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Chicago’s Railroad Problem

In February 2023, two thousand feet of Chicago’s South Normal Boulevard disappeared. The street’s end came at the hands of Norfolk Southern’s 47th Street intermodal terminal, a facility which moves thousands of containers a year between trains and trucks. For over a decade, the railroad had been trying to expand the yard through a over a residential neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. When they finally prevailed over vigorous opposition in 2022, they closed another chapter in the intertwined histories of disinvestment, development, activism, and freight infrastructure in Chicago. But lurking behind those threads was another story: 47th Street Yard is a facility which need not have grown.

Norfolk Southern’s 47th Street Yard in Englewood. The area into which the yard is expanding is highlighted in orange. Imagery: Google Maps, with editing by author.

To understand Englewood’s rail terminal, you must focus on the trucks leaving it. Follow them, and you might end up at a nearby warehouse or factory. But unlike anywhere else in the United States, those trucks’ trails may also lead to another railroad’s yard. A significant portion of the containers unloaded 47th Street are in Chicago not to deliver goods, but to transfer between different railroads as they make journeys across the continent. This use of trucks to bridge gaps between rail carriers is, on its face, unexpected. Chicago is a city famous for its lattice of tracks which link American railroads together. It begs the question: why does this practice exist?

At its core, this story is one of fragmentation. Unlike in much of the rest of the world, the United States’ rail network is fragmented. Rather than having a national railroad, or tracks open to use by any company, our railroads are vertically integrated—they own, maintain, and run their own lines, and compete largely on the strengths and weaknesses of their networks. The resulting network is today dominated by six companies: two Canadian carriers whose lines reach into the American Midwest, two railroads serving the Eastern United States, and two serving the West.

The US’s rail network, showing rail line ownership. Image source: AAR.

Neat as those divisions might be, flows of freight generally do not respect those boundaries. Shippers want to move billions of tons between the east and the west, and to do that on rails, they must use multiple carriers. Railroads directly interchange all their carload freight—the boxcars, tank cars, flat cars and hopper cars that carry lower-value bulk and manufactured goods around the country. For intermodal freight, however, matters are more complicated. The shipping containers and truck trailers that railroads carry for more time-sensitive shippers (like Amazon and Walmart) often make the jump across railroading’s dividing lines on the back of a truck. Almost all of those “rubber tire” or “crosstown” interchanges happen within the metropolitan limits of Chicago, the hub of the American rail network. In 2002, the last time anyone publicly published statistics on the scale of this problem, over one million trucks each year (about 20 or 25 percent of the total intermodal volume in the region) made trips across the city hauling railroad-to-railroad freight—each one of them adding to Chicago’s air quality, pedestrian safety, and traffic congestion problems. Since then, intermodal volumes have grown by 44 percent.

In the dogged persistence of Chicago’s crosstown trucking—and, indeed, in the history of 47th Street Yard itself—lies a story of American railroading’s ambivalence. Neither a fully integrated network nor a series of independent, competing companies, the industry’s history has been shaped by its leaders’ changing approaches to cooperation within their fragmented reality. Waxing and waning through time, and forever constrained by the innate path dependency imposed by railroad infrastructure, the trajectory of railroads’ efforts to improve the flow of freight through the Chicago gateway highlights not just the limits of our balkanized railroad network, but also our national disengagement from freight policy. As railroads confront important decisions about the future direction of the industry, and as policymakers consider transport policy options for the age of climate change, the persistence of crosstown trucking stands as a local environmental problem and national supply chain bottleneck of immense significance. We need more active measures to fix it.


If I had to pick one, my favorite book would be William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis. If you have not read it, you should. It details the evolution of America’s industrial economy in a process that both made Chicago a center of trade and manufacturing and the Great Plains the nation’s agricultural heartland. Spread across its pages are stories of density in early industrial America. Chicago’s eventual economic power flowed from its concentration of markets and factories, each of which functioned on economies of scale and proximity—giant slaughterhouses which could cut beef with maximal efficiency, commodities markets which could facilitate trading between far-flung firms, and so on. Of course, those industries did not appear from nowhere: as Cronon so forcefully argues, Chicago’s growth owed much to the access provided by its railroads.

Railroads’ intertwined history with Chicago’s urban growth is, on some level, unsurprising. Trains are an artefact of density: each of them aggregates dozens if not hundreds of cars of freight or people into a unit that can be moved cheaply over long distances. Add in the fact that railroads have high fixed costs, thanks to all the track and equipment they must maintain whether they run trains or not, and the industry is one defined by the inverse relationship between its traffic volumes and unit costs. In simpler terms, the more traffic a railroad can concentrate on a given line, the less it spends to carry each bit of it. Railroading is thus an industry which thrives on urbanization. Cities’ scale created intense flows of people and goods that slake railroads’ quest for density.

More than any other city in the United States, Chicago’s history reflects railroads’ tendency to seek and produce concentration. Carriers first converged on Chicago to access Lake Michigan’s ships, and later to reach the city’s collection of markets and factories. The resulting hub-and-spoke rail system in the Midwest afforded Chicago’s manufacturers unprecedented market access, its merchants incredible market power—and its railroads immense profits. And critically, as Chicago evolved into the hub of the nation’s railroad system, its railroad companies came to enjoy a new benefit of Chicago access. Just as the city’s commodity exchanges made it easier for merchants and financiers to trade with each other by putting everybody in the same room, Chicago’s concentration of rail carriers made it easier for railroads to hand off traffic to each other by putting all those connections in one place. The city became the endpoint of more than two dozen different railroads’ networks, a clearinghouse for the freight and passengers of an industrializing nation.


Unfortunately, however rapid Chicago’s growth might have been, economies of scale and proximity do not work as neatly in practice as they do on paper. As the nation’s network grew, American railroads built thousands of miles of duplicate lines as different companies sought access to the same markets. In Chicago, this tendency reached an apex. Most of Chicago’s twenty major railroads built their own lines into the region, each of which terminated at railroads’ individual yards and a series of six passenger stations ringing the city’s downtown. 47th Street once encapsulated the process of fragmentation: the site that would become Norfolk Southern’s intermodal terminal housed no fewer than four different railroads’ yards.

47th Street Yard once was a crucible of Chicago’s railroad fragmentation; its ownership in the 1950s is shown above. One note: the Erie leased its portion of the yard from the Chicago & Western Indiana, on whose tracks the Erie’s trains accessed downtown Chicago. Imagery: Illinois Geospatial Data Clearinghouse, 1937-1947 Illinois Historical Aerial Photography, with overlay by author.

The irony of this splintered system was that carriers had driven their tracks to Chicago in part so they could link with other railroads. To achieve this, carriers built a warren of connections between each other’s tracks. In the six miles between the Pennsylvania’s yard at 55th Street (their name for their part of 47th’s future site) and Chicago’s Union Station, the railroad’s main line made connections with over a dozen other railroads, allowing the carrier to offer direct interchange service to points across the west. Yet while these links provided much-desired connectivity, they also compounded the costs of fragmentation. A bit less than four miles north of 55th Street, for example, the Pennsy’s main line met three other railroads’ tracks at 21st Street, a crossing that became famous for its sheer complexity. With hundreds of trains a day passing through that and countless other junctions across the region, Chicago’s railroads rapidly became plagued by congestion.

Map showing all of Chicago’s railroad-railroad crossings in 1913. These at-grade intersections between lines–and the junctions that surrounded them–were often major sources of congestion in the region. Image: Through routes for Chicago’s steam railroads, with key resized by author for greater clarity.

It fell to the crews of Chicago’s transfer freights to manage the consequences of this fractured development pattern. Alongside the local crews who delivered cars to the city’s thousands of industries, these transfer crews were Chicago’s sinew. Trains from across the country converged on railroads’ respective Chicago yards, where their cars were sorted for delivery to other carriers. Transfers then moved those cars to those railroads’ yards, from where they could continue their journeys. With so many railroads, so many yards, and such complex infrastructure in Chicago, this system aggravated the city’s congestive chaos. In 1927, Chicago’s railroads ran nearly four times more transfer freights within the region than they did road freight trains in and out of the region. Moving at an average speed of five miles per hour, each of them helped gum up junctions, block streets, and complicate sorting at yards.

A diagram illustrating how freight interchange works when using transfer freights. Image credit: author

But even without congestion, Chicago’s infrastructural organization all but guaranteed delays to interchange freight. Railroad cars are liable to spend half their lives or more sitting in yards awaiting sorting or their next train; railroading is as much the art of building traffic density and moving trains quickly as it is simply getting cars out of terminals. The fragmentation of yards in Chicago turbocharged those delays to freight. At best, freight cars had to wait in a yard twice: once to be passed from their inbound train to an interchange transfer, and again to be handed off from that transfer to their outbound trip. And that was at best. In 1922, the average freight car moving through the region was yarded 2.8 times on its trip through the city. Of the thirty-one hours it took cars to move through the Chicago region in that year, twenty-three were spent sitting in yards.


As early as the 1880s, dissatisfaction with Chicago’s railroad system had begun to grow. Shippers bemoaned the delays suffered by their freight; railroads lamented the cost of running such a complex network; urban residents organized against the pollution and accidents that followed the trains wherever they went. By the turn of the twentieth century, then, railroads had begun to seek ways around Chicago’s manifold problems. Their efforts had two prongs. First, they built shared yards and crosstown railroads—called “belt lines”—to speed interchanges. And second, they started assembling solid trains of traffic for movement through Chicago onto another railroad without any sorting.

A diagram illustrating how freight interchange works when using belt lines. Image credit: author

Belt lines offered railroads a compelling proposition: rather than operating a complicated network of transfers through Chicago, they could dispatch their trains to a gargantuan shared yard at the edge of the city that would act as a sort of massive mixing bowl for railroad traffic. In these yards, freight from all different railroads would be consolidated, and rearranged into trains ready for movement to points in receiving carriers’ networks. By consolidating the multiple stops involved in the traditional operating model into a single sorting at a central yard, and leveraging the resulting traffic density to efficiently build trains, belt lines would save railroads and shippers significant amounts of time and money.

Despite the sound logic of belt lines, railroads were initially resistant to using their services. Because the costs of slow and unreliable interchange service were partially externalized among other carriers, car owners and shippers, it was often cheaper for carriers to limit their use of belt lines to their least-used connections, and instead continue running cars slowly through the transfer freight network to avoid paying the belt railroads’ switching charges. As a result, these shared facilities handled only 44 percent of Chicago region interchange freight in the late 1920s, and less by the 1940s.

Reformers made several proposals to reroute through freight away from downtown Chicago through the first third of the twentieth century. In doing so, they tabulated extensive data on the movement of freight throughout the region, some of which is represented at left here. Image: Report on the re-arrangement and development of the steam railroad terminals of the city of Chicago, via HathiTrust.

More impactful, perhaps, were the efforts railroads made to speed freight within their own networks. Around when the region’s belt railroads were completed in the late 1910s, American railroads began to experiment with ways of organizing trains that would reduce the need to sort traffic in the first place. For years, carriers had moved freight with little planning: yardmasters grouped cars headed in roughly similar directions into trains, and sent them to the next yard down the line. But as railroad reformers and managers sought to reduce delays and congestion in the rail network after World War I, they began investigating centralized planning of car movements. Its logic was simple and compelling. Rather than dispatching freight ad-hoc, railroads would study traffic flows across their networks, devise ways of grouping cars heading in similar directions into “blocks,” and then assemble those blocks into trains. By pre-sorting freight for distant points, shipments could bypass intermediate yards. This saved railroads time and money, while at the same time improving chronically-poor service reliability.

A diagram illustrating how freight interchange works when using pre-classification. Image credit: author

Initially gamed out within the confines of individual railroads’ networks, carriers slowly realized that they could speed interchanges by applying this philosophy to Chicago. Rather than sorting traffic in the city’s cramped yards, trains would arrive in the region with their cars already “blocked” for delivery to other carriers—or, better yet, for specific yards in that next carrier’s network. Doing this would require railroads to trust each other and coordinate, but slowly, this sort of operation spread. Before the 1920s, the Pennsylvania had relied on their 55th Street yard in Chicago to sort traffic for the region. When the Pennsylvania Railroad opened a new yard in Crestline, Ohio in 1928, this began to change. Immediately, they began pre-classifying blocks of cars for direct delivery to the city’s belt lines. By 1941, Crestline was also blocking traffic for direct delivery to the Chicago & Northwestern and Milwaukee Roads, two important western connections in Chicago. And in 1974, after the Pennsylvania had been merged into the ill-fated Penn Central, new, supersized regional classification yards as far east as Pittsburgh were building blocks for direct Chicago interchange, while the railroad’s modern sorting yard in northern Indiana classified freight for points as far west as California. Railroads began running pre-blocked trains straight through the city, linking regional classification yards in Chicago’s hinterland with high-speed, high-reliability freight service. In this world of extensive and careful pre-sorting, yards like 55th Street assumed a more minor role, primarily serving the city’s fast-dwindling industrial base.

A diagram illustrating how freight interchange works when using run-through freights. Image credit: author

By the 1980s, then, railroads had begun to get Chicago right. The larger and more modern regional yards they built around the Chicago gateway allowed more extensive pre-blocking and more frequent run-through trains. At the same time, railroads finally increased their use of belt railways, whose yards handled interchange traffic that could not move in pre-classified blocks. In conjunction with Chicago’s deindustrialization, traffic losses to trucks, and the increasing use of single-commodity and single-shipper “unit trains” for moving bulk goods by the trainload without any en-route sorting, these changing operating practices allowed the retirement of several of Chicago’s older urban terminals. Freight moved through the city faster—but its changing patterns left weed-choked tangles of steel in its wake.


For some of Chicago’s urban railroad yards, abandonment really was the end of their story. Many a Chicago strip mall is built on land which not forty years earlier would have been a teeming morass of freight cars waiting for a train east or west. But for many others, their retirement as classification yards merely closed one chapter in their stories. The 1960s and ‘70s were the dawn of the “intermodal age,” when railroads began putting truck trailers and shipping containers on their trains. In this convergence of old infrastructure and new shipping technology lay the roots of South Normal Avenue’s transformation into a parking lot.

A Burlington Northern intermodal train laden with a mix of trailers and containers makes its way through the Chicago suburbs in July 1979. Note the mix of trailers and containers in the consist. Image: Roger Puta.

Intermodal railroading as we know it got started in the 1950s. As industries decentralized away from railroads, and as railroads failed to improve their slow and unreliable carload services for the demands of contemporary shippers, carriers turned to the roads. The thought was simple: customers would bring trailers to terminals in towns and cities across a railroad’s network, from which railroads would take the trailers—loaded on flat cars—to another terminal near their destination. By making it easier to use rail without a line directly to each shippers’ plant, intermodal allowed railroads to serve decentralizing factories; by reducing the complicated sorting and gathering steps inherent in carload railroading, it made railroad service better. When railroads started offering intermodal options, shippers flocked to them, seemingly validating these theories. Between 1954 and 1964, trailer and container volumes on American railroads grew from nothing to 890,000 annual loads. 95 percent of shippers in a 1959 survey rated intermodal as being superior to traditional carload rail, and 85 percent responded that they had shifted freight back from trucks to the rails thanks to the new services. Railroads had a winner—or so they thought.

What railroad accountants realized in the late 1960s was that intermodal profit margins were low. Intermodal services had to be priced affordably enough so that they could absorb the added costs of trucking loads from shippers’ facilities to a railroad terminal (and vice versa at the other end). At the same time, intermodal rates had to cover the cost of loading shipments onto trains, and running the fast, reliable service demanded by intermodal’s target shippers. When railroads added up those expenses, it rapidly became clear that their growing intermodal business was often actually a financial drain.

In the eyes of most railroad managers, intermodal’s complexity lay at the heart of its profitability woes. During intermodal’s early years, railroads sought to offer comprehensive services across their networks. They carpeted the map with thousands of intermodal terminals, and offered services linking all of them to each other. While the extensiveness of these early networks kept trucking distances to rail terminals short, and allowed railroads to compete for nearly all flows of freight, the complexity of these services added to intermodal’s costs. Shipment volumes outside major shipping corridors were light—maybe a few loads a week. To aggregate these small volumes of freight into trains, railroads were forced to extensively sort intermodal traffic, which slowed supposedly-speedy intermodal shipments while adding to their handling costs. Moreover, each of those small intermodal terminals was itself expensive. Larger cities could justify the expense of mechanized cranes and improved terminal layouts; smaller places often could not, especially in that era when American railroading teetered at the edge of financial ruin.

The fate of Northeastern intermodal terminals, 1966-1987 (full size here). This map compares a list of active intermodal terminals on Conrail’s predecessor roads from 1966 to Conrail’s active intermodal terminals in 1987. The widespread closure of terminals in smaller cities is plainly evident. Note: for clarity, cities with multiple terminals are shown as single dots. Data: 1966 list; 1987 list from Jane’s Freight Containers. Base map: ESRI, with railroad line data from here, modified by author to match Conrail’s 1987 network.

Through the last third of the twentieth century, railroads consequently slashed their intermodal networks. Thousands of smaller terminals closed as railroads consolidated their facilities in major cities and restructured their service offerings around dedicated intermodal trains offering relatively fast service in a tightly limited number of high-density shipping markets. These reforms, in conjunction with new pricing freedoms afforded by deregulation, helped improve profit margins. But simultaneously, they began to lock railroads into a rather inflexible operating model. Intermodal equipment designs congealed around permanently coupled sets of train cars, which reflected an assumption that traffic would move only in large blocks. At the same time, intermodal terminals lost sorting capacity as they expanded over old classification yards, or moved to new terminals at ports and in the suburbs whose designs often skimped on marshalling tracks.

Managing Complexity

As intermodal grew further into the 1990s and 2000s, this system architecture—capable of building large point-to-point trains quickly and efficiently, but poorly suited to handling freight in lighter-volume markets—would become one of the industry’s biggest problems. By 1990, rail volume growth was intermodal traffic growth; the rising tide of containerized foreign imports and time-sensitive domestic freight helped buoy rail volumes despite widespread deindustrialization. But though railroads could make killings hauling traffic in dedicated trains between New York and Chicago, or Los Angeles and Texas, growing high-quality intermodal service outside those major city pairs required reinserting complexity into their plans. So long as railroads remained committed to operating long trains (a philosophy which planners challenged in the ‘70s for these reasons), the volume of freight moving between, say, Cincinnati and Syracuse would never justify its own run. If railroads wanted to handle it, they would have to sort intermodal traffic so they could build intermodal trains with traffic from multiple origins headed to multiple destinations. Railroads thus found themselves caught in a balancing act. To continue intermodal growth, they would need to build out more complex operating plans and more extensive sorting infrastructure, but not so much as to erode intermodal’s already-thin profit margins.

The tension between railroads’ drive for simple networks and shippers’ demands for more extensive intermodal service came to a head when railroads tried to interchange intermodal freight. Negotiating complexity within a single carrier’s network was one thing, but interchanges between railroads brought a new level of intricacy to railroads’ recently-simplified intermodal services. Creating inter-carrier services could mean adding dozens, if not hundreds, of additional origin and destination points to service plans, while also exposing intermodal to railroads’ age-old struggle to coordinate and build for efficient cargo handoffs.

Railroads initially refused to confront those challenges. Into the 1970s, shippers generally had to truck their trailers from one railroad terminal to another when using multiple railroads’ intermodal services through gateway cities like Chicago. While crosstown truck interchange avoided complexity for railroads, it added significantly to shipping costs. Unloading trucks from trains, moving them to another railyard, and then putting them back onto trains could add hundreds of dollars to freight bills, and deterred shippers from the rails. When railroads finally began offering widespread all-rail interchange service in the late 1970s, shippers seemingly had reason to celebrate. With their newfound ability to move a container clear across the country on a train, they shifted thousands of trucks off Chicago’s roads, and swelled transcontinental rail volumes with containers full of Asian imports. Thus, even though direct rail services still left a large portion of interchange traffic on highways, railroads seemed to have created a winner.

A Norfolk Southern intermodal transfer approaches Chicago’s 75th St Tower, a busy interlocking on the city’s South Side. Image: Roger Puta.

If one took a closer look, however, Chicago’s rail intermodal interchanges were tightly constrained by their own history. In Chicago, as in most other cities, railroads had built their intermodal terminals in the footprints of old urban freight yards. The Pennsylvania, for example, replaced their 55th Street classification yard with an intermodal facility in the 1960s as urban traffic volumes fell and intermodal grew. This yard helped the Pennsylvania cheaply expand intermodal capacity while affording them good access to urban industries and highway networks. But when the carrier’s successors began trying to directly hand off intermodal traffic in Chicago, their efforts were constrained by the site’s original use. That railroads like the Pennsylvania had built their new Chicago yards on the sites of the region’s first generation of rail terminals meant that intermodal traffic was doomed to suffer all the old problems of Chicago interchange. Fragmented, railroad-owned terminals foreclosed centralized sorting and forced the extensive use of transfer freights to hand off intermodal traffic. Meanwhile, railroads’ broader ambivalence about the appropriate level of complexity for intermodal crimped the development of sorting infrastructure, which made building pre-blocked or run-through intermodal freights difficult outside the busiest of markets. Had railroads truly internalized the lessons of their last century, they might have corrected one or more of these deficiencies–but despite the clear relationship between intermodal’s problems and the age-old issues of Chicago region railroading, carriers largely failed to confront the failures inherent in fragmented infrastructure.

Thanks to these constraints, rail shippers were forced to contend with a messy three-tiered system for intermodal interchange. Illustrative of this segmented approach to interline service was a train Conrail ran in the 1990s called TV-10, which carried traffic from 47th Street Yard to over a dozen destinations across the Northeast. Much of the train’s freight came from trains operated by the Santa Fe (predecessor to today’s BNSF) from the west and Texas. The heavy flow of cargo from Los Angeles headed to Massachusetts and northern New Jersey ran through onto TV-10 off of a dedicated Santa Fe train with almost no delay in Chicago; the Santa Fe assembled the train in California so it was pre-blocked for Conrail’s terminals. But loads moving from Los Angeles to smaller eastern cities, or from smaller western cities like Houston or Dallas to the east were not so lucky. Without adequate sorting infrastructure, those cars could not be pre-classified by eastern destination; they arrived in Chicago in blocks that mixed them with other eastbound traffic. Santa Fe transfer crews would deliver those cars to Conrail anywhere from six to sixteen hours before TV-10’s scheduled departure, so Conrail could painstakingly sort them at 47th Street and the railroad’s nearby Ashland Avenue yard for their destinations. And if you were trying to ship from an even smaller city on the Santa Fe—say, Albuquerque—onto Conrail’s network, your only option was crosstown trucking. Santa Fe and Conrail did not wish to bear the costs required to sort such small volumes of intermodal traffic at their constrained yards. Direct intermodal interchange might have been simpler and cheaper than trucking freight across town, but its complexity, slowness, and dependence on old infrastructure—one whose costs were felt with particular strength in smaller markets—made it hardly an optimal fix. Crosstown trucking persisted, and as intermodal traffic grew, its growth resumed too.


The resurgence of American rail traffic volumes in the 1980s and 1990s rapidly increased the strain on Chicago’s infrastructure. During those decades, city’s junctions and yards repeatedly devolved into congestive chaos under the strain of merger-wrought shifts in traffic patterns, unexpected traffic peaks, and blizzards. In response to these and the city’s other persistent service problems, regional planners and railroaders spent the early 2000s developing an immense rail infrastructure improvement plan for Chicago. Known as the Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency Program, or CREATE, the 2003 proposal consisted of over a hundred investments in flyovers, junction reconfigurations, signal improvements, and capacity expansions designed to improve the flow of trains—both passenger and freight—through the region. Though funding shortfalls have thus far prevented the completion of CREATE’s wide-ranging plans, CREATE has been a success even in its incomplete form. Thanks to its investments and a series of institutional changes to the way railroads coordinate their Chicago-region operations, Chicago’s rail riders and freight shippers enjoy more and faster trains than they did twenty years ago.

But CREATE had one major flaw. While the plan provided an admirable roadmap for relieving train congestion and improving passenger rail service, it fell short of offering a fix for Chicago’s rubber tire interchange problem. Amid its proposals for gargantuan flyovers and rerouted commuter rail routes, CREATE left the fragmentation of Chicago’s intermodal yards untouched. To some extent, this shortcoming was likely just a product of the project’s institutional origins. Being an effort premised on voluntary cooperation between regional governments and freight railroads, major changes to the way railroad firms operate their networks would likely have been difficult to sell to its stakeholders. Nevertheless, without shared intermodal terminals, centralized sorting hubs, or better developed peripheral intermodal classification yards, the future CREATE promised for the Chicago region was one of only partial salvation. The hundreds of carload freight trains and dozens of intermodal transfers that plied the city’s rails would move faster, yes—but the crosstown trucks left to fill in the gaps in the intermodal interchange network would remain on the city’s streets.

In the past five years, the unaddressed fragmentation of Chicago’s intermodal yards has become a locus of rail shippers’ and Chicagoans’ troubles with a changing railroad industry. After the Great Recession, railroad capacity constraints and Wall Street pressures led to a resurgence of productivity-oriented managerial strategies in railroading, a trend which culminated in the late-2010s rollout of cost-cutting operating plans across most of the railroad industry. Theoretically, these new operating plans, billed as “Precision Scheduled Railroading,” should have improved interchange operations by increasing the predictability of train arrivals in Chicago. However, the underlying managerial focus on profit and productivity improvement compromised that goal. Not only have today’s longer trains added to railroading’s long-standing reliability problems, but PSR’s search for productivity improvement came at great expense to intermodal. Railroads redoubled their emphasis on simplicity, as each cut dozens of their service lanes and hundreds of all-rail interchange offerings to achieve their high targets for their overall operating margin without having to make the capital investments required for efficient operations.

This map shows the impact of one major set of service cuts for eastbound freight moving on Union Pacific’s and CSX’s network in 2018. While some of the lanes eliminated then have since been reintroduced, the scale of the cuts in that era should be immediately apparent. Data: Union Pacific, BTS. Base map: ESRI.

One might think that simplification efforts would yield service benefits for the lower-volume lanes which did not get cut—but as of yet, those dividends have largely failed to materialize. Five years after a major round of cuts in 2018, shippers using Union Pacific and CSX to move freight across the country are still presented with uneven service options. It takes 21 hours longer to get a container from Los Angeles to Buffalo than it does to get one to Northern New Jersey, thanks to the additional sorting that the lower-volume Buffalo lane requires. Weakened and shrunken, American rail intermodal volumes remain 7 percent off their 2018 peak, despite surging demand for freight service during and after the pandemic. Productivity-oriented managerial philosophies and ineffective infrastructure have combined to cause rail’s retrenchment in a time of climate crisis; the only winners in this era have been investors.

What We Should Do

To solve Chicago’s interchange problem, planners will need to return to the essence of railroading, and indeed Chicago itself: density. Reconciling the clear demand for intermodal service linking smaller markets and railroads’ struggles to manage complicated flows of container traffic will require building interchange and sorting infrastructure capable of efficiently consolidating the manifold flows of intermodal freight that move through Chicago.

There are basically three ways of creating that density. The first is to build shared interchange yards for intermodal traffic. Imitating the logic of belt lines, shared intermodal terminals would allow railroads to consolidate their lighter-volume interchange flows into blocks (or trains) for a belt terminal, where loads could either be re-sorted, or trucked to a different train within the terminal. By eliminating transfer freights and miniaturizing the crosstown transfer process, these terminals would cut travel times and costs. Shared terminals are hardly a new proposal, but the fact that nobody has yet to attempt building one speaks to their complexity. Railroads and policymakers would have to not only not design and fund the project, but also make long-run commitments to the use of such facilities. What’s more, they would have to find somewhere to put the gargantuan terminal, no small challenge in as built up a region as Chicago. With the right alignment of actors and land, the next generation of infrastructure sharing could be revolutionary for Chicago—but getting to that point may require decades of effort that we do not have.

The second, and perhaps more feasible, way of fixing Chicago’s bottleneck is by building regional classification yards for modern intermodal networks. Every railroad entering the city already has some sort of intermodal sorting yard they use for swapping blocks of traffic on trains headed into the Windy City’s terminals and interchanges. But except for traffic moving through purpose-built facilities along CSX and Union Pacific’s east-west mainlines in Ohio and rural Illinois, respectively, most sorting takes place in old, constrained terminals. Norfolk Southern sorts their eastbound traffic in a Chicago yard originally laid out for livestock movements in the 1880s; BNSF’s trains from the southwest use an old and small division point yard in Iowa; Union Pacific’s loads from Texas are simply shunted around in a yard on the city’s south side. Along with the limited yard space available at intermodal terminals themselves, these facilities allow for a basic level of classification—but not the sort of quick, flexible, and high-volume type of sorting required to operate an extensive interchange network. If regional policymakers and railroads were to build out a better-equipped set of intermodal sorting yards on their main lines feeding the Chicago gateway, they could more easily and cheaply consolidate small flows of traffic into larger blocks for interchange, or even solid run-through trains. Terminals like 47th Street could stop growing, and the volume of truck traffic on the city’s streets would shrink.

The third—and most fraught—solution is mergers. Fundamentally, the city’s rail coordination problems trace their roots to the North American rail network’s balkanization. Natural as those lines might seem to American railroaders, they need not be permanent. Other cities that suffered from interchange-induced truck traffic—like Cincinnati, once a gateway between Midwestern and Southern carriers—now see none, because mergers have integrated the networks that once broke in those cities. Tearing down those geographic walls without aggravating monopolization issues would likely require new sorts of regulatory protection for shippers, or even new structures of rail ownership more akin to those seen in Europe and Asia. Nevertheless, mergers would give railroaders an opportunity to assemble intermodal networks across the Chicago gateway, entirely eliminating the interchange problem. In this age of intercontinental supply chains, it may well be that assembling railroad networks of even grander scales than today’s might provide the best route to achieving transportation and environmental policy goals in Chicago and beyond.


These solutions will be too late to save South Normal Avenue, of course. As of 2023, Norfolk Southern’s bulldozers are slowly transforming their slice of Englewood into a parking lot. This is perhaps the project’s final irony: South Normal Avenue is disappearing to create a relief valve for freight’s continued fragmentation, a storage space where containers can wait until their shippers are ready to move them to a loading dock or another intermodal terminal. Parking is undoubtedly important to a well-functioning intermodal yard, but it is fundamentally a salve for unreliable rail service and unpredictable supply chains, rather than a cure for any of freight transport’s woes. In Norfolk Southern’s plan, then, lies a condensed history of railroads’ ambivalence towards the myriad coordination problems that surround their infrastructure. Each individual carrier does their best to work within their constraints—and in pursuing their fragmented efforts, cements a dysfunctional system of interchange.

There may still be hope for a corporate fix for Chicago’s woes, but awaiting private solutions to complex collective action problems can lead to disappointment. In these times, we do not have the luxury of patience: as much as anything else, 47th Steeet’s story is a call for civil society to grapple with freight. Since the 1970s, policy efforts to grapple with the fragmentation of freight systems’ governance have dwindled. Today, goods’ place in public debates extends little further than its ability to shape and justify highway projects, and present the occasional crisis for policymakers. More than anything else, Chicago’s example demonstrates the limits of that model. We must begin treating freight and the array of actors which govern it as important stakeholders and instruments for advancing our policy goals. Whether it be in the realm of climate, economic development, or otherwise, freight configures so much of our lives; we are poorly served to ignore it.

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