CHICAGO – U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin is accusing Canadian National Railway Co. of ignoring safety and congestion complaints along a major rail corridor in northern Illinois and standing in the way of plans to restore Amtrak service between Chicago and Dubuque, Iowa.
A letter Durbin wrote this week to CN Chief Executive Claude Mongeau points to the heightened tension between the company and dozens of communities ringing Chicago as freight train traffic increases. It also reveals frustration with failed negotiations to restart a cross-state rail route that's been dormant for more than three decades. Funneling billions of dollars into the expansion of passenger rail service and city transit has been a pillar of Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn's strategy for creating jobs and spurring economic development.
In his letter, Durbin says passenger service across northern Illinois will not happen "as long as CN slow-walks negotiations and makes unreasonable capital demands."
Patrick Waldron, a spokesman for CN, said Friday the company has received the letter and was preparing a response to the senator but had no further comment for the time being.
Unwilling to wait for a deal, Quinn's office announced in April that it would restore half of the route toward Dubuque using tracks owned by CN rival Union Pacific Railroad and the Metra commuter rail agency. That service, from Chicago to Rockford, is set to begin in 2015. Meanwhile, the state says it will continue to try to reach an agreement with CN to complete the rest of the route west.
On safety and congestion concerns, Durbin threatened to push for an extension of a federal monitoring period examining the impact of CN's purchase in 2009 of the Elgin, Joliet & Eastern Railway line. The company uses the route to carry ethanol, crude oil and other products through dozens of communities on Chicago's outskirts.
The six-year monitoring period by the Surface Transportation Board was meant to ensure the company complied with promises it made when it bought the line. The monitoring expires at the end of this year.
"Even minor safety issues are being dismissed out of hand," Durbin wrote. He cited a request by the southern suburb of Richton Park for a small easement from CN to install safety fencing.
"CN summarily rejected Richton Park's [request] and has been unresponsive to appeals from our office and the local community to reconsider," Durbin said.
The company says on its website that it has voluntary mitigation agreements with many communities to fund projects to ease tie-ups with road traffic, create quiet zones, improve safety and train emergency responders.
But Durbin says CN has failed to live up to promises that track upgrades would reduce instances of trains blocking road crossings for long periods. He said there were 5,267 instances of crossings being blocked for 10 minutes or more in the first quarter – the highest number since CN bought the line.