A bulldozer plowed through the crumbling cement wall June 5, along a stretch of Union Pacific Railroad’s tattered track embankment on the West Side.

Union Pacific, the largest railroad system in the United States, Monday morning began repairing the damaged embankment, considered both an eyesore and health hazard by some in the community. By doing so, they may have averted a public relations debacle as West Side officials have threatened legal action against the company.

“This was a horrible site prior to the work that’s getting done today,” said Ald. Ed Smith (28th).

Union Pacific construction crews were out on the 2600 block of West Jackson Boulevard, along roughly one block of the company’s track system.

“We’re very pleased they’re out here because it’s been an arduous process to try and get this thing done,” Smith said. “We want it to look good and still protect the kids who might go up on this track.”

The repairs, which include about three blocks of crumbling embankments from Wilcox to Gladys, will cost Union Pacific about $200,000. Smith said he’s tried to get the repairs done for about two years. He and other West Side officials threatened to sue Union Pacific on behalf of the community had they failed to make repairs.

Construction crews will clear out the damaged embankments, replacing them with iron fences, sloped grassy landscaping or a combination of both, Union Pacific officials said.

The 2600 block of Jackson was recently purchased by Mt. Vernon Church, which plans to build a new facility on that stretch of land. Smith said church officials suggested a grassy slope embankment, but he would like to see some kind of fencing along the track wall to prevent people, especially children, from climbing the slope onto the tracks.

“I’m so glad they were pro-active,” said State Rep. Annazette Collins (10th Dist.), who joined Smith in pressing Union Pacific. “I’m glad nothing happened and none of the kids got hurt. We’re going to take it now and make it better.”

Michael Payette, assistant vice president of government relations for Union Pacific’s Central Region, said most of the company’s money goes into repairing the actual tracks. Work on the embankments comes down to safety concerns first, he said.

“We’re taking care of some of the places where we had really unsafe conditions,” Payette said Monday as bulldozers plowed through the embankments. “We prioritize things on a safety [basis]. Although this looks terrible?”and there’s no question about that?”from an operational standpoint, the railroad was not unsafe.”

Payette said the only scheduled repairs on the Chicago area system are on the West Side, concluding by late June. He acknowledged that Smith was key in getting the work started.

“Ald. Smith kept on us and kept reminding us that we need to do this,” Payette said. “We want to work with Chicago and various communities.”

Tom Zapler, a special representative for Union Pacific’s Central Region, said funding was also an issue in delaying the work. Union Pacific has maintained that the tracks on the system are “in good structural condition.”

“One of the problems for the railroad is that even though it’s an eyesore, it doesn’t affect train operation,” said Zapler. It’s not going to make our railroad safer or enable us to operate our trains any differently, but it will improve the appearance of the property.”

Union Pacific’s railroad system covers most central and western states, including Illinois. The company directly owns and operates roughly 36,000 miles of track in 23 U.S. states. There have been no recent accidents associated with the railroad’s damaged track embankment.

CONTACT: tdean@wjinc.com