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Thursday, Sept. 17, 2009 05:04 pm

Stopped by a train

Why Springfield is helpless to stop the Union Pacific

Springfield’s Third Street railroad station, now the Amtrak station, in 1907. At that time there were two sets of tracks.
PHOTO COURTESY SANGAMON VALLEY COLLECTION, LINCOLN LIBRARY

In the early 1850s, the brand new Alton & Sangamon Railroad needed a north-south track corridor through the capital city. The City of Springfield also needed a railroad, so the city council granted the A&S a right-of-way for its tracks along Third Street. Through the city, mind you, not around it. The city center was where the factories were and the warehouses and stores that were fed by rail.

Today, in-town goods move by truck, and railroad corridors in locations like Third Street make as much sense as hitching posts in front of Maldaner’s. In an ideal modern metropolis, freight traffic would be routed around the city rather than through it. In the railroad business, alas, the most profitable distance between two points is a straight line. Once its new intermodal freight handling facility near Joliet is completed in about a year, the A&S’s successor railroad, the Union Pacific, will begin running more trains than ever along Third — as many as 40 a day (most of them freights) by 2016.

Of course you’ve read all about it — how the only way that the city can avoid paralyzing traffic tie-ups downtown is to disfigure it with overpasses, how the UP is blackmailing the city by threatening to toss Amtrak trains off its tracks, how citizens have come to see their elected officials as cowards or crooks for failing to protect the city against such corporate bullying. How the Third Street tracks are used and by whom seem to be beyond anyone’s power to condemn or control.

How did it happen that decisions about the use of infrastructure so crucial to the public have been left in the hands of a corporation not accountable to that public? Think back to the mid-1800s. Steam-driven trains were the alchemists of the industrial age, able to turn dirt and corn and coal to gold by connecting mid-Illinois farms and mines to faraway markets. Every town in Illinois wanted one. The State of Illinois had failed laughably in its attempts to provide publicly owned transportation infrastructure in the 1830s. (Historians usually refer to the episode as the internal improvements fiasco; if you think Amtrak cars without working lavatories are bad, read about the Northern Cross.) Much was promised, little was built that worked and a great deal of money was still owed by the time rail technology and the Illinois economy and capital markets had matured a generation later. If Illinois was to have railroads, private companies would have to build them.

Extraordinary powers were granted to the railroad companies by legislative charter to speed the work. Like today’s privatized infrastructure funding, the policy was embraced as a way to build public works without making the public pay for them. Their authority to condemn land and set rates made them semi-sovereign powers.

And they behaved like them. Historian John Keiser, late of Sangamon State University and this world, called them “steaming monsters.” No banker today stirs the outrage that the railroad kings did in the latter 1800s. They cheated investors, they suborned lawmakers, they extorted favorable shipping rates from farmers and merchants. As Gov. John Palmer put it in 1871, the railroads had become powers greater than the state itself.

Deciding how and to what extent railroads’ power ought to be constrained occupied lawmakers for decades. The battle was waged on intellectual, political and legal fronts. The State of Illinois’ hard-won power to set shipping rates, for example (confirmed by the U.S. top court in its 1879 decision Munn v. Illinois), was nullified by the federal courts in 1886, when the same court barred states from regulating interstate commerce. Railroad shipping used to be regulated by the federal Interstate Commerce Commission but since 1995 rates are not regulated at all. The Illinois Commerce Commission has jurisdiction only over safety issues such as crossings.

As for municipalities, they have almost no power at all beyond harassment. I am indebted to a reader of the State Journal-Register for reminding me that Mayor Nelson Howarth, bless his heart, once ordered his police chief to issue tickets to train engineers who exceeded speed limits as they went through unprotected crossings. There was nothing else he could do.

In sum, as long as the railroads are seen to serve the common good — defined mainly in terms of fostering commerce — they will be impervious to complaints of local nuisance caused in the process. That lesson was most recently learned by Hoffman Estates, Frankfort, Mundelein, Barrington and a dozen other Chicago suburbs. In March the Canadian National Railway completed its purchase of some little-used tracks through those towns which CN will use to reroute through freight traffic around Chicago. While some towns along the EJ&E will see fewer trains, others will see from five to 20 additional trains a day, some of them so long that a single train will simultaneously block every crossing as they roll through some towns.

A coalition of those towns was formed to oppose the plan. Elected representatives were harangued, the media were alerted, lawyers hired. Public hearings were staged to give everyone a chance to shake their fists at CN. Their sole concession was a study by the U.S. Surface Transportation Board of a wide range of safety and environmental impacts of the additionl traffic on that line, from crossing safety and hazardous materials transportation to delays to local commuter trains and energy and fuel use. None was judged sufficient to order CN to desist.

The problem is not aggressive capitalists indifferent to the effect that their use of their property has on people who are not shareholders. The problem is that those tracks — unlike our highways — were ever private to begin with. Until they are not, the effort to slow or modify the UP’s plan to boost freight on the line is a train that will never leave the station.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at peptobiz@mindspring.com., A
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