President Obama’s push for more and faster intercity passenger rail service has come up hard against the needs of freight railroads that control most of the tracks.
The Department of Transportation, charged with spending billions of dollars and setting the rules for Obama’s high-speed rail initiative, admits most such projects are moving slowly as states and railroads try to negotiate terms.
The railroads admit they are negotiating tough agreements on using their corridors to run more Amtrak trains and to run trains at higher speeds. They are trying to guard the current and future freight capacity that defines those companies, lock down compensation for sharing their networks and hash out liability protection and performance rules so their freight operations aren’t jeopardized by accidents or delays.
Meanwhile, many of the designated passenger rail routes the DOT targeted in February for $8 billion in stimulus grants are waiting for the states, freight railroads and federal authorities to formalize agreements under which the money will be spent.
DOT Deputy Secretary John Porcari told the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee he felt “some frustration” over the slow pace, and that it has delayed some economic stimulus projects. “Make no mistake, transportation is economic development,” he said Sept. 15. “We had hoped to be here today with more progress on the passenger rail side.”
Although “high-speed rail” evokes images of European-style bullet trains racing across the country in their own walled-off lanes, most of the Obama plan will spread the use of Amtrak or similar trains that often move at 79 mph or slower. Those move in corridors owned by freight lines, which must alternate intermodal or commodity hauls with scheduled passenger trains.
Public money would upgrade the tracks for smoother rides than freight trains require, and improve track signaling systems. But Edward R. Hamberger, president and CEO of the Association of American Railroads, told The Journal of Commerce “there is little if any benefit to the freight railroads in having money spent to improve passenger rail.”
He said freight carriers “are trying to be good corporate citizens” and work with states and federal authorities to expand passenger operations, but “the issue for the freight railroads is that if these investments are made that they not have a deleterious impact on the ability of the freight railroad to serve its customers. This is not, in many cases, necessarily a win-win; it could be just a win-no lose.”
Michael J. Ward, chairman, president and CEO of eastern railroad CSX Transportation, said in a letter to the Surface Transportation Board that CSX focuses on several main goals in its negotiations with states to add new passenger operations. These include protecting rail safety levels, preserving capacity for existing and new customers, garnering “fair compensation for property rights” so there is no subsidy by the host railroad to passenger service, and “adequate liability protections” for CSX.
Norfolk Southern Railway’s Charles W. Moorman, chairman, president and CEO, said NS also is making sure all the agreements recognize the freight lines’ ownership of their corridors, and that passenger trains running more than 90 mph “must operate on separate tracks from freight trains.”
Porcari said the DOT is trying to strike a balance. There was an earlier pause in the program as railroads objected to proposed rules holding them accountable if passenger trains do not meet their performance targets. The Federal Railroad Administration has said it will redraft those rules to address carrier concerns.
“We view the freight railroad system in America as one of our economic jewels,” Porcari said, and the administration wants to push more freight toward rail. But he said progress on passenger rail projects “is something we are going to insist on.”
He singled out BNSF Railway “as a positive example” through a recent passenger rail agreement it struck with the state of Washington. But, he added, “There are many examples on the other side of the ledger . . . where we don’t yet have that progress,” and pointed to talks between North Carolina and NS, New York and CSX, and others.
Porcari said projected population growth means the nation won’t be able to absorb its intercity transportation needs through the highway system alone, but will need freight railroads to accommodate more passenger trains. “We’re asking our industry partners to embrace the future with us.”
Contact John D. Boyd at email@example.com.