Federal regulators have approved a major rail merger expected to bring more freight trains through parts of the Chicago area, despite concerns raised by Metra, suburban towns and Illinois members of Congress.
The decision to allow the $31 billion merger of Canadian Pacific and Kansas City Southern to move forward, issued Wednesday, marks the first major railroad merger since the 1990s, and one with implications for the Chicago area. The effects are expected to reverberate through communities along Metra’s Milwaukee District West line, where the number of daily freight trains is projected to increase.
The decision comes weeks after a fiery train derailment in Ohio led to evacuations and fears of air and water contamination when toxic chemicals were released and burned, and after four Democratic Illinois members of Congress urged the Surface Transportation Board to delay a final ruling pending more study.
In its decision, the board said it “expects that this new single-line service will foster the growth of rail traffic, shifting approximately 64,000 truckloads annually from North America’s roads to rail, and will support investment in infrastructure, service quality, and safety.” It is also expected to add more than 800 union jobs in the U.S., and provide opportunities for Amtrak service, the board said.
The board acknowledged communities’ opposition to the merger.
“The Board recognizes that, although most localities would prefer less rather than more train traffic, any traffic that CPKC diverts from trucks and from other railroads will produce more trains traversing areas that are currently served by either CP or KCS,” members wrote.
The board is establishing a seven-year oversight period for the merger and requirements to report certain data.
The merger will create the only railroad linking Canada, Mexico and the United States.
In the Chicago area, already a busy freight rail hub, it is expected to bring more freight trains to parts of Metra’s Milwaukee District West line to Schaumburg and Elgin. Metra shares tracks with Canadian Pacific along the line — as it does along the Milwaukee District North line — and Canadian Pacific is projecting the merger could add an average of about eight extra freight trains per day to parts of the line, bringing the total number to an average of just over 11 per day by 2027.
Nine communities, including Itasca, Elgin, Hanover Park and DuPage County, formed a coalition opposing the merger, saying it would increase delays at rail crossings, congestion, noise and vibrations. That could cause health and safety hazards for residents and pose problems for first responders trying to reach emergencies who find their paths blocked by trains at road crossings, they have said.
Metra, for its part, has said the merger could increase delays and exacerbate safety issues for passengers.
The coalition, Metra and elected officials also disputed Canadian Pacific’s estimate of the number of trains that could pass through the Chicago suburbs and questioned the railroad’s modeling. The railroad said in federal filings that concerns about higher-than-estimated numbers of trains passing through the area are unfounded.
In the weeks leading up to the decision, Democratic U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth and U.S. Reps. Raja Krishnamoorthi and Delia Ramirez called for the Surface Transportation Board to delay a decision until further study of the merger’s effects on the region can be completed, and then until after a review of increased movement of hazardous materials resulting from the merger could be completed.
“We are deeply concerned that the increased transport of unknown chemicals puts Illinoisan lives at danger and puts the Chicago suburbs at risk of suffering similar devastation to that of East Palestine (Ohio). Public and environmental safety must be a top priority in the STB’s review of the proposed CP-KCS merger,” they wrote in a Feb. 24 letter.
In 2021 in Illinois, hazardous materials were involved in train derailments — though not always released — or were released for another reason 64 times, according to the Illinois Commerce Commission. That was the highest number of railroad hazmat events since 2018, but lower than the 91 events a decade earlier.
Fourteen of the 2021 hazmat events took place in the six-county Chicago region and involved the release of the materials, ICC figures show. The material most often released was diesel, such as from a locomotive or refrigeration unit on a container.
This is a developing story. Please check back for updates.