Homeland Security: The Belt Railway

Our nation’s security and well-being are attended to by Homeland Security but they are bolstered by any number of other law enforcement agencies and industrial security and policing. This diversity of security interests is illustrated in the Village of Bedford Park (Cook County) in northern Illinois, where the Belt Railway is located. 

While not widely known, the Belt Railway Company oversees the convergence of the six largest railroads in the United States and Canada, a critical junction for the North American railroad industry. The 2010 census showed only 580 residents in Bedford Park, due to their relatively small residential area and concentration of heavy industry, but this small community and railway location holds a key role in national security because of the railroad infrastructure there.  

 

Belt Railway Director of Policing and Risk Management Michael Romano stated that while Bedford Park may have a small population, during the day while workers come and go, there may be 10 times that number of people present due to the huge industrial area enclosed by Bedford Park. The Belt employs about 450 people and there are many more employed in the local manufacturing industries and businesses that service the people there during the day, such as eateries.

The Belt Railway is the largest intermediate switching terminal railroad station in the United States. The six Belt Railway of Chicago owners are the BNSF, Canadian National Railway Company, Canadian Pacific Railway, CSX, Norfolk Southern, and Union Pacific Railroad. Class I rail lines bring in trains and the Belt Railway breaks them down into separate trains and sends these newly organized trains out to other locations all over the country. 

The Belt also services the industries located in the area, sending cars to be unloaded and then picking the empty cars back up to be returned elsewhere. Rail lines owned by these six, as well as several other railroads, bring trains to the Belt Railway. At that point, the Belt efficiently separates, classifies, and re-blocks them for cross-country departure.

Several railways connect with the Belt Railway Company. These include the Chicago Rail Link, Chicago South Shore and South Rend Railroad, the Elgin, Joliet and Eastern Railway, India Harbor Belt Railway, Manufacturers’ Junction Railway Company, and the Wisconsin and Southern Railroad.

The Clearing Yard for the Belt, which is about 5.5 miles in length, covers 786 acres and supports more than 250 miles of track. Just south of the Chicago Midway International Airport, it shares borders with Bedford Park and Chicago. The Belt Railway’s 300 miles of switching tracks and 28 miles of mainline route allow it to interchange with every other railroad that services the Chicago rail hub.  

To get an idea of the magnitude of the Belt Railway’s business, there are few rail cars that travel trans continentally without coming through Chicago, the largest hub of the railroad industry. The Belt dispatches more than 8,400 rail cars every day, on a service-driven basis and employees classify from 40-50 miles of train every 24 hours.

The Belt can service by rail around 100 industries and having a location on the Belt Railway is equivalent to having a location on each Chicago Railroad. The location is ideal for markets seeking a neutral locale and competitive access with unique industrial and intermodal facility development opportunities. This is bolstered by reasonable land values, taxing, and zoning requirements.

Director Romano attends FBI meetings and is in frequent contact but his department works most with the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA), which is located at Midway Airport, to protect the cars against outside intrusion and prevent tempering to the HazMat cars and Toxic Inhalant Hazard (TIH) cars.  The TSA’s stated mission is to protect the nation’s transportation systems to ensure freedom of movement for people and commerce and their goal is to provide the most effective transportation security in the most efficient way as a high-performing counterterrorism organization.

The Belt Railway Police are state-certified officers and have the same arrest powers on railroad property.    They have arrest powers off the railway property if the situation is related to railway property. They have a good working relationship with the Bedford Park Police and their officers are frequently on the property and they also have a good working relationship with the Bedford Park Fire Department, whose firemen are well trained in HazMat matters. They also work closely with the 8th Precinct Chicago Police and share a radio frequency with Chicago and Bedford Park, although they usually just phone if they need assistance. 

The Belt Railway has a 24/7 staff. They check the HazMat cars and more importantly, they check the TIH cars at least twice a day to make sure they are secure. Belt’s Railway Police check constantly for trespassers and confront anyone who doesn’t have a valid reason to be in that location. While Director Romano considers their location to be a low-level terrorist threat, his staff makes sure the Belt Railway is monitored at all times to keep trespassers and threats contained.

Belt officers patrol their jurisdiction to check for trespassers, monitor the cars, especially the TIH cars, assist employees, check in with each rail yard to ask about any suspicious activity, answer calls, and monitor the large system of cameras that can view every part of the railway property. The officers carry iPads that allow them to monitor the security cameras even while patrolling in their cars.

 

Director Romano characterized railroad policing as a great job. They are state-certified police officers working for the largest corporation in the world, with great benefits, retirement, and good working conditions. They don’t deal with domestics or some of the other common problems in municipalities.   Director Romano was previously an officer in a city and much prefers working here.

The Belt Railway is in Bedford Park. Police Chief Daniel Godfrey of the Village of Bedford Park stated, “Our department is staffed to provide the service necessary for the square mileage and the population (both transient and bedroom) of the Village. While the Belt Railway does not affect the daily operations of his Department, he works with Belt Railway Police in the same manner they would with any other local jurisdiction with whom they share a boundary.

Godfrey’s officers are similar to other surrounding agencies and they participate in several multi-agency task forces and specialized units, such as being members of the South Suburban Major Crimes Task Force, South Suburban Accident Reconstruction Team, Southwest Major Case Unit, and the 5th District SWAT Unit.   

Godfrey reported they previously had a Truck Enforcement Unit, and still have a few certified Truck Enforcement Officers, but they are no longer assigned to that particular unit. Instead, a few years back they instituted an Overweight/Oversized Permit program and the vast majority of the local trucking companies have complied with the permit process. If they do stop a truck without a permit, they have the driver apply for one upon the stop. This created a better working environment with the trucking companies.

Godfrey stated, “The railroad is just a resident of Bedford Park just like any other business located in the Village. We have no National Security functions, no day-to-day operations with the railroad, no special equipment, no additional funding. In fact, it is a rare occasion that we have anything to do with each other.” 

Bedford Park was able to secure a few ‘Buffer Zone Protection’ Grants after 9/11, but just as they were getting started with the project, the federal government discontinued the funding. Other than that, they have not been able to secure grants or special funding from Homeland Security.

Chief Godfrey said, “Most of the minor offenses and problems that occur on railroad property are handled by their police department. We would assist on death investigations and violations of state statutes.” He stated they do not get many calls to assist the Belt Railway Police and their workload is not much different from any other municipality with the exception that they have less domestic and neighbor disputes.

Chief Godfrey explained they have 11 hotels, a retail corridor on Cicero Avenue, about 600 businesses, and a handful of bars in town. He estimates their transient population the 200,000 range, but stressed that is just a guess. “We are no different from any other law enforcement agency in the Chicago metropolitan area except that we don’t have as many family disturbances and neighbor complaints.

“We require or receive no specialized training that is different from what any other law enforcement agency. Retail thefts, traffic crashes, thefts, alarms, and traffic compliance are what we deal with on a daily basis. We are a dedicated law enforcement agency trying to keep the Village of Bedford Park a safe place to live, work, shop, and visit. Nothing more, nothing less.”

Sgt. Gerald Conoboy with the Belt Railway Police came to the job with 29 years of experience in Berwyn, near Chicago, where there were over 100 officers and a community of 60,000 people. Part of his duties as a Sergeant included meeting with community members through the neighborhood watch program, which allowed for an open line of communication between the public and the police department and for them to resolve problems by working together. When he went to the Belt Railway Police Department in 2012, with its much smaller staff, he saw an opportunity to apply the methods he had used in city policing to the Belt. 

Conoboy noticed during his patrols along the railroad tracks that in addition to businesses, there were numerous residences within a 50-foot radius of the tracks, encompassing 150 residences and apartments bordering the railroad tracks. Problems for the citizens in this area included burglary, thefts, trespassing, and underage drinking. Commonly, residents in the area would call the Chicago Police Department for problems in the area because the railroad tracks are within the City of Chicago. Delayed response times could result, depending on how busy the officers were assigned to that area or calls could even be placed on backlog.  

The ‘Belt Railway 59th street Initiative’ was created to establish a relationship with the citizens in the area and address their law enforcement problems in a timely manner. Belt Railway Police officers went out to the more than 150 residents in the area of the Belt Railway tracks and introduced themselves to the citizens to ensure there is a personal connection between the officers and citizens.  

Officers learned about the concerns important to the citizens adjacent to the railroad property. The officers provided a laminated card to citizens, giving them the direct phone number to call police when needed. All complaints and concerns are assigned to officers who develop a plan of action to eliminate the problem. Officers then follow up with the citizens concerned and let them know the actions that were taken regarding their complaint. Residents’ information is put into a database in case they need to be notified by police of any issues/problems around their particular residences.   

The initiative has been in place for about three years and has resulted in numerous arrests on railroad property that were called in by area residents. The residents have served as the eyes and ears of the Belt Railway Police Department and created a safer area around the tracks and for residents, thus resulting in mutual benefits to all concerned.

The Belt Railway is important in its role as the largest intermediate switching terminal railroad station in the country and the several large railways that connect with the Belt. It is important to commerce and important to national security. The Belt Police work closely with the TSA and local jurisdictions to keep the Belt running securely.

 

Kathy Marks has been a child abuse investigator for more than 30 years. She teaches classes regarding domestic terrorism and is a previous contributor to LAW and ORDER. She can be reached at kathymarks53@aol.com.



Published in Law and Order, Oct 2016

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