How could Harrison be good for passenger rail in the East?

Posted by Brian Schmidt
on Friday, March 10, 2017

Train No. 371, the westbound 'Pere Marquette,' is seen at the new depot in Grand Rapids, Mich., prior to departure for Chicago in October 2014. Photo by Steven McKay
There’s a reasonable chance that passenger rail could see expansion under Harrison’s CSX Transportation. Hear me out.

If Harrison continues the “Network of Tomorrow” approach, focusing on three main corridors that form a triangle, then a lot of what is left could go to new regional railroads. Would they be more accepting of passenger start-ups than CSX was? If these are marginal lines, then the new operators must look at many different scenarios for traffic and income.

I also can’t imagine in the current safety climate that they will be granted authority to remove signal systems over hundreds of miles. This is especially true if the lines carry any hazardous materials, and as common carriers I expect they will. So then these railroads should be open to reasonable offers that bring more revenue to the lines.

Let’s assume that Harrison does slash the system to the Network of Tomorrow core. That leaves main lines between northern New Jersey and Chicago, Chicago and Jacksonville, and Jacksonville and northern New Jersey. He would also likely keep the recently completed National Gateway between Washington, D.C., and northern Ohio. And, of course, there would likely be some network of secondary main lines, linking the Network of Tomorrow with Boston, Montreal, and St. Louis.

What is likely to be available for new operators is what’s in the middle of the triangle – the former Chesapeake & Ohio, Louisville & Nashville, and, yes, Clinchfield coal routes. These could be long-term lease agreements where CSX retains the rights, or has an obligation, to route overhead traffic over the new carriers. Think of it as “Kentucky Rail Link” or “West Virginia Rail Link” if that helps you understand the concept.

In that arrangement, trackage may be maintained to a higher standard here than otherwise done by Class II railroads. Montana Rail Link, the prototype for this kind of arrangement, runs trains at up to 55 mph. I suspect these new operation would be able to maintain similar standards to expedite what CSX traffic remains. Further, passenger trains always seem to be authorized for slightly higher speeds on the same class of track,  meaning that speeds of 60-70 mph may not be out of reach.

R.J. Corman GP38-2 No. 7697 leads northbound train MS-27 through Rockfield, Ky., on the way to interchange with CSX at Memphis Junction in March 2015. Photo by William H. Davis Jr.
I could see where the former L&N between Cincinnati and Cartersville, Ga., along with the eastern Kentucky coal fields, goes to R.J. Corman; the former C&O from Cincinnati to Richmond, Va., along with the former Baltimore & Ohio from Huntington to Cumberland, Md., goes Watco; and the former Chesapeake & Ohio from Fostoria, Ohio, south to Pikeville, Ky., and the former Clinchfield to Spartanburg, S.C., goes to Genesee & Wyoming. On a smaller scale, we could see the former Pere Marquette from Grand Rapids to Plymouth, Mich.; the former B&O from Indianapolis to Hamilton, Ohio; and some other lesser lines spun off as well. This presents some strong possibilities for passenger rail.

Could a new operator allow a passenger startup south of Cincinnati with less capital expense than CSX would? Probably. I could see a train connecting with the Cardinal and Crescent, providing two-seat rides between Chicago and Atlanta, or Cincinnati and Montgomery. L&N passenger trains ran at up to 70 mph, I’m told by Trains contributor Ron Flanary. So the right-of-way is already engineered to support passenger train speeds. With some of the hills and curves, pure high-speed travel may not be as important as average speed of the route. I believe that if tracks are maintained for 60 mph passenger speeds the train will still post a reasonable schedule. That would leave the local municipalities to push new stations through their own bureaucracies. (I propose stops in Covington, Winchester, and Corbin, Ky.; Lake City, Knoxville, and Etowah, Tenn.; and Cartersville, Ga.) If the states can find some operating funds, and the new operator doesn’t hold out for a gold-plated double track railroad to start service, this could actually happen in our lifetime.

To the north, Michigan could see reinstated intrastate service between Grand Rapids and Detroit with a new operator of the former Pere Marquette main line. This would provide a second passenger rail route through state capital Lansing, directly connecting it with the population of southeast Michigan. It could find life as its own train, or as an extension of the aptly named Chicago-Grand Rapids Pere Marquette state-supported service.

Amtrak's 'West Virginian,' train No. 642, stops at Grafton, W.Va., in December 1971. Photo by Dennis Lindberg
If we go crazy, and CSX does the same, there’s an opportunity to revive direct St. Louis-Washington (and New York City) service over former B&O and C&O trackage serving Cincinnati, Huntington, northern West Virginia, and Cumberland along the way. The Cardinal could split at its east end and also serve Richmond and Newport News. With some new track at Cincinnati, a daily Cardinal, revived Washington-St. Louis service, and a new Cincinnati to Atlanta train could totally transform rail passenger travel in the East – and set up St. Louis and Cincinnati as new hubs for Amtrak.

So how do we pay for it? With the Atlanta-Cincinnati example, the states would be on the hook for operating costs since the run is less than 750 miles, as spelled out in the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008. Further, the local municipalities would need to step up to build station facilities. That leaves the federal government to provide minimal infrastructure upgrades – think holding tracks in Atlanta and Cincinnati – and possibly a positive train control overlay for the signal system.

This isn’t a short-term play by any means. It requires cooperation from, Amtrak, states, local municipalities, and new regional railroad operators that don’t even exist yet. And it assumes that CSX will part with the lines to begin with instead of running them as 25 mph branches. But there is a chance, if all the pieces line up, to see some glimmer of hope for passenger rail in the East from the chaos.

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