UP lays down guidelines for new passenger services

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Friday, October 1, 2010

Union Pacific explained this week the guidelines under which it will entertain proposals to operate new passenger train services over its far-flung railroad. The takeaway message it leaves to would-be users of its track: Bring lots of money to the table.
Speaking in Calgary, Alta., John Rebensdorf, UP’s vice president of network planning and operations, told the Lexington Group, a rail history organization, that Union Pacific changed its policy in 2008 toward new passenger services from what I would call no-and-hell-no to something more nuanced. Before 2008, says Rebensdorf, “Our focus was protecting our freight franchise. If we entered into a lot of discussions, we felt it would create expectations we could not fulfill.” Besides, he says, in prior times, “nobody had money.”
These days, he says, UP considers “all reasonable and realistic requests.” Some guiding principles are these: Where possible, freight and passenger operations at speeds above 79 mph should be on separate tracks. Fifty-foot centerlines between main tracks shared by high speed passenger trains and UP freights are necessary. Positive Train Control is a given. More important, there can be no curfews; UP freight trains must be able to run with the passenger trains 24 hours a day. And, most importantly, any new capacity needed to make the passenger service possible must be funded by the passenger user; UP reserves for its freights all existing capacity. Or, as Rebensdorf puts it: “What’s out there today is ours.” Finally, Union Pacific alone will determine infrastructure improvements necessary for new passenger services and how much additional capacity is needed for maintenance work to occur.
Rebensdorf framed his discussion of these principles around a project that would permit 110-mph service between Chicago and St. Louis, reducing trip time from the present five and a half hours to three hours and 50 minutes. Because of commitments made a decade ago to the Illinois Department of Transportation, UP is making an exception to its policy of not commingling high speed passenger trains with freight trains. But in the design of this initiative, you can get a sense of the capital involved in a project of this scope.
At a cost of nearly $3 billion in roadway improvements, Illinois will be able to run eight Chicago-St. Louis round trips a day (at 110 mph between Dwight and Alton, Ill., 229 miles). This would be in addition to Amtrak’s Texas Eagle at 79 mph. UP, in turn, will retain the capability to run 22 freight trains at 70 mph, a big jump from the three or four a day it currently operates. (Plans are afoot to route more freight traffic over the Chicago-St. Louis line.)
To do this, the existing railroad will ultimately be rebuilt from the ground up. In addition to restoring the second main line, which was removed in the 1960s, on 20-foot centers, the agreed-upon plan is to add 50-mph crossovers with movable-point frogs every six to eight miles and sidings of two to four miles in length every 10 or so miles. New 136-pound rail will be laid on concrete ties. The first phase of this rebuilding began in September.
While UP and the agency see eye to eye, there are several obstacles to overcome. Counting equipment and stations, the entire project will cost $4.4 billion to put in place, and the money may not be forthcoming. President Obama’s high speed rail initiative awarded Illinois just $1.2 billion. That’s enough to complete the first phase, which will cut running time by 40 minutes effective late in 2012. Phase 2, which involves relaying the second main track, would be completed three years later and cut another hour of running time, and it awaits funding. Second, the Federal Railroad Administration proposed conditions to the use of this money that Union Pacific has not accepted; FRA is currently refashioning those so-called guidelines. Third, the Illinois Commerce Commission, which is not accountable to the Illinois DOT (or to anyone else, so far as I can tell), proposes grade-crossing safety conditions the railroad questions, including that gates at road crossings must be down 150 seconds before a train passes.
What’s good about the passenger policy enunciated by Rebensdorf is that potential passenger users now know what to expect. No other Class I railroad has been quite this explicit. — Fred W. Frailey

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