Regulators say Canadian National appears to greatly understate delays on Chicago-area tracks

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Regulators: CN seems to understate track delays

CHICAGO — Canadian National Railway could be understating by a hundred-fold the delays its trains create on a Chicago-area rail line that’s been a source of tension between the company and dozens of suburbs, federal regulators said Wednesday.

The U.S. Surface Transportation Board called on Montreal-based CN to explain why it reported a mere 14 train blockages of road crossings of 10 minutes or more in November and December when consultants brought in by the regulator found more than 1,400.

CN said in a statement that the discrepancy has to do with what the railway understood it needed to report: It only counted instances where delays were caused by fully stopped trains, while the consultants counted any case that prompted delays, including when a train slowed down but didn’t stop.

Many of the nearly 30 communities along the Elgin, Joliet & Eastern Railway line that swings around Chicago to the west opposed its sale to CN two years ago, fearing an increase in the number of trains operating on the line would block streets and snarl car traffic.

Longtime CN critics expressed dismay at the apparent gap between the reported and actual delays.

“These trains are severing vital community links, creating immense traffic congestion, and cutting off fire trucks and ambulances from those who need help,” U.S. Rep. Judy Biggert, a Republican from Hinsdale, said on Wednesday.

The board, which requires that CN file regular reports on delays, asked the company to explain the discrepancies at an April 28 hearing in Washington, D.C. It also asked the consulting company that came up with the far higher figure, Omaha, Neb.-based HDR Inc., to appear.

CN said the transportation board knew it was including only delays caused by stopped trains. But it added that it would comply with any orders to provide more detailed information.

HDR declined to comment on Wednesday.

Chicago is a vital but often clogged hub of the U.S. rail network. CN argued when it was in the process of buying the EJ&E that its development of the line would dramatically improve the overall flow of freight trains in and around the city.

In approving the $300 million sale after months of heated debate, the transportation board also required CN to take measures to ease any disruptions to cities, towns and villages along the line, including by installing soundproofing in some places.

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