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Thursday, August 06, 2009

EJ&E merger foes prep for next battle

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One appeal of a controversial railway sale was denied this week, clearing the way for another -- this one in federal court, according to the Fox Valley Villages Sun. On August 5, the federal Surface Transportation Board rejected an appeal by the Illinois Commerce Commission. The ICC objected to Canadian National Railway Company's $300-million purchase of the suburban Elgin, Joliet and Eastern rail line, which the STB approved in December.

In denying this motion, the Transportation Board effectively finalized its December decision, as there are no further appeals before that board. And with a final decision in place, an appeal in federal court -- filed seven months ago by opponents of the sale -- can proceed. With the procedural obstacles all but cleared, the local opposition hopes that case can move forward.


The ICC appeal was one of two things keeping the federal court from hearing the case. The other is a vacancy on the Transportation Board. President Barack Obama has nominated Daniel Elliott III, an associate attorney at the United Transportation Union. Confirmation hearings are ongoing.


Assistant chief of staff Carie Anne Ergo, speaking on behalf of Mayor Tom Weisner of Aurora, expressed hope that the appeal can move forward. Weisner is the chair of The Regional Answer to Canadian National, or TRAC, the organized group of municipalities opposing the sale.


As if to set the stage for that battle, TRAC again called for the federal government to re-examine Canadian National's safety plan for the suburban line. They also requested that Canadian National be forbidden from shifting new train traffic onto that line until the safety plan has been reviewed and updated.


Opponents are concerned about a proposed increase in train traffic along the EJ&E, which would see the number of trains quadruple in some areas. Canadian National officials confirmed that only two new trains have been added.


But opponents are also concerned about Canadian National's safety record, citing two recent incidents to back up their case. On June 19 in Rockford a train carrying flammable liquids derailed, causing an explosion that killed one person and injured several others. Then, on July 11 in Park Forest, a motorist hit the side of a moving train.


TRAC's press release referred to a report from Park Forest's E-News, which included witness reports that the intersection's gates were not functioning. The release called the recent issues a "safety meltdown," and said driving over Canadian National rail crossings is akin to "playing Russian roulette with the trains."


Canadian National spokesman Patrick Waldron would not discuss the Rockford incident, saying it is still under federal investigation. But he did say the gates were functioning in Park Forest, and on-board camera footage from the train proves it. The video clearly shows the car going under the gate, pushing it up as it went, Waldron said.


"(Canadian National)'s opponents are leveling false and misleading information," Waldron said. "(Canadian National) stands firmly behind its Safety Integration Plan, and its operations on the EJ&E reflect that strong safety performance."


This is the second time TRAC has asked for a review of Canadian National's safety plan. Ergo said she hopes to light a fire under both the STB and the Federal Railroad Administration.


"It's irresponsible to approve these transactions and then just walk away, without taking a closer look," she said.