Wednesday, June 15, 2011

"Get out of our way, Freight-trains, even if they are your tracks. Here comes High-Speed Rail!"

There are two articles here and one central point.  Although California is a somewhat different situation, for the rest of the US Amtrak now operates on rail corridors and tracks owned by the Class I freight operators like BNSF, CSX and Union Pacific.  

As those Amtrak passenger trains become more plentiful and run faster due to federal HSR funding,  those same freight operators who own and use these tracks are going to be hit with a huge operating set-back.  Slow freights with loose schedules and HSR don't mix.  The freight guys know that and will start raising a serious fuss.

Michael Scott Moore's article points out the numerous problems.  The second article describes Ray LaHood's obsession with HSR, and, by inference, his indifference to the freight operators' anticipated problems.

Remember, freight operations are profitable; high-speed rail isn't.  Right now, slow moving Amtrak and the freights share tracks.  That's not a huge inconvenience for the freights.  But, high-speed rail is another story altogether.  And that's what Ray LaHood wants to put on the tracks, or at least within the rail corridors of the freights.  And, that's going to be a huge problem.

True high-speed rail cannot share tracks with freights.  The two train systems are different technologies with different track requirements, different and incompatible schedules, and, like oil and water, don't mix.  

That's why California's HSR will need whole new rail corridors.  Union Pacific, owner of a vast amount of track in California and in the entire Western United States, refuses to share even its rail corridors, fearing safety threats (collision, derailment, etc.) and enormous liability costs. Imagine one derailed freight, with HSR at 200 mph not far away and bearing down on what would otherwise be a not unusual accident.  A nightmare!

The way I see this is that the now successful and profitable freights are being asked by Ray LaHood to share their tracks and rail corridors with government-subsidized, money losing high-speed passenger rail which we don't need, won't be able to fill with passengers, and can't afford.  How crazy is that!!

Of course, in that second article, there's also that little matter of the Congressional Budget Office Report on High-Speed Rail which came out in March of this year. When a reporter asked about it, Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood nearly lost it: 

"The GAO in March reported that the Federal Railroad Administration, an arm of the U.S. Department of Transportation, has not provided an adequate rationale for granting billions of dollars to states to build high-speed rail projects. Documentation of the reasons for selecting projects were vague, the GAO said."

We'll discuss this report in another blog entry.

High-Speed Rail Will Impact America’s Freight Trains
America’s very successful freight train system will have to make some compromises to accommodate high-speed rail, but those needn’t be the end of the world.

By Michael Scott Moore
Change is never easy, and America's cargo train system may have to make some adjustments and compromises if high-speed rail is to be successful. 

The recent controversy over high-speed rail in America has obscured one fact about trains that defines — and pretty well explains — the main trend in rail traffic in the U.S. and Europe over the last few decades: Americans move a lot more freight by train than Europeans.

That’s a good thing. Moving cargo that way keeps trucks off the road. And the European Union’s emissions-reduction goals for the year 2020 have forced Europeans to admit to using more commercial trucks than they’d like, in spite of their own high fuel prices.

“Europe’s dependence on trucks stems from the failure of its vaunted passenger-rail network to provide a cheap, efficient alternative for cargo,” is how The Wall Street Journal put it in a survey in 2007. That’s true in the sense that passenger rail service is good in Europe and cargo rail service is not — governments have focused on one and not the other. But it’s not (necessarily) a zero-sum game.

Europe’s dependence on trucks actually stems from the fractured nature of continental rail networks, a challenge that passenger train firms also haven’t solved. Spain and Portugal still run passenger trains on narrower tracks than the rest of Europe, and France has just started discussing how to link its TGV system with the (newer, more compatible) Spanish high-speed tracks.

Since Europe is also more crowded than the U.S., finding the land for new factories close to train lines has traditionally been tougher. For decades the continent was also divided by the Cold War, so a good long-distance cargo system failed to develop between the east and west. The U.S. also doesn’t have the same niggling differences in language and national rolling stock.

But even in the two decades since the fall of communism, there’s been more business for American cargo rail companies and less of it for their European counterparts. “Between 1995 and 2005,” as The Wall Street Journal points out, “the percentage of European goods shipped by truck rose to 73 percent from 68 percent, while rail’s share fell to 17 percent from 20 percent.”

During about the same period, the railroads’ share of the U.S. freight market rose from 33 percent to 38.2 percent. (The American trucking business also grew its share, from 25.4 percent to 28.5 percent.)

The whole point of the European Union is to smooth out inevitable cross-border problems like track gauge and language confusion. The EU has been on the cargo-rail problem since the ’90s, and a few new projects — like a long, dedicated new corridor with no road crossings between Rotterdam and Germany’s industrial Ruhr Valley — have EU support. But Europe should be further along.

Where freight and high-speed passenger trains use the same track, of course, they don’t mix well, for the same reason that a Porsche on the highway can’t move fast if it gets stuck behind a semi. So The Economist last year argued that more high-speed rail in America could actually harm the U.S. rail-cargo network, which it described as “one of the unsung transport successes of the past 30 years … universally recognized in the industry as the best in the world.”

There won’t be a problem on new and largely dedicated high-speed lines like the one planned for California. But it will get complicated on the not-quite-as-high-speed, “inter-city” passenger lines planned for the Pacific Northwest and Midwestern cities around Chicago.

Right now, American cargo trains can move flexibly, sometimes without a strict time schedule, according to customer demand. If they share the rails with too many passenger trains, they’ll need to be more strictly organized, with expensive new train-control systems.

Cargo carriers have howled about the cost, but the main problem — from their point of view — is a threat to their dominance in certain corners of the country. Part of the federal support for high-speed rail will fund little rail spurs or pullouts to let trundling cargo trains cool their wheels while an inter-city train full of businessmen blows past.

Germany dealt with these problems in the 1980s and ’90s, as it slowly laid its high-speed system over a first-class freight network. This isn’t uncharted territory. Germany now has the best cargo system in Europe, as well as excellent (if not lavish) high-speed rail.

The map of planned American inter-city lines should also be sparse enough to ease the cargo carriers’ minds. Change is unpleasant, of course, and American freight trains will become pricier and less flexible around certain major cities if they have to make room for good passenger service. But things will have to change enormously before America has to fear lapsing back to European freight standards — especially since the shambles in Europe are so unique.


Il: Lahood Pledges 160-Mph Trains In Illinois In Five Years

Updated: June 14, 2011

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood said in Springfield Thursday that, within five years, passenger trains will make the trip between Chicago and St. Louis in a little more than two hours and travel 160 mph.

That's much faster than specified in current plans for high-speed rail, which are being funded with nearly $2 billion in federal grants.

The money is paying for a system on which trains will travel no faster than 110 mph on tracks owned by the Union Pacific Railroad and shared by freight and passenger trains, according to state grant applications. The applications say a one-way trip would take about four hours once the system is finished.

The only plans for a faster Chicago-St. Louis rail system made public to date are for passenger-only tracks that would go through Champaign. Such a system is in the early planning stages. No money for construction has been appropriated.

LaHood gave no further details in his speech to the Illinois Associated Press Editors Association at the Crowne Plaza Hotel. He bristled when a reporter asked questions about criticism of high-speed rail funding by the U.S. General Accounting Office.

The GAO in March reported that the Federal Railroad Administration, an arm of the U.S. Department of Transportation, has not provided an adequate rationale for granting billions of dollars to states to build high-speed rail projects. Documentation of the reasons for selecting projects were vague, the GAO said.

LaHood would not say how the Department of Transportation will respond to the GAO report. "If you give me your card, I'll get back to you on that," LaHood said. "You're the only one in the room who cares about that."

Before taking questions, LaHood told the audience the Department of Transportation has spent $48 billion in stimulus money during the past two years on 15,000 projects that have provided 65,000 jobs. He said the administration has "jump-started" high-speed rail.

"I don't care what the criticism is, high-speed rail is coming to America," LaHood said.

LaHood, a Republican, said that he will not participate in fundraising for either party in the coming elections. He said he remains a Republican, though he works for a Democratic president.

"I really feel like I've had a front-row seat in watching history, and I feel like I've had a front-row seat in making history," LaHood said.

Bruce Rushton can be reached at 788-1542.

Copyright 2008 LexisNexis, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

No comments: