Diesel Injury Law

Diesel Injury Law Blog

Chicago Union Station – The Diesel Exhaust Problem

Diesel exhaust is a known carcinogen. Every day, over 100,000 people come and go from Chicago Union Station. And every day, those passengers and all the railroad workers who serve them are exposed to "huge levels" of diesel exhaust. Here is a brief history of the station and the rise of the diesel exhaust problem.

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    Today’s version of Chicago Union Station was completed in 1925. At that time, there weren’t many people living in Chicago’s suburbs, so the great majority of trains coming and going from Union Station were inter-city passenger trains. Union Station was built to serve these inter-city passenger trains which arrived intermittently, 24 hours per day, seven days a week.

    Not long after its completion, the owners of Chicago Union Station sold the air rights to various companies, including The Daily News. The Daily News Building – a 26 story art deco skyscraper which is now known as 2 North Riverside – was completed in 1929. In those early days, various passenger railroads had contracts to carry the U.S. Mail and so it only made sense that in 1932, a post office was built over the southern tracks of Union Station.

    When the air rights over Union Station were sold for the Post Office and Daily News Building in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, virtually all of the locomotives serving Union Station were powered by steam. Accordingly, the Depression-era ventilation systems that were installed were designed to remove the exhaust from steam-powered locomotives burning coal, wood or oil to warm the water in the locomotive’s boiler. By 1935, regular use of diesel-powered locomotives began at Chicago Union Station. As of the mid-1950’s, virtually all locomotives at Union Station were diesel-powered.

    After World War II, Chicago’s many veterans returned home and began to build their dream homes in the suburbs. Suddenly, suburban commuter ridership began to increase. Moving into the 1960’s, with the completion of the interstate highway system and the onset of travel by jet aircraft, ridership on inter-city passenger trains dwindled. To make matters worse for the many railroads involved in inter-city passenger service, the U.S. Mail cancelled virtually of its contracts for mail delivery by rail. By the late 1960’s, inter-city passenger rail service was a dying business. Penn Central was the majority owner of Chicago Union Station in 1968 and under its stewardship, Union Station fell into decline.

    In 1968, Union Station’s old concourse building (located east of the Great Hall) was demolished. Since Penn Central and its’ partners weren’t interested in passenger rail service, they allowed the developer of the concourse’s old site to provide minimal passenger facilities. In addition, four more buildings were built over the tops of the tracks between the 1960’s and 1980’s. Today, Union Station’s tracks are covered by multiple buildings from Fulton Street all the way down to Polk Street.

    To stem the implosion of passenger rail travel, Congress passed the Rail Passengers Service Act in 1970 which led to the creation of Amtrak. Amtrak started doing business in 1971 and it focused much of its passenger service at Chicago’s Union Station. There were seven main railroad terminals serving Chicago’s inter-city passengers in 1971: LaSalle, Dearborn, Grand Central, Randolph, Chicago Northwestern Terminal, Central and Union Station. Upon opening for business, Amtrak re-routed all of those inter-city passenger trains through Union Station.

    In 1974, the Regional Transportation Authority (RTA) was created by the Illinois General Assembly. The RTA became responsible for the planning and funding of commuter rail service around Chicago that had previously been provided by private railroads. Metra was created in the mid-1980’s and Metra’s operating arm, the Northeast Illinois Regional Commuter Railroad Corporation was created as a separate subsidiary to operate the seven Metra-owned commuter routes. Contracts were executed with BNSF and Union Pacific to operate four additional routes. Metra owns all the rolling stock and most of the stations on its routes. The two freight carriers (BNSF and UP) use their own employees and are responsible for their right of way on their respective routes.

    Amtrak took ownership of Chicago’s Union Station in 1984. Amtrak began a major remodel of Union Station in 1987 under which ticketing, waiting and other support activities were moved out of the Great Hall and essentially crammed into the lower level concourse. The idea was to develop the Great Hall, but to date, despite repeated efforts, that development is yet to occur.

    Union Station is now the third-busiest railroad terminal in the United States. Approximately 320 trains and 120,000 passengers pass through the station each day. 90% of those passengers ride Metra trains.

    Why is all this relevant to the practice of a railroad cancer law firm? Because it provides context for the longstanding diesel exhaust problems inside Chicago Union Station that have likely sickened hundreds of railroad workers, including baggage handlers, electricians, pipefitters, car department employees, machinists, conductors, train attendants, engineers and ticket agents. The employees of BNSF, Metra and Amtrak who regularly work or worked at diesel-choked Chicago Union Station have all been put at significant risk for the development of occupational cancers, including cancers of the lung, bladder, colon, rectum, throat and stomach along with other illnesses such as leukemia, anemia and multiple myeloma. In Part 2 of this series, Diesel Injury Law will discuss testing results for diesel particulates inside Union Station and the failed attempts by Amtrak and Metra to address the diesel fume problem plaguing the station.

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