Ever since heavy BNSF-Norfolk Southern interchange shifted to Streator or back to Chicago in 1999-2000, some local railroads have somewhat made up for the loss through expanded interchange of unit trains.
CANADIAN NATIONAL GRAIN TRAINS
In October 2000, Canadian National Railway obtained haulage rights on BNSF for Iowa grain traffic bound for Decatur or the Gulf of Mexico, giving a shorter route that bypassed Chicago. The CN had acquired the Illinois Central Railroad in July 1999 and merged operations on October 1, 2000. Within days, a haulage agreement with BNSF added trains to that carrier’s Galesburg-Peoria line and the former Illinois Central Peoria District.
Trains of Iowa corn originated at several CN-served gathering points (Cedar Rapids, Council Bluffs, Sioux City, Waterloo) for A. E. Staley Manufacturing Co. (Tate & Lyle North America from 2005) in Decatur. On occasion, a soybean train was loaded for ADM in Decatur. BNSF crews handled up to three 100-car trains a week between East Dubuque, Illinois and the Peoria & Pekin Union’s double track along Rt, 29.
This pattern held until about 2005 when the diversion of Iowa corn to an increasing number of ethanol plants reduced the number of corn, soybean or DDGS trains routed via Peoria to an occasional or seasonal basis. The BNSF-Canadian National haulage agreement expired June 1, 2012. CN ran its last grain train via Peoria in late March that year.
Then-Burlington Northern’s Galesburg-Peoria line saw a significant decline in coal tonnage after losing the Commonwealth Edison Powerton contract to UP-C&NW in March 1994. Occasional Powerton coal trains continued until about 2001. But things had already gotten interesting.
In January 2001, BNSF began delivering a weekly coal train to Canadian National for ADM’s Decatur co-generation facility. Crews were changed on P&PU’s double track along Rt. 29. Also in 2001, CN began delivering a weekly coal train to BNSF. This movement, Cedar Rapids-bound, was short-lived.
Also about this time, BNSF began running a weekly coal train from Southern Illinois (possibly loaded at the Rend Lake Mine tipple served by CN) to the TP&W via P&PU in East Peoria. Until the consignee, Central Illinois Light Co’s E. D. Edwards Station, needed it, the coal train was broken into two cuts and stored in TP&W’s East Peoria Yard. This movement lasted until late 2003.
BNSF began handling coal for Dynegy’s Hennepin (via SCH Terminal Havana barge dock) and Havana power plants in January 2004 and January 2005, respectively. Both movements totaled about three or four loaded, 135-car trains per week.
Another interesting coal train movement began in January 2002 when Crown Mine Three at Farmersville, Illinois began sending a weekly coal train to ADM’s Cedar Rapids co-generation facility via Canadian National, Peoria & Pekin Union, Iowa Interstate and Cedar Rapids & Iowa City. I believe this movement won Railway Age’s “Golden Freight Car” award that year. In January 2011, ADM switched to two Norfolk Southern-served mines: Shay Mine (Carlinville) and Deer Run Mine (Hillsboro), thus trains are now routed NS-TZPR-IAIS.
In June 2004, CN began handling 60-car blocks of gluten feed from ADM’s Decatur plant to BNSF, which hauled them as a unit train to ADM’s Summerfield, Texas shuttle elevator. This movement lasted until late 2005 by which time unit trains of 100 cars were common. The Peoria routing resumed in May 2011 with CN’s Peoria Local hauling 18- and 21-car blocks to East Peoria. These blocks were accumulated and built into a unit train by Tazewell & Peoria RR crews until it ended in August. A few 100- or 110-car trains ran in June and July 2012 and also in 2013. As with coal trains, crews changed on the double track along Rt. 29 near Pekin.
WIND TURBINE TRAINS
Spiking oil prices and government promotion of alternative energy led to construction of number wind farms, especially in the Midwest. At the time, most components were imported from Vietnam, Indonesia and Denmark so rail afforded the best way for such bulky products to move from ports to inland staging areas. In February 2008, the first of several “tower” trains was hauled from Stockton, California to East Peoria on BNSF then was handled by TP&W to the old Hoosierlift near Remington, Indiana for a nearby wind energy project. In 2009, Union Pacific began handling trains hauling blades, hubs and nacelles to TP&W at Sommer (near Rt. 9 and Rt. 24 intersection) for both East Peoria and Remington staging areas. The same year, BNSF handled tower trains from Houston, Texas to the TP&W at East Peoria. Wind turbine trains have plied the TP&W since, but from eastern connections, thus none have been routed through Peoria in more than four years.
BNSF GRAIN TRAINS
The severe 2012 drought forced area processors to purchase corn from alternate regions of the country. Elevators in Minnesota, North and South Dakota began sending 110-car shuttle trains via BNSF to not only ADM in Peoria but also ADM and Tate & Lyle in Decatur. The latter were interchanged to Canadian National on the double track along Rt. 29. Each processor received up to three trains per week through the end of the year, and somewhat less for most of 2013. A better crop during 2013 curtailed these movements, though ADM in Peoria is still getting them on occasion.
NS GRAIN TRAINS
For years, Norfolk Southern relied solely on BNSF to provide haulage for grain and some carload freight from Des Moines, Iowa. But in April 2012, NS began sending 75-car grain trains loaded every five- to seven days at Heartland Coop’s 18th St. elevator in Des Moines for southeast points over the Iowa Interstate to Peoria. This movement continued with little interruption for 13 months. Several more trains ran in August 2013. The lack of NS grain trains running on the IAIS since that time is blamed on a poor central Iowa crop. Expect these trains to resume sometime in the future.
CARLOAD FREIGHT THROUGH THE GATEWAY
Peoria’s prolific Regional or Shortline railroads do generate a small, but steady volume of carload interchange at Peoria. The closure of TP&W West End following the A & K Railroad Materials/SF&L Railway fiasco of 2001-2002, about 900+ annual carloads of Decatur-bound corn germ from Roquette America’s Keokuk wet corn mill were re-routed BNSF-P&PU-NS. After the Keokuk Junction Railway gained control of the TP&W’s West End in early 2005, Roquette America shifted eastbound corn germ to the KJRY and corn syrup, sorbitol, gluten feed and gluten meal shipments that had been moving via Chicago (or Streator) back to Peoria. Norfolk Southern got most of this, but some went to the Iowa Interstate, TP&W and Union Pacific as well.
BNSF and TP&W exchange probably 3,000 carloads annually through the Tazewell & Peoria Railroad’s East Peoria Yard. Mostly this is eastbound dry and liquid fertilizer for eastern Illinois and central Indiana points and westbound soybean products from Incobrasa Industries at Gilman. Likewise, BNSF and Illinois & Midland (IMRR) exchange a small but steady volume of carload freight each year. This is mostly roofing granules and liquid feed moving west, but there is also some plastic and lumber bound for Springfield.
Speaking of Incobrasa Industries, for awhile in 2008 and 2009, two 25-car blocks were assigned for soybean loading at Heartland Coop’s Malcom and Kellogg, Iowa elevators on the Iowa Interstate for movement to Gilman. Routing was IAIS-TZPR-TPW.
Union Pacific and TP&W exchange traffic on a regular basis, though this is mostly related to the Mapleton industrial area. However, rice flour for Kerry Ingredients in Gridley is routed UP-TP&W.
BNSF and Norfolk Southern still exchange traffic at Peoria. This is mostly Caterpillar machinery loaded at Aurora bound for export at either Portsmouth, Virginia or Savannah, Georgia. Empty “spacer” cars for ALCOA in Lafayette, Indiana and “home shop” cars bound for repair facilities are also regular visitors.
New carload movements have been noted in recent years. In 2010, Nucor Steel’s Crawfordsville, Indiana mill began shipping coiled steel to a transloader in Altoona, Iowa using an NS-TZPR-IAIS routing. In 2013, Solvay Corp began sending sodium bicarbonate from its Parachute, Colorado mine to Dominion Energy’s Kincaid Power Station near Sicily (southeast of Springfield). Routing is UP-TZPR-IMRR. Both movements seem to generated at least several hundred annual carloads.
Just this past month, the Iowa Interstate began delivering up to three unit ethanol trains a week to Norfolk Southern at Peoria, and Norfolk Southern began delivering up to three manifest trains (mostly ethanol empties) a week to Iowa Interstate. This may be temporary until railroads overcome winter-induced congestion at Chicago, but it shows what Peoria can do. Expect these railroads to pay more attention to Peoria in the near future.
All of this pales in comparison to traffic levels handled in the mid- and late 1990s, but it shows that the Peoria Gateway could come alive once more. With rising freight tonnage and congestion at traditional interchange points, perhaps the Gateway will come back in a major way sooner rather than later.
– David P. Jordan