Union Pacific changes will cut freight delays for Metra commuters, railroad CEO says

A Union Pacific freight train approaches the old Metra station platform in Maywood on April 21, 2017. The railroad is planning operational changes that could reduce freight congestion and aid Metra commuters and motorists. (Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune)

      article by Mary Wisniewski for chicagotribune.com

The head of Union Pacific said Thursday that the freight railroad’s plan for operational changes, starting in the Midwest in October, should help reduce freight congestion and benefit both Metra users and motorists in the Chicago area.

“I think it will reduce the amount of freight congestion that is occurring,” said Lance Fritz, CEO, chairman and president of Omaha-based Union Pacific. “It doesn’t occur frequently, but it will reduce it.”

Fritz was in Chicago to speak at the Illinois Chamber of Commerce luncheon. He made his comments about Metra in an interview with the Tribune.

Metra often cites conflicts with freight trains as one of the reasons commuter trains are delayed. Union Pacific operates three Metra lines — the Union Pacific West to Elburn, the Union Pacific Northwest to Harvard, and the Union Pacific North to Kenosha. Metra owns the locomotives and cars on the lines.

Most conflicts with Union Pacific freight trains happen on the UP-Metra lines. Though there are some potential points of conflict with Union Pacific trains in Joliet for the Heritage Corridor, along 75th Street for SouthWest Service and at the Mayfair crossing for Milwaukee North, it does not happen often, said Metra spokesman Michael Gillis.

The new Union Pacific operating plan, known as Unified Plan 2020, will launch Oct. 1 and be rolled out in phases across the railroad’s network. It will start in the north-south corridor that includes the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, Chicago and Texas, Fritz said.

The plan will switch the railroad’s focus from moving trains to moving train cars, Fritz explained. This might mean that the railroad will move cars with greater frequency to and from customers, and may involve asking some customers to take or receive cars on more days of the week.

In the Chicago area, cars could move in and out of the Union Pacific Proviso Yard in Melrose Park with more frequency, Fritz said.

The end result should mean greater efficiency and shorter idle periods for trains, Fritz said. Other railroads, specifically Canadian National, Canadian Pacific and CSX, are already trying a version of this model.

Metra had no immediate comment on the UP plan.

In the interview, Fritz also hailed progress on the untangling of the rail bottleneck at 75th Street. Under a publicly and privately funded plan to ease rail congestion on the South Side, railroad and government officials plan to build a flyover bridge so freight tracks can go up and over another set of tracks near 75th Street and Western Avenue at what’s known as the Forest Hill Junction.

A second planned set of reforms, which are not yet funded, would eliminate another choke point east of Forest Hill, where five tracks narrow into two.

“The 75th Street Corridor Improvement Project is critical for all freight railroads in Chicago,” said Fritz. He referred to the 75th Street bottleneck as a “really big elephant that needs to be eaten piece by piece.”

Fritz said the project also will help alleviate vehicle traffic congestion. He supports more grade separations, which separate roads from railroad tracks, around the Chicago area. “That’s an area where the city could really pick up the pace,” Fritz said.

In other comments, Fritz said that the outlines of the new free trade agreement between the U.S. and Mexico look promising, though he hasn’t yet seen the details of the language. He said it’s “very important” that Canada join in.

“The fact that we are a three-part trading block is very important to the United States economy right now,” Fritz said. “So I hope Canada and the United States see a path forward to be able to get Canada into the agreement.”

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said Canada will not back down from demands for improvements to the agreement. Talks are continuing.


Twitter @marywizchicago

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