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American ShipperIntermodal

Industry: High-speed rail strategy must address freight

Industry: High-speed rail strategy must address freight

   Striking the right balance between passenger and freight rail expansion is key to the success of a high-speed passenger rail system, Edward R. Hamberger, president of the American Association of Railroads, told Midwest governors Monday at a rail summit in Chicago.

   Freight railroads support increased investment in passenger rail, but want federal, state and local governments to include them from the outset of project planning and development because most passenger rail systems operate on freight rail networks.

   'Passenger and freight efforts to grow and expand must complement, not compromise, one another,' Hamberger said.

   Other railroad executives have issued even more direct caveats regarding the new impetus for passenger rail service.

Hamberger

   President Barack Obama has made creation of high-speed intercity rail corridors a top transportation priority of his administration to improve mobility, reduce fossil-fuel consumption and emissions from cars, and promote higher-density development. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, better known as the stimulus bill, this year included $8 billion for high-speed rail during the next five to seven years. Obama has proposed in his 2010 budget to make about $1 billion per year available for a long-term development grant program. And House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman James Oberstar included $50 billion for 11 major corridors between major metropolitan areas in his draft of a new multiyear surface transportation spending plan.

   Regional air travel will become too expensive as fuel prices increase, boosting the economic case for inter-city passenger rail, Steve Odland, chairman and chief executive of Office Depot, said in a recent speech at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Odland served on the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission that included policy recommendations for high-speed and regular passenger rail in a report to Congress 18 months ago.

   The U.S. population is projected to grow by 150 million during the next 50 years and experts say there are limitations on how many highway miles can be built to meet increased demand.

   But freight rail executives say that policymakers face major challenges in terms of public funding requirements and the fact that passenger and freight rail are not very compatible.

   Any request for private railroads to take on another line of business running passenger trains on its existing infrastructure begs the question of who will provide the funding and whether the service pays its own way, said Jeffrey Heller, assistant vice president of international marketing at Norfolk Southern, at an infrastructure finance conference early last month.

   Many railroads around the world, including Amtrak in the United States, are supported by government subsidies.

   Still unclear is whether the government is seeking ultra high-speed bullet trains or something akin to trains now in existence, such as the Amtrak Acela, that are slightly faster and more predictable than regular passenger trains, Heller said.

   Major railroads in the eastern half of the country don't have the infrastructure capable of handing trains like France's 199 mph-TGV, Heller said.

   The most expensive and time-consuming high-speed rail option is a new dedicated right-of-way that's specifically engineered to carry trains at high speed and requires the most modern equipment and few intermediate stops, said Joseph H. Boardman, Amtrak's chief executive officer, at a June 23 hearing of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation subcommittee on surface transportation and merchant marine infrastructure, safety and security.

   Another option is to incrementally introduce higher speed service on existing railroad lines. Needed upgrades would include 'smoothing out' curves and grades, as well as some improvements to grade crossings and signaling systems. Amtrak has followed this process in the Northeast corridor for more than 30 years and found that trains can operate well at 110 mph without the need to close or separate grade crossings and continue to use existing diesel locomotives, he said.

   A third strategy is to reduce portions of a trip during which trains at extremely slow speeds due to poor track conditions or congestion due to heavy rail traffic.

   The Obama administration is incorporating all of these approaches in its relatively undefined vision for high-speed rail and the federal role in its development. The Federal Railroad Administration said investments will advance a select number of express corridors of 200 to 600 miles in length with train speeds in excess of 150 mph, development of regional corridors of 100 to 150 miles with trains operating in the 90-110 mph and 110-150 mph ranges depending on whether they were utilizing shared or dedicated tracks, and improving reliability and service on conventional intercity rail systems operating at speeds of 70-90 mph.

   A private rail operator will give priority on its tracks to coal trains if they are more profitable than passenger business, Heller said.

   Charles Eisele, senior vice president of strategic planning for Union Pacific, warned at a RAND Corp. freight transportation panel that well-intentioned policies for passenger rail will end up conflicting with freight operations.

   'You can't put something that's moving at 114 mph and put it over the same track where everything is moving 55 mph. It simply doesn't work. One or the other has to get out of the way,' he said, noting that in Chicago freight is shunted to side tracks to make way for commuter rail.

   Eisele and Heller said high-speed rail would need investment in separate electrified infrastructure to ensure the efficiency of both modes.

   Building that kind of infrastructure and supporting it 'is extremely challenging' without public assistance, said Adam Bridges, assistant vice president for strategic planning at CSX Intermodal.

   Hamberger told the governors that each high-speed rail project needs to be examined and assessed on its own merits, taking into account the volume of freight traffic, terrain, number of grade crossings, track configuration and other factors — to determine the feasibility of operating fast passenger trains on the freight rail network.

   The trade association chief also stressed that issues of liability, compensation, safety and increased maintenance need to be addressed prior to project planning and development.

   The Federal Railway Administration recently issued guidelines for states and regional planning organizations to have written agreements in place with host railroads covering such issues. It has also started meeting with states to get input on the parameters of a federal high speed program. ' Eric Kulisch

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