High speed rail: In need of a break

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Sunday, February 6, 2011

It’s do-or-die time for President Obama’s high speed rail initiative, which badly needs a lift. Negotiations are stalled with three Class 1 railroads involving projects in North Carolina, Virginia, and Washington, according to informed railroad and government sources. The Federal Railroad Administration needs to come to terms soon with at least one of the railroads or risk having them walk away (or having the grant rescinded by Congress). The sticking point: Fear by railroads that their freights will be muscled aside by passenger trains. In all three instances, so-called service-outcome agreements reached by the states and railroads have been rejected by the FRA, which administers the grants.

Together, the three projects involve almost $1.4 billion in High-Speed Intercity Passenger Rail Program outlays, accounting for 13 percent of $10.5 billion in HSR grants announced last year. And they are but the latest of these grants to either be scuttled or endangered.

Washington state’s ambitious plans are estimated to cost almost $1 billion, of which $751 million would be federally funded. The multifaceted program involves building bypass tracks in both Tacoma and Vancouver, Wash., new sidings, improvements to enhance reliability, an advanced signal system, and a new trainset. When finished, it would permit the addition of two more Amtrak Cascade round trips on faster schedules, in addition to the present four and the Coast Starlight. The 186-mile, double-track route is also traversed by Sounder commuter trains north of Tacoma and by about 40 BNSF Railway freights or those of trackage-rights tenant Union Pacific.

Several times, BNSF and Washington’s Department of Transportation have agreed on service standards — for instance, how to measure delay to passenger trains and how much delay is acceptable — only to have FRA reject the agreements as not stringent enough on the railroad. The benefits of this project all accrue to passenger trains, rather than its own freight trains, the railroad contends. The parties are continuing to meet.

The situation is similar in North Carolina and Virginia. In both instances, the states have come to agreements with the railroads (Norfolk Southern and CSX, respectively) to expand capacity that will allow new service. In North Carolina, one of the new trains — an additional round trip between Raleigh and Charlotte — is already operating. But in each case, the Federal Railroad Administration nixed the agreements as not strict enough, so no funds have been released and no track construction has begun (although North Carolina has upgraded several locomotives with HSR funds).

Both NS and CSX officials say they are willing to go along with the grants as long as they don’t interfere with freight operations, but the hangup is the severity of penalties for delays that FRA feels it needs to ensure it gets its money’s worth out of the improvements. The present outlook for agreements acceptable to FRA in those two states is much like the weather over Virginia lately: cloudy.

The similarities in all three states are striking. At the core, each dispute revolves around protecting present capacity for freight train movements in future years. Imagine a rail line now handling 20 trains a day that capacity modeling on computers shows could handle another ten freight trains. The railroad wants enough new capacity built into the line through HSR grants to handle new higher speed passenger trains and those ten future freights. FRA’s stance, in turn, is to protect the public purse against giving railroads anything they haven’t paid for. The actual points of contention are over the details, but future capacity remains the 800-pound gorilla.

So impasse results, and a year after the Department of Transportation announced the first of the HSR grants, there’s very little to show for it. New governors in Ohio and Wisconsin returned almost $1.4 in grants, which were redistributed to other states. The governors of Iowa and Florida may do likewise, rejecting another $2.4 billion-plus, and Michigan is concerned it can’t afford the required matching funds. California’s high-speed network has gotten grants totaling about $3 billion, but that’s a pittance for an endeavor to connect San Francisco and Southern California that now carries a $43 billion price tag — this in a state whose public finances now resemble those of a third-world country.

The biggest project actually underway is in Illinois, where Union Pacific is upgrading track to permit three 110-mph round trips between Chicago and St. Louis, reducing travel time by as many as 48 minutes from the current schedules of roughly 5 hours 30 minutes. Federal grants will finance almost all of this $1.1 billion undertaking. A second phase, which would involve double-tracking the entire route to permit eight 110-mph round trips, would cost an additional $3 billion. That phase is under review and remains unfunded. UP, by the way, plans to significantly increase the number of freights it operates between Chicago and St. Louis, and says the two-step construction plan provides capacity for both passenger and freight trains.

You may wonder how UP could achieve a service-outcomes agreement acceptable to FRA when North Carolina, Virginia, and Washington cannot. It became possible when all parties understood that the first phase now underway only increases speeds but doesn’t add capacity. Therefore, increased reliability isn’t in the cards. So the agreement now in place will permit an average of 8 minutes of delay per trip caused by slow orders and signals but is silent on delays related to dispatching or congestion. In effect, that fight was put off until the start of the second phase, which given the present course of events may never occur.

In all, DOT made 107 HSR grants last year. But looks are deceiving, because the great majority are what I call welfare payments to the consulting business. They pay for state rail plans, feasibility and environmental studies, design of projects not yet funded, and a host of other paper projects.

So far as I know, the only HSR construction actually underway outside of Illinois is in New England. There, Pan Am Railway is upgrading tracks between Portland and Brunswick, Me., to permit a 30-mile extension of the five Downeaster round trips to and from Boston, at a cost of $38 million. And in Vermont, $50 million is being spent to upgrade a 190-mile segment of RailAmerica subsidiary New England Central Railroad. Amtrak’s Vermonter will benefit by having top speed raised from 50 mph to as much as 79 mph, speeding its trip by at least an hour. Everywhere else, it’s still big hat, no cattle. — Fred W. Frailey

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