Rail cars sit on tracks at The Belt Railway of Chicago intermodal facility, jointly owned by railroads including CSX Corp. and Burilngton Northern Santa Fe Corp (BNSF), in Bedford Park, Illinois. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg
As the Midwest’s most important economic hub, Chicago is naturally the focal point for much rail traffic. Both Amtrak and Metra, a regional rail transit authority, run through the city, as do six of the nation’s seven largest freight railroads. These trains carry goods between America’s East and West coasts, and between Canada and the U.S. South, with Chicago handling roughly 25% of nationwide rail traffic. This has created massive bottlenecks, with trains sometimes taking days to get through the city. Every level of government—federal, state, regional and local—has tried addressing the problem. More recently, a private entrepreneur has entered the fray.
In 2011, Frank Patton founded Great Lakes Basin Transportation, Inc., hoping to crack into Chicago’s freight rail market. He is proposing an $8 billion, 280-mile line that would circumnavigate the city, reducing the average travel time through Chicago from 30 hours to 8 hours. The 73-year-old Patton formerly owned Portfolio Dynamics, a financial software company, and became interested in solving this train knot while volunteering for a local community organization. The line would begin in southern Wisconsin, and take a wide route around Chicago and Gary, Indiana, before stopping just south of the Michigan border. Patton thinks the project will pay for itself through user fees, and thus won’t have difficulty obtaining financing. In December of 2015 he told the Gazette Xtra, a Wisconsin newspaper, that he hopes to complete the permitting process in two years, and have trains running on the line by 2019.

This could help solve a problem that has long strained Chicago’s economy. The 30-hour average wait time through the city is equivalent to the 30 hours it takes trains to go from Chicago to the East Coast, and only 18 hours less than the average train travel time between Los Angeles and Chicago. Indeed, when it comes to train travel, Chicago really is a knot in the middle of the country. According to a report commissioned by Amtrak, the knot causes nearly $800 billion annually in “economic vulnerability,” and hurts 6 industries–agriculture, natural resources, automotive, manufacturing, retail and services– that combine for 85% of U.S. domestic product. The bottleneck has worsened recently because of more post-recession economic activity; greater use of freight rail to transport crude oil; and the datedness of Chicagoland’s rail infrastructure. The Second City’s harsh winters exacerbate the problem, as major snowstorms harm railroads’ safety and efficiency.
The governmental efforts to solve the problem include $4 billion spent over the last decade to modernize tracks, digitize operations, and improve cohesion between competing rail companies. One particularly influential bureaucracy has been theChicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency Program (CREATE), which was designed to merge public and business interests. The program has organized 70 projects, many of which are complete, and have cut through-times for Chicago’s roughly 1,300 daily freight and passenger trips by 11 hours on average. 
Another solution, proposed by Canadian Pacific Railway, is to organize a merger with Norfolk Southern, a major Virginia-based freight rail company. By accessing the latter company’s rail network, Canadian Pacific Railway says that it could shift traffic out of Chicagoland. But Norfolk Southern has thus far rejected the bid.
Into this mix comes Patton, who believes Great Lakes Basin Transportation’s extra line is needed alongside the other public and private solutions.
“Anybody who looks at the projections for a 60% increase in traffic by 2040, they know something has to happen,” he told the Wall Street Journal. “The Chicago terminal is one snowstorm away from disaster.”
As with other attempts to modernize America’s infrastructure, solutions to the Chicago freight bottleneck face NIMBYism, some of which seems valid, and shows the complexities of managing heavy industry in major metro areas. The expansion projects that CREATE authorized throughout south-side Chicago, for example, were protestedby neighborhood groups, who charged that the diesel fumes would increase asthma rates among the area’s predominately poor black population. Of course, maintaining the status quo–where Chicago trains sit log-jammed for days–isn’t good for fuel economy or air quality either.
The main resistance to Patton’s proposed new railroad, meanwhile, comes from nearby affected landowners, many of whom are farmers. They will deal with constant noise, grade-level crossing delays, and 200-foot track right-of-ways that destroy chunks of their cropland. Given the freight cargo spill epidemic, the line could also prove to be environmentally hazardous.
For these reasons, it seems unlikely that Patton would obtain a permit in 2 years, as the project requires federal approval. Numerous other key infrastructure projects, from port dredging to dam construction, have taken far longer because of environmental reviews. But Patton claims that there is enough desire for untangling this bottleneck inside the “right federal agencies” to move it forward. If he is correct, his project could soon transform a centrally-located traffic hub that now hinders production in every outward direction.
Scott Beyer is traveling the U.S. to write a book about reviving U.S. cities through Market Urbanism. His work is found at BigCitySparkplug.com.