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CN plan for EJ&E collides with suburbs

(The following story by Keith Benman appeared on the Times of Northwest Indiana website on September 9.)

CHICAGO Ralph Flens moved from Calumet City to a subdivision of neat townhomes with clipped green lawns in Schererville three years ago to enjoy some quiet in his retirement years.

But now, with Canadian National Railway proposing tripling train traffic on tracks just 150 feet from his house, he's being anything but quiet.

As vice president of the local neighborhood association, he's rallying people to protest, and he plans to speak against the proposal Wednesday at a Surface Transportation Board hearing at Indiana University Northwest in Gary. He went to a similar hearing in January.

"The guy from the Canadian National said to me: 'We were here first,'" Flens said on a recent afternoon seated at a table on his back veranda. "And I said, 'No you weren't. The EJ&E was here first, and you are the new guys on the block.'"

Up and down the CN tracks, neighbors in subdivisions with names like Stonebridge, Auburn Meadows and Briar Crossing have the same concerns: more trains, longer trains and a huge increase in carloads of hazardous materials.

Canadian National is committed to working with communities on mitigating any negative effects, according to railroad spokesman Jim Kvedaras. An agreement between the railroad and Joliet, signed in late August, is an example of what could be done all along the 198-mile EJ&E line, Kvedaras said.

Canadian National is hoping such agreements will help convince federal regulators to give the green light to its proposal to buy the EJ&E line. The railroad wants to reroute trains that now run into Chicago's urban core to the EJ&E tracks, which run mainly through Chicago's suburbs.

Under CN's proposal the number of trains on the EJ&E tracks would go from 10 a day now to 34. The new trains would be about twice as long as the ones running the EJ&E now, some stretching more than 8,000 feet from locomotive to last car.

For suburban communities like Schererville and Dyer, accommodation might not be hard to find, Kvedaras said.

"A lot of things boil down to when they talk about train noise, we are talking about quieting train horns," Kvedaras said. "No one wants to be woken up in the middle of the night by a train horn."

The railroad is willing to help communities meet federal regulations for quiet crossings, Kvedaras said. These are crossings with extra safety equipment, such as median dividers or four-way gates. That allows engineers to desist from blowing their horns and still be in compliance with federal regulations.

The Surface Transportation Board's draft environmental impact statement, which is the subject of Wednesday's hearing in Gary, lists some busy intersections as needing mitigation. Those could range from warning signs to multi-million dollar overpasses. But the document barely addresses the noise and vibration issue.

Canadian National's operating plan for the EJ&E line, submitted to the Surface Transportation Board, calls for more than 400 carloads of hazardous materials per day to travel through Schererville, Griffith, Dyer and Lynwood. That compares to just 45 now.

Kvedaras said studies show rail is by far the safest way of shipping hazardous materials. Also, railroads are required by federal regulation to undertake the job.

Town governments have been preparing for Wednesday's hearing for months.

Schererville has been conducting traffic counts and videotaping trains at EJ&E crossings at Kennedy Avenue and 213th Street, according to Schererville Councilman Tom Schmitt.

The town will be submitting data from those efforts at today's hearing. The town is concerned about 213th Street because a train blocking that crossing would slow Schererville emergency response to nearby subdivisions by as much as 15 minutes, Schmitt said.

About 6,000 town households signed a petition opposing CN's purchase of the EJ&E that was circulated with town water bills, Schmitt said.

The town is particularly miffed because the draft environmental impact statement would not require the railroad to fund improvements, such as overpasses, at either of those crossings, Schmitt said. It is estimated an overpass at Kennedy Avenue would cost $6 million.

"We want to know why all these towns -- and frankly Griffith is worse than us -- why should all these towns have all this expense pushed on them when we are talking about an $8 billion company in Canadian National?" Schmitt said.

The issue
In September, Canadian National Railway announced it had an agreement to buy the EJ&E Railway from U.S. Steel for $300 million. The 198-mile EJ&E runs through Chicago's suburbs from Waukegan, Ill., to Gary.
If federal regulators approve the purchase, Canadian National would reroute trains that now roll into Chicago onto the EJ&E tracks. Towns like Griffith, Schererville, Dyer, and Lynwood would see a three-fold increase in train traffic under the plan.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

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