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Rail Chief Offers Little Help for Chicago-Area Train Woes

01/14/2015

 

Crain's Chicago Business

 

The head of the railroad that gives much of the Chicago area fits hit town yesterday with a pretty simple message: Canadian National has done its part to improve service, at least for now. It's local government's turn to put some money on the table.

That's my takeaway from an interview yesterday with Canadian National Railway CEO Claude Mongeau, who stopped by Crain's as part of a trip to Chicago apparently designed, at least in part, to try to shore up the reputation of the much-criticized Montreal-based company.

Mongeau was candid and charming to a fault. Under some tough questioning, he never raised his voice or, as best as I could tell, even frowned. He passed around business cards identifying him not as CEO but "chief railroader in training." If I owned stock in the company, I'd be tempted to smile at his bottom-line focus.

But for frustrated Chicago-area motorists who are tired of waiting at crossings while CN freight trains rumble by, for outraged Amtrak riders stuck in neutral while CN freight trains take priority over passenger trains, and for irritated Metra riders who might like more frequent Heritage Corridor service to Joliet, Mongeau repeatedly suggested that the solution is expanding rail capacity, work that various units of government would have to at least partially fund.

For instance CN's $300 million acquisition five years ago of the Elgin, Joliet and Eastern Railway line, which circles around Chicago, has successfully diverted trains from the inner city and suburbs—and helping boost CN's traffic in the area by 2 percent to 4 percent a year, Mongeau said. Of course, that means a lot more trains are tying up roads in more outlying areas—so much so that the U.S. Surface Transportation Board in December took the unusual step of extending its oversight of the transaction for another two years. So will the firm do more to help aggrieved motorists by building more bridges and tunnels to avoid congestion?

The answer: No. The firm has delivered the grade-separation projects it promised and "no other" locations are near the level of delays that would require work, Mongeau said, noting that local governments usually pay much of the cost of such work. For CN, he said, the acquisition has been "a great solution."

How about the situation at Amtrak, where delays have sparked a flurry of outraged letters from U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and provoked Amtrak itself to seek relief before the Surface Transportation Board.

"We don't think Amtrak should set (performance standards) itself," Mongeau responded. "They're a party (to the contract)."

The solution, in his view: "investments," as in extra track, sidings and the like. "The way to solve (congestion) is investments. We'd like to do investments, along with Amtrak."

The picture at Metra, which wants to add more trains to Joliet and reports frequent delays on other lines due to CN freight traffic, is "a similar situation," Mongeau said.

He went on to compare the situation to that of a tenant, Metra, who wants to lease additional space from a landlord, CN. "If they want to rent space for something that's important for society, they should sit down with the landlord and negotiate rent," he put it.

You get the idea.

Metra and Durbin declined to formally respond to Mongeau's remarks. But Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari did, and I'll bet they share the sentiment. Said Magliari in an email, "The law is clear, and the STB is permitting our action to go forward, despite CN's efforts to dismiss it. Their performance has not been acceptable to our passengers and falls short of what is required of them by the law."

All of this strikes me as a bad marriage, in which a congested region and one of its key railroads are stuck with each other. Mongeau didn't really dispute the notion.

"I think we're in a good relationship with all the communities we serve," he said. Where problems exist, "I'm convinced that if we sit down we can work it out."

He added, "Like a marriage, you have to work it out. But it's not a bad marriage. We'll be here in 30 years."

As they say in Montreal, c'est la vie.

Update, 1 p.m. — One more point from the interview with Mongeau. While CN has made hundreds of millions of dollars of other investments in the Chicago area, it will not be contributing further to Create, a joint project announced in 2003 in which other big railroads and the state and federal governments have been buildings bridges and tunnels throughout the region, such as the big Englewood Flyover project on the South Side.

Initially, CN agreed to put in around $60 million of its own cash into joint projects, “the most of any railroad,” he said. Because the 2007 EJ&E acquisition allowed the company to bypass Chicago, that money is no longer required, he explained.

“We no longer are a funding partner” in Create, he said.

Update, 2:30 p.m. —U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski, who sits on the House House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, offers this pointed comment.

“If CN thinks its relationship with Metra is a marriage, then it's time for some counseling," he said in a statement. "The way it treats Amtrak, Metra, shippers, municipalities, and the public suggests a one way relationship, with CN calling all the shots. Maybe the federal government needs to get more involved to make this marriage work.”


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