Case Studies

Swanson Contracting Company Inc.

Linking Chicago and the Midwest since 1929

Chicago is one of the most important railroad centers in North America. More lines of track radiate in more directions from the Windy City than any other in the U.S. and Chicago has long been an important interchange point for freight traffic between the nation’s major railroads.

The first railroad to lay tracks in Chicago was the Galena & Chicago Union, chartered in 1839 and built in 1848. It wasn’t long before other railroads completed lines of track, linking the city with the wheat fields of northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin. Early railroads were especially important as haulers of grain and livestock, helping Chicago take a lead role in the grain marketing and meatpacking industries.

Since 1929, Swanson Contracting Company Inc. (SCC) has been a major player in connecting Chicago to other Midwestern states via these lifeline routes. Over the years, SCC has emerged as a frontrunner in engineering, design, construction and maintenance of railroad track, along with asphalt paving and road construction.

Connected by family

“SCC is a third generation railroad contractor,” reveals Bill Swanson, third-generation president of the Alsip, Illinois-based company. Theodore Swanson, Bill’s grandfather, purchased the company, originally dubbed John S. Thompson Construction, in 1947, putting the business under his designation.

With multiple specialties, Theodore split the company in two; Swanson Asphalt Co., to serve commercial and industrial paving sectors and Swanson Contracting to serve the rail industry. The companies then moved from Chicago to the nearby suburb of Alsip in 1966.

Theodore remained president from 1935 to 1976 and his son, Theodore C. Swanson, assumed ownership. “In 2013 my father and former president passed away,” notes Bill. “It’s been a challenge for us because he was involved for so many years and had made such an impact on the business. But you plan for these things and when they come you take care of what you need to take care of. We can overcome it and move on.”

Personal, professional service

Now Bill is working to fill his father’s shoes, managing SCC and building on the company’s 67-year reputation. “What sets us apart is that we do quality work and we take care of exactly what our customers’ need, providing a very personal service, our quality sells itself,” he explains.

Today, the National Railroad Construction Maintenance Association (NRCM) member contractor operates from a single location in Alsip, delivering railroad engineering, construction, maintenance and asphalt paving and road construction. “We operate on a regional basis, providing any service in the railroad construction industry,” explains Bill. “Instead of trying to manage a national company with multiple branches, we have a home base and we stay in this area. We serve a 500-mile radius of Chicago.”

“Our customers include manufacturing and logistics companies or production and warehouse-type markets that utilize railroad for shipments,” details Bill. “We work for big-name general contractors such as F.H. Paschen and Kiewit, along with many regional general contractors. We focus on building rewarding, successful relationships.”

In certain cases, Bill says SCC can also perform as a general contractor. “We self-perform anything related to railroad construction, engineering and maintenance,” he notes. “We’ll subcontract dirt work, drainage, electrical work and building construction.”

Chicago’s transit contractor

Over the years SCC has developed a niche doing a great deal of transit work for the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) and Amtrak. Chicago ranks second behind New York City in terms of the volume of commuter rail passengers carried every day.

“We’ve been working with the CTA and our general contractor partners for 30 to 35 years,” reveals Bill. “We’re currently under contract with general contractors on this type of work; it’s a niche thing we do, but we also do a lot of large building construction projects for industrial parks and large commercial facilities with multiple track configurations.”

While SCC’s work keeps on chugging in as the trains come down the tracks, Bill says it’s been considerably slow lately in light of the recession. “2008 and 2009 were very bad years, but 2010 and 2011 were actually some of the strongest years we’ve had since we started,” he shares. “2013 was fairly weak and we had to deal with the transition of ownership, which had been a challenge and was something we had to overcome; 2014 has started slow but we’re optimistic, and it seems to be improving every month.”

During the heyday of rail transportation, Chicago reigned as the undisputed railroad epicenter of the U.S., served by six intercity train terminals. Today, only Union Station remains as the only intercity rail line, but the need for railroad construction and maintenance is still ever-present as freight moves across the county, funneled through the locomotive yards of Chicago, and outlying areas via new intermodal yards. Swanson Contracting Company Inc. continues to keep these lifelines chugging along.

Published on: January 8, 2015

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