Proposed Rail Line Likely County Economic Boom


railroad map

The news first came out of Janesville several months ago, when reaction from the southern Wisconsin town, and surrounding area, raised red flags over a privately-funded $8 billion, two-track rail system, through Rock County into Illinois, skirting the Chicago area, and winding toward Indiana. It would traverse through Winnebago and Boone counties, and pass in proximity to western Mc Henry County.

The 278-mile Great Lakes Basin Railroad Line is currently in process with an environmental impact study being conducted through the U. S. Surface Transportation Board, and despite the largesse, is slated for completion within the next 2-3 years. The full board will act for approval of the project, or seek mitigating measures based on environmental concerns.

Great Lakes Basin Transportation, Inc. will fund the effort, although the tabbed cost has reportedly not been met. Leading the corporation is Frank Patton, a software industrialist, and an implied support group of more than a dozen investment concerns. The purpose, according to the federal agency’s March 18 notice, is to provide an alternate thoroughfare for the movement of freight around the Chicago corridor, and relieve congestion.

The board’s Office of Environmental Analysis deemed the study “appropriate,” in outlining public meetings to qualify the scope for their study.

“This is what I’ve heard… that it will relieve the congestion in the Chicago area, for rail freight, and also translating to less back-ups for vehicles that have to sit at train crossings,” said David Nelson, Harvard’s city manager. “It’s going to pass us (Harvard) in Capron, which is about 10 miles away.”

The notice identified that “The principal purpose of the proposed rail line is to provide Class I railroads, and a regional railroad utilizing the Chicago metropolitan terminal area, with more efficient options to route trains around the city. The Class I railroads include: BNSF Railway Company, Union Pacific Railroad Company, Canadian National Railway Company, Norfolk Southern Railway Company, CSX Transportation Inc., and Canadian Pacific Railway Company.

“The regional railroad is the Wisconsin and Southern Railroad LLC. The proposed rail line would… allow freight traffic not destined for or originating in Chicago to bypass the existing congested Chicago terminal area, and add capacity to accommodate existing and reasonably anticipated future growth while avoiding major population centers.”

Harvard is a western Mc Henry county municipality that has existed largely as a farming district, and also experienced commercial growth in recent decades. “I can also see the rail line providing our area with more opportunities for industrial expansion, since it’s going to be close by,” he said. “There’s probably going to be opposition, with trains cutting through properties and noise…but we’ll wait to see what happens.”

The route comes from southern Wisconsin and juts west from Belvidere with a branch spur line to the Rockford area. It would continue south almost equidistant between Ottawa and Morris, and heading east through Kankakee, before reaching a terminus in Porter and La Porte counties in Indiana.

“The proposed rail line would consist mostly of double track. The tracks would use Centralized Traffic Control signals and Positive Train Control to allow for movements of up to 110 trains per day. Other major elements of the proposed project would include a 200-foot-wide right-ofway, flyovers at railroad crossings, four major river crossings in the state of Illinois (the Illinois, Kankakee, Fox, and Rock rivers), and grade-separated crossings of interstate highways and many roadways,” as per the federal notice.

An April 19 public meeting in Belvidere gleaned factors that possible groundwater contamination from chemical spills and accidental derailing of liquid-bearing tankers could increase, farm crop production would decrease as agricultural land is taken up by the development, noise pollution, and emergency response crews being detained by train traffic at crossings.

“Essentially, this is a railroad bypass around the Chicago area,” said Gary Boden, Marengo’s city manager. “It’s a phenomenal asset for industrial expansion, not only for us but for the area. Marengo, without a direct rail connection, has lost expansion to the industrial areas. So, a lot of interest would take place with this opportunity.”

Boden noted that container cargo trailers could be loaded onto carriers, and ferried to the loading site at the train side outs. “It’s supposed to come through Garden Prairie, which is about 5-6 miles away from us, in Marengo,” he said. “That proximity to any place in Marengo is an asset for industrial expansion.”

Overall, the plan is figuratively still in its infancy with no reactions from the primary and regional train lines that would benefit from the venture. Further public meetings will be slated, and the agency’s website (, will post the dates and locations.