Belt Railway Clears Track for More Efficiency

Better communication with railroads speeds traffic through key railroad junction

By Bob Tita
Updated Aug. 11, 2015 7:30 p.m. ET
BEDFORD PARK, Ill.—The warren of winding tracks here is a central front in the rail industry’s push to become a more efficient mover of time-sensitive freight.
Though little-known, Belt Railway Co. oversees a critical junction for the North American railroad industry where the six largest railroads in the U.S. and Canada converge. Those railroads exchange cars with each other here in the Belt’s sprawling Clearing Yard just outside of Chicago, enabling freight to move across the U.S. by collecting cars headed to the same destinations and assembling them into new trains. The yard’s 265 miles of tracks and switches handle more than a million railcars a year, making it the largest facility of its kind in North America.
When it works, the Belt is a model of cooperation between fiercely competitive railroads. But when the Belt’s operation seizes up, it becomes a clot in the circulatory system of national commerce that can back trains up as far away as western Canada and Ohio.
Since a near-collapse of rail service in Chicago during the winter of 2013-2014, managers for the Belt have improved communication with counterparts at the freight railroads and sharpened operations to move trains in and out of the Clearing Yard. The Belt also has benefited from a boost in railroads’ capital spending, including about $16 billion in 2014—about a third more than in 2011.
With 1,200 new and rebuilt locomotives since 2012, railroads are getting trains in or out of the Clearing Yard and through Chicago faster and reducing clogs from trains waiting for crews or locomotives.
“Chicago is working again,” said Anthony Hatch, a railroad analyst for ABH Consulting in New York. “The carriers understand that they need to cooperate. If Chicago works better, everybody’s railroad works better too.”
North American railroads hauled 37.2 million carloads of freight last year. About a quarter of that volume originated, stopped or passed through the greater Chicago area. Routes for BNSF Railway Co. and Union Pacific Corp.UNP-0.32% extend west and south from here. Those for CSX Corp.CSX-0.61% and Norfolk Southern Corp.NSC-0.15% stretch east and southeast. Canadian National Railway Co.CNI-0.52% and Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd.CP-0.36% use Chicago to connect their coast-to-coast Canadian service to the U.S. The six railroads jointly own the Belt, which operates as a stand-alone business and charges fees to its owners and smaller railroads. Revenue last year was $81 million.
Transfers between railroads are relatively simple when a train carries one kind of freight for a single customer. It becomes more complicated when trains haul mixed loads for multiple destinations over different railroads. The 133-year-old Belt specializes in such mixed-freight, having taken over much of the railcar sorting in Chicago for its owner railroads in the past 20 years. Mixed freight—different types of cars carrying paper, chemicals, stacks of lumber or steel coils—accounts for about a third of annual carloads.
The heart of the 650-acre Clearing Yard is the “hump,” a 30-foot-high mound. When a train arrives, its locomotives are detached and the Belt’s locomotives push the train to the hump’s peak, where a worker uncouples cars.
“This is the place to be if you’ve got the seniority,” said switchman Brian McCarthy, a 22-year Belt veteran who likes setting the pace for the yard.
He walked alongside a slow-moving train one morning pulling bars to uncouple individual cars according to instructions on a tote board. A yellow, metal box strapped to his waist allowed him to halt the action if a problem arose.
‘On the other side of the hump, another worker uncoupled cars from a second train. The hump works in both directions, with two sets of tracks so trains can be pushed up both sides simultaneously.
Disconnected cars slide down the other side, singly or in blocks up to six. At the bottom, the railcars roll through a series of brakes on the tracks to slow them down and automated switches that marshal the cars with others headed in the same destination.
Some 2,900 cars cross the hump on an average day, roughly one every 30 seconds. On busier days, that can reach 3,200 cars.
To speed sorting, railroads increasingly are delivering trains to the Belt with cars already grouped together by destination. Railroads’ operations managers often rearrange their Belt schedules on short notice, compensating for late-arriving trains by sending others to the yard ahead of schedule. Belt managers use instant messaging to stay in touch with the other railroads.
“We talk to the [Belt] three or four times an hour,” said Jason Jenkins, general manager in Chicago for BNSF Railway, which is based in Fort Worth, Texas.
The freight railroads also are relying more on a joint operations center in Chicago where they, along with Amtrak and Chicago’s commuter rail operator, share information about their trains’ whereabouts, especially when accidents or signal problems block busy routes. This allows railroads to keep an isolated problem from mushrooming into a regional traffic mess.
North American railroads nationwide last year logged their highest volume since 2007, but struggled because of weather-related delays and shortages of manpower and locomotives. The Belt’s volume slid almost 2%, to 1.1 million carloads, and dwell time—the average time railcars spend at the yard—was 29.6 hours, above the 24-to-26-hour target. So far this year, dwell time is down to 24.3 hours. Of the 33 trains a day on average departing from the Clearing Yard, 74% are now leaving on time, up from about 60% at the end of 2014.
“We have to do our part to keep the Belt fluid,” said Cindy Sanborn, vice president of transportation for CSX and chairwoman of the Belt’s board. “The owners are very much the source of the problems and the solutions.”
The Belt would benefit from several traffic-flow improvement projects in the Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency program, an ambitious, 12-year-old effort by the railroads and government agencies to eliminate chronic rail choke points throughout greater Chicago.
The Belt is part of one of the program’s most complicated and expensive projects to separate tracks for the Belt and other railroads that intersect on Chicago’s south side by building bridges. The project would give Belt 24-hour access to its tracks through the project area, instead of holding trains back for six hours a day to give right of way to passenger trains. But at a cost of at least $750 million, funding for the project remains a key issue.