10 Ways High-Speed Rail Will Impact the Freight Industry

High-speed rail, which this year has been awarded $8 billion in stimulus grants and $2.5 billion in federal appropriations funding, promises to revolutionize our transportation system and benefit our economy in numerous ways. Many experts believe the impact of high-speed rail will rival that of the interstate highway system.

Here are 10 ways high-speed rail will impact the freight industry:

1. Improved rail infrastructure
In many of the planned high-speed rail corridors, freight railroads will share the right-of-way with high-speed passenger trains. Expedited upgrades to accommodate high-speed trains will include improved track and signal infrastructure — such as double-tracking and positive train control — much of which will greatly benefit freight railroads.

2. Upgraded locomotives
Higher speed capabilities offered by track and signal upgrades will create demand for technological improvements to locomotives and cars that enable them to travel at faster speeds. This upgraded rolling stock will constitute a crucial element in the ongoing evolution of freight delivery technology.

3. More capacity, more revenues, more employees for freight railroads
The infrastructure and technological improvements that emanate from high-speed rail will lead to increased freight capacity for freight railroads, which will enable them to increase their revenue and hire more employees.

4. More capacity for trucking companies
The greater capacity of freight railroads will enable them to carry more intermodal containers in certain corridors. This will increase the freight capacity of motor carriers and railroads, giving them the potential to attract more business.

5. New players in freight hauling
Some high-speed passenger train operators might seek to haul freight such as mail and parcels, as occurs in some areas of Europe. This would require changes in current agreements between freight and passenger operators, as well as changes in certain labor agreements.

6. Re-routing tracks
In some instances, freight railroads may need to increase the distance between tracks used by freight railroads and high-speed passenger trains. This could involve the construction of physical barriers or, in some cases, the re-routing of tracks away from downtown areas. This may cause engineering challenges, but freight railroads will need to do everything they can to augment safety in the new high-speed universe.

7. Public outreach
Freight railroads will need to ramp up their outreach and education efforts to prepare the public for higher train speeds, such as at grade crossings. The investment in this effort will help the evolution toward high-speed rail go much more smoothly for all concerned.

8. Cost-sharing benefits
Freight railroads will benefit from agreements that require passenger train operators, and in some cases state departments of transportation, to share in the cost of infrastructure maintenance once upgrades are in place.

9. Looming liability issues
The sharing of rights-of-way between freight railroads and high-speed passenger trains will create the potential for increased liability on the part of freight railroads in the event of accidents. To protect themselves, freight railroads must be proactive and negotiate agreements with passenger train operators that are fair to all parties

10. A blending of corporate cultures
For many years, freight railroads and passenger railroads to a great extent have operated in their own worlds, steeped in their own corporate cultures. Cooperation has not always come easily. The increased cooperation that will result from the sharing of high-speed corridors will result in a sort of blending of corporate cultures. Greater cooperation will lead to ideas and innovations that will benefit the freight industry, passenger train operators and the public, reminiscent of the glory days of high-speed steam passenger trains operated by freight railroad companies.

High-speed rail will impact the freight industry to a degree that will rival the impact of the interstate highway system. Improved infrastructure and technologies will benefit freight railroads in several ways, including greater capacity and higher revenue. Trucking companies will benefit from expanded capacity to transport intermodal freight via the railroads. There are hurdles to overcome, including extra steps required to ensure safety in a high-speed environment. But with greater cooperation between freight and passenger railroads, high-speed rail will help our nation expand its economy, save fuel and cut carbon emissions, to the benefit of all.

JOC TENS essayist Chris Aadnesen is vice president of freight rail services at HNTB in Austin, Texas. HNTB is an employee-owned infrastructure firm serving federal, state, municipal, military and private clients. He can be contacted at caadnesen@hntb.com  

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