Southwest resident Raquel Garcia has seen two cars come off the rail line that runs behind her home. Both times, hours went by before she and neighbors were informed about what was in the cars or what happened.
She said she’s worried about what might happen if a trail derailed near Cesar Chavez Academy, where her son attends school in Southwest Detroit.
“If there were a derailment, the school is so close that the train would land or lean onto the building,” said Garcia.
The lack of communication around the environmental pollution and hazards of trains is one of several concerns Garcia, who is also the executive director of Southwest Detroit Environmental Vision, a nonprofit for improving the environment in Southwest, has about a recently approved railway merger expected to bring an additional 87 trucks to Detroit per day. The merger will mean a 70% increase in railway activity and a substantial noise increase at the CP Railway Detroit Intermodal Terminal, located at 12594 Westwood Street, on the city’s west side.
The $31 billion national railway merger (map) between Canadian Pacific and Kansas City Southern was approved in March by the federal Surface Transportation Board, creating the first single-line connection from Mexico to the United States to Canada. It’s the first major railway merger in decades. One condition of the merger is that Canadian Pacific must support any future plans of Amtrak to add a passenger service route from Detroit to Toronto.
From the time the merger was first proposed in 2021, residents, elected officials and environmentalists in cities along the train route – including Princetown, Iowa, Houston, Texas and several Chicago suburbs, expressed opposition, citing worries about local pollution and safety.
Railcars on the east corridor of the route, which includes Detroit, will transport timber, chemicals and plastics, crude oil, ethanol, metals, and other materials.
Garcia said that the ramifications of the merger aren’t entirely known yet.
“The bottom line is that we have a lot of people and children living with the pollution and emissions everyday. An increase in activity is a devastating blow to the work that we have all been doing for better air quality,” she said.
The Surface Transportation Board (STB), a federal agency that regulates surface transportation, contends the merger will increase safety and result in overall reductions in carbon emissions.
“The Board expects the merger and imposed conditions to result in an overall public benefit,” states a March STB press release, citing that it expects the increased rail capacity to reduce carbon emissions in an amount equivalent to taking 64,000 truckloads off the roads per year. The STB said it expects the merger will bring a decrease in truck traffic on highways between Detroit and the U.S.-Canada border and at several other international borders along the route.
While the overall carbon impact may be less, the decision has Michigan environmentalists and Detroit residents concerned about adding nearly 100 trucks per day to a city overburdened with heavy and unregulated truck traffic on its east and west sides.
Meanwhile, Democratic lawmakers for Illinois, including U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, U.S. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, and U.S. Reps Raja Krishnamoorthi and Marie Newman, have all expressed safety concerns following the recent train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio. The incident released hazardous materials into the local town of East Palestine, set several cars on fire, and created deadly fumes.
Several suburban communities in Illinois recently filed an appeal in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in Chicago asking the STB to conduct a second environmental analysis of the merger.
“The Board is well cognizant of the recent elevated level of public concern stemming from the derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, and as always, the Board has carefully analyzed the proposed merger from a safety perspective. It is important to underscore that rail is by far the safest means of transporting any freight, including hazardous materials,” board officials wrote in the March press release.
A 12-year analysis from 1994 through 2005, found hazardous materials released in railroad accidents resulted in 14 fatalities, compared to 116 fatalities from highway and truck accidents, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Before the merger was approved, the board held a week-long public hearing and created a 5,000-page analysis of expected environmental impacts. The STB also received and accepted nearly 2,000 public comments.
The approval came with a number of conditions, including requiring the company to establish community liaisons in Chicago and Houston, installing and funding an advanced warning system, and seven years of STB oversight. Typically five years is required.
The STB did not respond when asked why Detroit did not get a community liaison.
Several cities along the route, including Davenport and Bettendorf, Iowa, voted to approve the merger, signing agreements with Canadian Pacific for several million in funding to mitigate the effects of the merger, such as creating a quiet zone to reduce the impact of noise pollution.
But Detroit did not, said Sam Krassenstein, the city’s chief of infrastructure.
“We did not enter into an agreement with [Canadian Pacific] rail as the trucking impacts were going to be minimal for Detroit compared with the impacts on other cities,” Krassenstein said in a statement.
But Detroit is one of just four rail yards that would experience enough changes in railyard activity that the STB required additional environmental analysis. Two other rail yards were in Illinois, and one in Texas.
As a condition of Amtrak’s endorsement of the merger, Amtrak wanted Canadian Pacific’s support for a new passenger service line between New Orleans and Baton Rouge and Detroit and Toronto on Canadian Pacific Kansas City-owned lines.
Up to two round trip passenger trains could connect railway passengers traveling between Detroit and Windsor via the Detroit River Rail Tunnel.
“It’s all very conceptual at this time, but that merger opens the door further to those kinds of conversations,” said Marc Magliari, a spokesperson for Amtrak’s Chicago office. It’s been approximately six decades since there was passenger rail from Detroit to Toronto.
Southwest Detroit Environmental Vision is a member of Moving Forward Network, a coalition of 50 organizations seeking to empower communities affected by the global freight system. Last week, the network presented to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) subcommittee, calling on the EPA to pass a zero-emissions locomotive rule, citing the negative impacts of diesel locomotives on frontline communities.
Garcia said a big concern with the merger is that the STB is not engaging with the public enough.
“Decisions are being made with little to no communication or engagement with the residents that feel the impact,” she said.