Corwith Yard is an intermodal freight terminal within the city limits of Chicago, operated by the Burlington Northern Santa Fe line. The yard was built in 1887 by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway. At that time it was the biggest rail terminal in the world, serving Chicago’s stockyards with endless cars of cattle on the hoof. Now it handles much more freight on the same surface area, in the form of containers transferred from train to truck by rubber-tired gantry cranes that carry out around 2000 lifts a day. Like all contemporary intermodal facilities, Corwith uses artificial intelligence techniques (so-called Multi-Agent Systems) to juggle the priorities of inbound and outbound transshipment operations, in an environment where multiple and sometimes conflicting interests are simultaneously obsessed by the imperative to speed up and dogged by the unpredictable obstacles generated, at least in part, by that same imperative.
BNSF is the second largest train network in the United States, after Union Pacific (network map here). Corwith is BNSF’s terminal station, the eastern end of the line, mostly handling shipments of domestic origin. The Willow Springs facility, a few miles further west, is devoted to UPS, FedEx and other high-priority contracts. The Cicero Yard, slightly further north on the western edge of Chicago proper, ships to Minneapolis St-Paul and the Pacific Northwest; while the BNSF Logistics Park, out in the wilds of Joliet, deals principally with international traffic. Trains leaving Corwith are typically routed to one of these other three yards, where they gain additional cars up to the 8,000-foot limit.
Intermodal logic is the commodity version of integrating diversity. Someday, when you are stuck behind a seemingly endless pile-up of trucks on a detour somewhere in Bridgeport, Pilsen or Little Village, just try to imagine a clockwork chaos expanding in fits and starts to conquer its own unlimited universe.
Corwith Intermodal Yard: Plan (above), aerial view in 1951 (below)