‘The next East Palestine?’ US neighborhoods brace for huge increase in train traffic as rail merger takes effect

Earlier this month, two of North America’s largest freight railroad companies officially merged, creating the first seamless route from Canada through the United States to Mexico. The $31 billion merger between Canadian Pacific and Kansas City Southern is expected to increase safety, improve services, create new investment in the railroad network, and create jobs and economic growth in all three countries, if you’re willing to believe the company line.

Some environmental advocates and detractors of the deal say it’s all baloney.

What is known is that the merger will drastically increase rail traffic in dozens of U.S. neighborhoods from Chicago to Texas’s border with Mexico. Traffic is expected to at least quadruple as the trains haul anything from agricultural commodities to coal and the same dangerous chemicals that devasted East Palestine, Ohio, in February. The trains will pass through hundreds of diverse neighborhoods in five states.

METRA, the commuter rail system in the Chicago metropolitan area, said train traffic in the suburbs would go from three to 18. However, it’s not clear when those estimates will be reached.

Read More: I lived through a chemical leak caused by a Norfolk Southern train derailment 12 years ago. Now, it’s happening again

But the additional rail traffic will also bring far more pollution to those neighborhoods, according to Shawn Collins, an environmental attorney and advocate in the Chicago Metropolitan area.

”Trains are pollution factories,” he said in a conversation with Reckon. “They will be passing by schools, businesses, parks, and people’s homes. And for what? A little extra profit that was gift-wrapped by weak regulators.”

The merger was first announced in Sept. 2021. Since then, the Surface Transportation Board, the government entity responsible for greenlighting the deal, has had to pour over thousands of public comments and environmental studies and decide if the coming together of the 6th and 7th largest rail freight operators would create a monopoly. The combined company, now known as Canadian Pacific Kansas City, became the fifth-largest freight operator when it commenced operations April 14.

The STB approved the deal in mid-March, just weeks after the East Palestine derailment and chemical explosion raised major rail safety and infrastructure issues.

“East Palestine was our chance to learn that we have a massively profitable runaway industry that is essentially unregulated,” said Collins. “That derailment was our moment to reexamine everything that’s going wrong in the rail industry and why we don’t have meaningful regulation. Instead, they have allowed the merger and now we’ll have 11,000 more dangerous trains on the tracks.”

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Collins also said diesel pollution from trains was generally an overlooked issue. Diesel fumes are a carcinogen linked to cancer but also lung and heart problems.

However, regulators said the merger would create less pollution. They claim that 64,000 fewer truckloads will be on the roads due to the increased rail traffic, which will enhance road safety and reduce carbon emissions.

“On balance, the merger of these two railroads will benefit the American economy and will be an improvement for all citizens in terms of safety and the environment,” Martin J. Oberman, the chairman of the five-member board, said at a news conference March 15.

Oberman and the director of the office of environmental analysis at STB, Danielle Gosselin, declined to speak with Reckon for this story.

In the suburbs

In the environmental justice analysis of the report, it noted that 23% of those living close to the rail tracks in the five states, Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Missouri and Texas, self-reported as being a minority. Just under 30% were low-income. Four members of Congress, including senior Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin, wrote to the Surface Transportation Board in July 2022 opposing the merger on the grounds that it will have “significant impacts on noise, emergency response time, commuter rail operations, the environment, and pedestrian safety” in Chicago’s suburbs.

The trains pass through what’s known as the Milwaukee District West (MDW) line, a central corridor line that runs through Chicago’s heavily populated suburban communities from Bensenville to Elgin.

Such has been the furor in those suburbs, mayors in the region started a coalition to try to stop the deal.

Jeff Pruyn, mayor of the Village of Itasca, about 28 miles east of downtown Chicago, says his biggest concern above any pollution is the possibility that the town could be the next East Palestine.

“If that happened here, it would destroy this town forever,” he said. “And those chemicals would get into the Fox River, which is drinking water for about 500,000 people.”

Although he said it was an unlikely event, he was still concerned because the STB told him its mandate was not about safety but successful commerce.

“They told me the safety aspect of the deal was handled by the Railroad Safety Board, but when you talk to them, they’ll say it’s a consideration that has to be dealt with by the STB,” he said.

He added: “Corporations and the government aren’t listening to us, and we’re going to take the brunt of what’s coming.”

Mayor Pruyn also said that his town has four rail crossings, which would be blocked by the longer trains, increasing the time that cars would idle at the crossings. He also said that because the freight trains might delay commuter traffic, it could lead to more people driving in the suburbs – negating the environmental impact of removing 64,000 truckloads from the roads.

As part of the deal, there will be an unprecedented seven-year monitoring period ensuring that the newly formed company sticks to its promises to mitigate environmental impacts, preserve competition, protect railroad workers, and promote efficient passenger rail.

However, there is no indication of what could happen should Canadian Pacific Kansas Southern not stick to its promises.

“What about the promise of the children who have to grow up around these huge polluting trains that will pass through their neighborhoods just about every hour for probably their entire childhoods,” said Collins. “And those children, and their families, will be from the mostly poor minority communities close to the tracks who will have to deal with the pollution, the noise, the inconvenience and all the risk.”

He added: “It’s the typical story of America and it’s sad.”

Christopher Harress

Christopher Harress |

Climate change reporter on the east and Gulf coasts.

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