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Research Project

The Impact of Freight Congestion on the Chicago Area Commute

Chicago has been the railroad hub of the nation since the middle of the 19th Century. It continues to maintain that distinction today as almost one-third of the nation’s rail freight originates, terminates or travels through Chicago. It is the fourth largest container handler in the world after Hong Kong, Singapore and Shanghai. It is also the crossroads of the nation’s Interstate Highway system.

Principal Investigator
DiJohn, Joseph
Research Area(s)


 With O’Hare International and Midway Airports, it is the nation’s air hub as well. Chicago also is one of the leading metropolitan areas in congestion. The Texas Transportation Institute ranks it second in the nation in congestion when measuring the travel time index. The U. S. Department of Transportation estimates the annual cost of congestion in the Chicago area to be in the order of magnitude of $11 billion. This represents time delays, excess fuel costs, productivity, environmental, safety and unreliability losses, cargo delays and airline and railroad  congestion costs. Freight congestion is a significant cause of much of the delay that Chicago area commuters face. Some of the freight impacts on the Chicago commute are as follows:
  • Freight train interference impacts Metra’s ability to provide quality commuter rail service. It is a major cause of commuter train delays and resulting poorer on-time performance. In 2007, almost 18 percent of all Metra delays were caused  by freight interference, an increase of 8 percent over the prior year. Additionally, freight train operations impede the ability of Metra to add service, particularly for the reverse commute, a growing need in the region, and for off-peak service.
  • Congestion in rail yards causes back-ups of trains resulting in blocked highway-grade crossings. This delays auto commuters as well as transit and school buses. Blocked crossings also provide barriers to emergency responders in many communities.
  • Rail yard congestion has also resulted in a large number of rubber-tire transfers via truck cartage from one rail yard to another. Container traffic is growing at a rate almost twice that of general freight. An estimated 15,000 such movements occur daily in Chicago area adding significantly to an already crowded roadway system.ƒ
  • One of the largest components of increased VMT (Vehicle Miles Traveled) is increased truck traffic. Changing distribution patterns, smaller shipments, just-in-time distribution, has added vehicles to the highways contributing to congestion.  Our research has shown that the largest increase in VMT, almost 42 percent, has resulted from non-household travel, trucks and external travel.ƒ
  • Decentralization of manufacturing and distribution facilities to the outer suburban area increases cartage mileage and costs.  For example, intermodal facilities have located in Rochelle and Joliet, 81 and 47 miles respectively from Chicago. Solid waste is being transported to Pontiac, Illinois, 98 miles from Chicago.
Download the "The Impact of Freight Congestion on the Chicago Area Commute" report.