 million for railroad bridges for the expansion, according to emails obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request.
The project still has no state funding, according to a July report.
Now Cochran’s successor, Jeannette Taylor, is threatening to block the transfer of streets and alleys Norfolk Southern needs for the expansion. She said she won’t budge until the railroad hires more African American contractors and pays for experts to do an environmental cleanup at the yard, in addition to making good on its promises to Cochran a decade ago.
“They’ve been here for years and they know what diesel fumes are doing to our community,” Taylor said.
“But the life expectancy of Black children doesn’t matter here in the city of Chicago,” she said. “In any other community, this wouldn’t be allowed to happen.”
Freight has always bedeviled Illinois because of what might be called the original sin of Chicago railroading.
Beginning in the 1840s, the city was such an essential gateway between Eastern factories and Western raw materials and markets that every railroad built a connection to Chicago.
This created unique and lucrative opportunities for exchanging freight, so nobody bothered with high-speed tracks through the city. In fact, Chicago became a tangled mess for the 1,300 freight and passenger trains that still crisscross the city every day.
In 2003, the railroads launched a public-private partnership called CREATE (Chicago Environment and Transportation Efficiency) to raise money to start rebuilding rail infrastructure.
The bridge is located on 63rd Street just east of the Dan Ryan expressway. Each day, it allows 78 Metra commuter trains to pass up and over 60 Amtrak and freight trains without having to stop and take turns.
To allow for even more traffic, CREATE says it left enough room for three additional sets of tracks on two levels through the intersection.
But air quality continues to suffer.
For the last year, Microsoft Corp. has been collecting data on diesel soot or PM2.5 particles from monitors installed on bus stations across Chicago. The company chose the sites in conjunction with local groups like Englewood’s Blacks in Green and the Environmental Law & Policy Center.
Since June, some of the biggest concentrations have consistently been at 63rd and State Street, with readings two to three times higher than at any nearby monitor on the South Side.
This monitor is just east of the Englewood Flyover, just west of the Parkway Gardens housing complex and just outside the fence of Norfolk Southern’s 63rd Street intermodal freight yard.
Norfolk Southern, for its part, believes it can cut emissions and still grow at 63rd Street by embracing new technologies like renewable diesel fuel and hydrogen-powered trains, said Herb Smith, vice president for government affairs in Illinois and nearby states for the railroad. Emissions from the trucks that haul containers out of its yards will drop, he said, as the vehicles shift to battery-only technology.
“It’s modernizing and being efficient,” Smith said. “Our customers want to know that we’re reducing our impact.”
But nearby residents feel like they’ve been ignored.
“I don’t smell fresh air anymore. It smells like pollution,” said Keonya Wells, 40, after walking her children, Kharisma, Josiah and Keoncae, to nearby Dulles Elementary School on Thursday.
She said she didn’t know her block registers so high on the air quality monitors, but she knows diesel fumes are affecting her kids. “Once we come outside, they start coughing,” Wells said. “They’re fine until we leave the building.”
“They should find another place for the railroad to be,” she said. “It’s right in a central area with low-income families that don’t really think about pollution.”
Eric Boyd, 28, lives in a 23rd-floor apartment overlooking Norfolk Southern, and he can sometimes smell diesel fumes even though he’s closed all the windows. His son, Cameron Jackson Boyd, 8, also attends Dulles.
Boyd questions whether the problem is fixable and whether Norfolk Southern cares enough to do anything.
Neighborhoods like Englewood often get forgotten, he said, citing low incomes, high violence rates and racism.
Most residents are more concerned about deadly street crime than air pollution. And there’s a bigger problem. “The community out here, they’ve lost hope for ever being able to solve a problem like this,” Boyd said.
Two economic shifts have complicated Chicago’s battle with rail gridlock and pollution.
The first is just-in-time manufacturing, said Scott Bernstein, founder of the Center for Neighborhood Technology, a Chicago environmental group.
In the 1940s, the value of inventories carried by U.S. companies equaled 6% of sales, he said, citing a White House report. Today it’s 1%.
“You can see why people can get caught short every time there’s a hiccup in the system,” Bernstein said.
Second, in a further bow to Wall Street pressure for cost cuts, Norfolk Southern and Union Pacific in 2019 canceled dozens of scheduled rail connections and began exchanging more Chicago freight using trucks instead.
This decision added to congestion and pollution as trucks raced to rail terminals across the Chicago area and to distribution centers across the Midwest.
All this left Chicago profoundly unprepared as COVID-19 turbocharged U.S. freight with more e-commerce.
On any given day last summer, BNSF had two dozen trains lined up west of Chicago waiting to unload, according to Steve Bobb, the chief marketing officer.
BNSF responded by stacking containers in vacant lots, Bobb said at a July rail and maritime conference in Chicago. But by June 2022, he said, BNSF had run out of stacking space.
Bobb blamed last summer’s slowdowns on warehouses that didn’t have enough workers to unload freight. He attributed this year’s delays to retailers who let containers languish in warehouses as the economy slowed.
He described all this as a temporary problem, in part because the railroad is scrambling to hire 3,000 workers in 2022 after years of cutting back.
“The retailers I’m talking to plan to rebalance their networks by the fall,” Bobb said.
As long-distance freight shipments have surged in the past 20 years, Chicago has remained a mecca for both more trains and more trucks.
And this bonanza is presenting Pritzker with difficult choices as he campaigns for a second term as Illinois governor.
For instance, more than a year after the legislature urged him to join California and 16 other states in setting a target for when manufacturers must offer battery-only trucks, Pritzker still hasn’t done so.
The multistate agreement aims for 30% of all new medium- and heavy-duty trucks to use zero-emission technologies by 2030.
Speaking at a news conference in August at Lion Electric school bus factory in Joliet, Pritzker described the target as a good idea but said it requires more study.
“We want to make sure we’re doing it the right way and not just signing on to something we may not be able to meet demand for,” Pritzker said.
The governor may have good reason for caution, even if electric trucks lower fuel costs and reduce disease and pollution.
According to Burton, the trucking association president, most of his members see electric crosstown freight trucks as inevitable. But today, he said, they cost $400,000, or more than twice as much as a diesel-powered model.
This cost hasn’t stopped Amazon from deploying electric delivery vans in Chicago.
But about half of the 20,000 drivers who haul containers around Chicago are independent owner-operators, said Jason Hilsenback, president of LoadMatch.com, a Naperville company that helps drivers find freight to haul. Many of these own just one or two trucks.
And many won’t survive high diesel prices, Kiswani said. Instead of embracing electric trucks, some turn to rebuilt pre-2010 engines to avoid the trouble and expense of modern pollution controls, he said.
As electric trucks help drive down shipping costs, they’re encouraging shorter and more frequent delivery trips — and undermining their own environmental benefits, said José Holguin-Veras, an engineering professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
The per capita amount of goods consumed by an average American hasn’t changed much in 40 years, he said. But the amount of truck traffic in big cities has tripled.
That’s true in part because the rapid delivery promises by Amazon and others often force the companies to run trucks half empty instead of waiting for them to fill up, he said.
“I think electric trucks will be beneficial, but I don’t think they’re going to save the planet,” he said.
California takes a similar view and has launched a wide-ranging diesel crackdown that Illinois hasn’t begun to embrace. The state has ordered manufacturers to start selling zero-emission trucks in California in two years. And by the end of this year, California will pull all trucks built before 2010 off the road entirely. That’s 17% of the fleet.
The Chicago region can’t now comply with federal limits on nitrogen oxide, a precursor to ozone pollution, according to John Mooney, the EPA’s director for air quality in six Great Lakes states including Illinois.
Chicago does comply with federal limits on diesel soot or PM2.5 particles. But that could change after next year, as the EPA under President Joe Biden considers tighter limits on diesel soot.
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And the EPA has “a ton of questions” about the health impacts of rail yards, Mooney said.
The basic problem is that “you’ve got a concentration of diesel engines operating almost 24/7 close to where people live and work and congregate,” he said.
“There needs to be a coordinated conversation about what opportunities are out there to reduce the impact from these facilities,” Mooney said.
“The rail companies have to be part of it,” he said, along with truckers and representatives from the city, state and federal governments.
“Chicago is the largest rail hub in the country,” Mooney said. “It’s vital to the economy, but we’ve got to get it right. People’s health has to be protected.”
John Lippert is a freelancer.