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SmartRail Speaks: Joseph C. Szabo, Executive Director, Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP).

Posted by Luke Upton on Jul 2, 2015

ResizedSzabo_high-res"...with the interconnected nature of rail transport, congestion in Chicago doesn’t just affect the city or region but the global movement of goods."

There can be few figures in USA with as wide ranging a view of railroading as Joseph C. Szabo, former Administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) and newly minted Executive Director of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP). A fifth-generation railroader, Szabo began his career with Illinois Central Railroad working numerous positions, including yard switcher and road trainman. A long-time official at the United Transportation Union (UTU), he combined labor union leadership with local government roles in his home village of Riverdale, a suburb of Chicago, before becoming in 2009 the first union official ever to lead the FRA, where he served until January, 2015. In his role as Administrator of the FRA, Szabo led a staff of more than 900 located in Washington, D.C., and at field offices across the nation. He joined CMAP as a senior fellow in days after leaving the FRA in January and assumed his new position on June 16th. Recently, Luke Upton, Editor of SmartRail World, caught up with Szabo in his new Chicago office to find out how it was to be home, the challenges of being the largest US rail hub, and much more…

I started by asking Joe how it was to be home after his spell in Washington; “It really is wonderful to be back home in Chicago to be able to see family and friends more often. And it’s also a fantastic opportunity here at CMAP – an organisation with such a wide-ranging and important role for Chicago and the surrounding region. We are anticipating population growth of more than 2 million new residents by 2040, and a strategy that co-ordinates housing, economic development, open spaces, the environment and of course transport is essential for the future. Too often this planning is done in a disjointed, uncoordinated way, and I really think that CMAP with both state and federal mandates is a real model for regional collaboration. It’s such an exciting opportunity!”

Chicago’s position between the eastern and western seaboards and its proximity to major rivers and the Great Lakes has meant that the city for over 150 years has been nation’s principal rail hub. I ask Joe to tell me a little more about the role it continues to maintain as the lynchpin of the national network; “Chicago is unique with it not just being the biggest freight and passenger rail hub but also a major hub for other forms of transport with roads, airports and waterways all part of the transport picture. For rail it is where six of the seven Class-1 railroads meet with only KCS Southern not visiting us and is also the hub for the passenger-carrying Amtrak. As a result we have more lines of track leading in more directions than any other city.”

“And with the interconnected nature of rail transport, congestion in Chicago doesn’t just affect the city or region but the global movement of goods. And congestion also has an effect on passenger rail, quality of life for commuters and those who drive” added Joe.

Lake_Shore_Limited_train_backing_into_Chicago_Union_StationI ask Joe, with Chicago being at the heart of the US rail network, and with the challenge of capacity on the networks growing, just what can be done to better the network; “The network infrastructure needs to be improved, and this is something which requires dollars from local, state, federal and private sources. But it’s also about taking a different approach and viewing the challenge on a national scale. For Chicago, we need to tell the story as to why we matter for the rest of the nation. We need to educate people as to the importance of our freight system, and this is not just on rail. The Coalition for America’s Gateways and Trade Corridors (CAGTC) has a strong message in their current campaign “Freight Can’t Wait” – which promotes the major economic benefits of Congress passing a fully funded freight grant program.”

Currently, U.S. government infrastructure investment as a percentage of GDP is less than 2 percent, the lowest level of infrastructure investment at any point since World War II. And CAGTC figures show that every $1.00 invested in infrastructure projects raises the level of GDP by about $1.59.

The subjects of Congress and funding leads us into the subject of Positive Train Control (PTC), an issue that proved to be one of the major rail issues that Joe had in his in-tray during his time at the FRA. I asked him in view of the recent fatal Philadelphia derailment how he saw the deployment coming along; “Without a doubt lack of funding has hindered the progress of PTC. And sadly it takes a tragedy like we saw in Philadelphia to shine a light on the issue. In terms of deploying PTC, the major freights can look after themselves but for Amtrak and the 40+ passenger agencies it’s a real challenge to find the money. Public agencies need public funding.”

Our time is nearly up, so I want to switch our focus to the passenger, and ask Joe how he sees this area developing; “There’s been a real sea-change in public transport – passenger numbers are up – motor vehicle miles travelled are down. And there’s a change in how people travel, with connectivity people travel in a different way. People can now work more effectively, relax, communicate on a train journey. And this has developed quickly, Wi-Fi on transit has gone from a luxury to an absolute necessity in just a few short years. That said, there’s still room for improvement – stations for example, need to be better focussed on multi-modal connections and public transport can still do better on the ‘last mile’ element. I don’t think people want to be trapped in their cars anymore. We just have to help them escape them!”

And finally, with Joe’s enthusiasm for rail undiminished by nearly six years of Washington politics with FRA I ask him what most excites him about our industry; “For too long rail has been the forgotten mode of transport, but now a growing number of people are really beginning to see its economic and environmental benefits. For example, over the course of one hour a single set of tracks can carry the same amount of people as 16 lanes of freeway traffic can. To take advantage of this recognition, what we need is not only investment but a better focus on how each transport mode fits together. Some might have seen rail has an historic mode of transport, but I firmly believe it’s the transport mode of the future.”

To learn more about CMAP the official regional planning organization for the northeastern Illinois counties of Cook, DuPage, Kane, Kendall, Lake, McHenry, and Will click here.

Joseph C. Szabo, Executive Director, Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning is a Keynote Speaker at SmartRail USA Congress & Expo, Charlotte, North Carolina, 28-29th October 2015 and will be focussing on the topic of The importance of transit in the USA: Where are we now and where do we need to be? The only show dedicated to driving innovation in passenger rail in the US. And, the only show of its kind that’s free!

SmartRail USA Congress and Expo 2015

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Luke Upton

Written by Luke Upton

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