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by Angela Cotey, Associate editor
Since Congress passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in February 2009, U.S. high-speed rail development has gone from a pipe dream to a very real possibility. The bill included $8 billion for high-speed and intercity passenger-rail projects, prompting states to scramble to get their share of the funds.
States that have been working on high-speed rail programs for years were anxious to show the federal government what they've done to advance their plans to date — and use it as leverage to secure more stimulus dollars. States that had been discussing whether to pursue high-speed rail put their plans on the fast track so they could cash in on the sudden availability of federal high-speed funds, as well.
However, with the exception of California and Florida — which are proposing to build high-speed rail systems on dedicated right of way with trains operating at speeds between 150 mph and 220 mph — most states are planning what could be best classified as "higher" speed rail. Proposals call for upgrading existing tracks, primarily owned by freight railroads, to accommodate passenger trains at speeds between 79 mph and 110 mph. But just because the tracks already exist in many places doesn't mean that implementing higher-speed service will be easy, or even feasible — especially if a state is proposing to operate their service over capacity-strapped Class I tracks.
"I think there's probably a bit of a disconnect between all of the money that's been talked about and actually getting high-speed rail started and built in many places," says Deb Butler, executive vice president of planning and chief information officer for Norfolk Southern Corp. "This is a very long process. It involves negotiating right of way with railroads, permitting, environmental issues, and then not only deciding what kind of infrastructure improvements are necessary to accommodate passenger rail, but also decisions on how a passenger service will be subsidized on an ongoing basis."
State rail officials are learning about the various high-speed hurdles as they delve deeper into their planning efforts. Those that are dealing with Class I host railroads are, in many cases, getting a reality check on what a freight operator will and won't allow on their tracks or right of way. That's not to say Class Is aren't interested in having the discussion — freight-rail planners say they're more than willing to sit at the table with a state to see how they could work together. But each Class I also has a stringent set of rules a state must follow to ensure passenger services don't affect freight operations. Capacity, speed, safety and liability issues top the list. With freight traffic expected to grow significantly during the next several decades, Class Is won't sacrifice future business opportunities for any passenger operation.
"We are trying to find win-win opportunities working with the public sector to advance passenger-rail projects," says CSX Corp. VP of Strategic Infrastructure Initiatives Louis Renjel. "But, while the envy of the world on the passenger-rail side might be to Japan, France and China, the U.S. freight system is the envy of the world. We have a competitive advantage and we want to make sure that as we develop policies, we don't compromise that."
To ensure the freight-rail infrastructure isn't compromised, each Class I has its own guidelines for high-speed passenger operators to follow, starting with how fast a passenger train can run on their tracks.
"Simply put, the passenger operation has to be transparent to the freight operation and we try to make the freight operation transparent to the passenger operation," says NS VP of Strategic Planning John Friedmann.
For that reason, NS' passenger-rail policy states that passenger trains cannot operate on their tracks at speeds higher than 79 mph. States seeking to operate trains at higher speeds would need to run them on separate tracks. CSX and BNSF Railway Co. will allow passenger trains at speeds up to 90 mph on their tracks; faster than that, trains will need to operate on separate track, though not necessarily on separate right of way. CSX officials take it a step further and say that any dedicated corridors built for high-speed passenger rail services should be located at least 30 feet from their freight operation.
And at Union Pacific Railroad, officials say they will consider allowing passenger operations of up to 110 mph on their tracks.
"We'll look at things on a case-by-case basis," says UP General Director of Network and Business Development Mark Bristol. "Whether or not we're willing to consider things has a lot to do with the importance of the line to us."
Ditto for BNSF, CSX and NS, all of which have similar guidelines they follow when determining if a passenger operation can co-exist on their tracks. The issues Class Is have with states operating higher-speed service over their tracks — capacity, liability, safety, cost, compensation — aren't any different than those they have with a conventional-speed passenger service.
"These are very complicated projects, but the philosophical underpinnings are pretty straightforward," says DJ Mitchell, BNSF's assistant vice president of passenger operations.
However, the faster operations do heighten Class I officials' level of concern.
"It's simply a matter of the laws of physics — when you introduce more trains and trains with more stringent schedules, the risk of delay increases, and that's a risk we want to avoid in the interest of keeping commitments to our customer," says NS' Butler. "We've dedicated a lot of resources to improve the quality of service to our customers and we don't want to put that at risk in any way."
That's why capacity ranks at the top of the list when it comes to mixed-operation concerns. If a Class I agrees to allow passenger operations on any of its lines, the operator will need to replace any capacity it uses. The higher the speed, the more capacity needed.
"It's like a sports car climbing up on an RV on a two-way highway. Freight is slower, and you're trying to run a fast passenger train parallel to it, so there are a lot of overtakes and capacity requirements are a lot higher," says UP's Bristol.
For example, UP currently is working with the Illinois Department of Transportation, which is seeking to operate 110 mph service between Chicago and St. Louis. The state currently operates 79 mph service along the route. In order to operate faster service, Illinois DOT plans to build second and, in some areas, third track, says Bristol, adding that UP wants to protect capacity for future growth opportunities.
Railroads also want to protect their workers and potential future passengers.
"We always look first and foremost at safety — safety for our employees, both operating and maintaining the tracks, and safety for the public, both at crossings and on the trains," says CSX's Renjel.
Higher-speed passenger-rail operators will be expected to address all safety issues related to things such as positive train control, grade crossing equipment and station design, Class I officials say.
"For example, we can't have passengers crossing active freight tracks to get to a platform, so we're insisting on station designs that allow them to come from an overpass or underpass," says Bristol.
Class Is are concerned about other risks to their operations, as well — and "risk" can be defined in many ways. Railroads expect to be indemnified for any tax liability so that passenger operations aren't counted as income. General liability is an issue, as well.
"We have to be confident we haven't introduced any additional liability by allowing passenger trains onto our right of way or tracks, so we're looking for insurance or indemnification, maybe legislation from the federal government," says Bristol. "Right now, freight railroads aren't comfortable that that's been fully solved."
Class Is aren't necessarily comfortable with high-speed rail project construction risks, either — particularly when it comes to cost. Once all the engineering work and estimates for a higher-speed project are complete, project costs often increase substantially compared with original estimates, several Class I officials say, adding that passenger operators will be expected to take on that risk. All other project costs will be pinned on the passenger operator, as well, including expenses for studies, proposals and infrastructure plans. And in many cases, the host railroad will want to take on some of the work itself.
"Some states say they want to hire a consultant to do that work or that they'll do it themselves," says Bristol. "These assets are far too important to us to allow someone else to develop an infrastructure plan. We know how to do it and would insist on it."
The Class Is also will insist that high-speed operators cover their maintenance costs, which will be much higher compared with conventional-speed services, says Bristol.
"The class of track to go 110 mph is Class 6, which has much more stringent maintenance requirements than the Class 4 that we typically maintain our tracks at," he says. "The railroad needs to be maintained at the highest level, and we will demand that the passenger operator cover incremental maintenance costs. We don't need track of that standard to run our freight trains; we get no benefit there."
But will Class Is get any benefit from a high-speed operation? And if they do, should the Class Is be contributing money of their own to advance high-speed projects on their tracks? It's a subject that's been debated in recent months as states continue to plan high-speed rail projects, but Bristol says the idea that a freight railroad would benefit from a high-speed service is "a common misconception."
"We've heard people say, 'Well, aren't you going to run your freight trains at 110 mph?' That's not important to our business plan," he says. "We have some examples on projects at traditional speeds where we're willing to contribute because we're eliminating bottlenecks that help both freight and passenger rail, but on higher speeds it's hard to find those synergies."
BNSF's Mitchell Agrees.
"In my opinion, there are five cost levers in operating a railroad: locomotives, fuel, crews, rail cars and right of way. Virtually none of the passenger projects change our cost structure so much as to say there's a significant railroad benefit to these projects," he says.
And even though all Class Is would seek money from high-speed operators to cover any costs the freight railroad would incur and receive some sort of return on the assets or property that's involved, none would make a substantial amount of money off a passenger operation, they say.
"Typically, a passenger operation doesn't have any profit to pay us what a slot is really worth to us, and I don't see that changing in the near future," Bristol says, joking that no state has made a high-speed rail proposal to UP that would net much income for the railroad, but "we'd be really interested if they did."
There are plenty of high-speed rail proposals out there. Last fall, the Federal Railroad Administration received 259 grant applications from 37 states seeking $57 billion in high-speed stimulus funding. Many of the projects included in the applications called for states to upgrade freight-rail corridors to accommodate faster passenger trains.
For the most part, Class I officials say they're ready and willing to work with the states to advance those plans. Bristol cited the previously mentioned work with the Illinois DOT as UP's best example.
To implement 110 mph service on a Chicago-to-St. Louis corridor owned by UP, the Illinois DOT plans to upgrade one of UP's routes by reconstructing track to meet requirements for 110 mph operations and constructing second mainline track, rehabilitating sidings, and improving or closing grade crossings.
Several factors have helped make the Chicago-to-St. Louis project a model one, says Bristol. For one, UP has other routes between the two cities, so even though it would be operating some freight trains on the high-speed passenger corridor, it has other alternatives. In addition, the flat and straight Illinois topography make it ideal for high-speed line building. And perhaps most important, Illinois has been a cooperative partner.
"Illinois has always been committed to doing the project right. We're confident we have a plan there that's going to work and will provide the reliability needed for passenger service while protecting freight service," says Bristol. "We've been working with them for a long time and they understand the issues associated with operating freight and passenger trains on a line."
Meanwhile, UP is working with other states, such as Missouri and Oregon, to upgrade existing passenger-rail services so states can operate trains up to 79 mph. Both Missouri and Oregon have proposed upgrading service in the future to 110 mph, but getting there's not a given, says Bristol.
"Just because you have 79 mph passenger-rail service in your state today doesn't mean 110 will work," he says. "Some lines are more important than others and they all have different topography and engineering characteristics, so that will determine if it's a good candidate for 110 mph service."
Officials at Missouri DOT say they understand. They eventually want to operate 110 mph trains between St. Louis and Kansas City, but the corridor is a UP mainline along which 50 freight trans operate each day. Unless the state opts to build a dedicated passenger corridor, it likely won't be able to run trains above 90 mph, Missouri DOT Director of Multimodal Operations Brian Weiler said earlier this year in an interview with HSRupdates.com, Progressive Railroading's subscription-based website devoted to high-speed rail.
"We don't want to do anything on UP's corridor that reduces their freight-handling capability and their ability to grow," he said. "But UP has agreed to cooperate with us to see what else is possible on the rest of the corridor."
Officials at the Ohio DOT and Ohio Rail Development Commission (ORDC), an independent commission within the DOT, understand freight concerns, as well. The state currently is working with NS and CSX to implement its 3C "Quick Start" corridor, which would link Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton and Cincinnati. Trains would operate at speeds up to 79 mph on the corridor. CSX owns the track between Columbus and Cleveland, and NS owns the track between Columbus and Cincinnati.
"We've had very good support from both Class Is throughout this whole planning effort," says Stu Nicholson, ORDC's public information officer. "We've had the railroads at the planning table literally from Day One, and our philosophy has been, whatever we do to enable passenger rail should do no harm to the host freight railroads."
However, ODOT's long-term high-speed rail plans propose increasing speeds along the 3C corridor to 110 mph. The department currently has a memorandum of understanding with NS that states if train speeds exceed 79 mph, Ohio will need to construct separate right of way, says NS' Friedmann. ODOT has a similar MOU in place with CSX. So how will the state achieve its 110-mph goal?
"That's still off into the future; right now, the immediate goal is to get the 3C Quick Start under way," says Nicholson.
CSX also has developed good partnerships with North Carolina and Virginia, which are advancing higher-speed service plans along the Southeast High Speed Rail Corridor, says CSX's Renjel.
But in some cases, Class Is and state DOTs don't see eye-to-eye when it comes to high-speed rail development. For example, New York State DOT is seeking to implement 110 mph passenger-rail service between New York City and Albany, and Albany west to Buffalo and Niagara Falls. Between Albany and Buffalo, the state proposes to operate trains along CSX tracks or right of way.
"New York certainly has some challenges, specifically around the issue of the state's desire to go in excess of 90 mph on our railroad," says Renjel. "We have profound safety [and capacity] concerns with that. That's the main artery from the Port of New York to the rest of the country [and] the most heavily traveled freight corridor in our system."
Late last month, CSX and the DOT reached an agreement that establishes a framework for pursuing high-speed rail and enables the state to prepare an environmental impact statement for the 463-mile Empire Corridor from New York City to Albany, and west to Buffalo and Niagara Falls. However, the pact doesn't resolve two key issues: allowing passenger trains to operate along CSX's corridor at more than 90 mph and narrowing the 30-foot gap between freight and high-speed tracks, according to CSX spokesman Bob Sullivan.
CSX officials believe the pact is consistent with their "commitment to work with state and federal officials to help find ways to safely and efficiently enhance passenger service in upstate New York," while DOT officials characterize the agreement as "turning the corner" on joint high-speed rail development efforts, according to separate statements issued May 28. Ultimately, the state would need to spend about $8 billion to build a dedicated passenger-rail corridor for 110-mph service, but CSX can help "get speeds up to 90 mph and increase the average speed," says Renjel.
Meanwhile, UP officials are expressing concerns about the California High Speed Rail Authority's (CHSRA) plans to operate 220-mph trains near its right of way, specifically between the Bay Area and Central Valley. In an April 23 letter to CHSRA — which in March issued a revised draft environmental impact report (EIR) for the segment — UP General Manager-Network Infrastructure Jerry Wilmoth identified sticking points.
"Based on drawings and photographs in the revised EIR, the authority intends to locate the high-speed corridor either on UP's right of way ... or immediately adjacent thereto. This is not acceptable," Wilmoth said in the letter.
The proximity of the proposed line to UP's right of way "presents serious safety concerns and also has the potential to negatively impact service to our customers," UP spokesman Tom Lange said in an email to Progressive Railroading.
"UP first stated our position and concerns with high-speed rail on our right of way verbally in 2005. We placed such concerns in writing in a May 13, 2008, letter and reiterated our position via 10 additional letters filed on various EIRs and meeting requests with the authority over the past two years," Lange continued. "Although no negotiations are in process, we will continue to have discussions with CHSRA to reiterate our position and understand CHSRA plans."
UP's concerns were included in public comments on the revised draft EIR, so CHSRA couldn't comment on the letter itself.
"As with all comments received during the formal comment period for the Bay Area to Central Valley Revised Draft Program EIR, authority staff will thoroughly review this correspondence and respond to comments related to the revised material within the EIR," CHSRA spokesman Jeffrey Barker said in an email.
In some cases, Class I/state discussions about implementing higher-speed rail will continue to be contentious. Class I officials are just trying to be cautious, they say. There will be an abundance of freight-rail growth opportunities during the next 20 to 30 years, planners believe, and Class Is need to be in a position to capitalize on them.
"We see our role long-term as taking trucks off the highway ... so if you play this forward, there are a lot of lines that have capacity available now that won't down the road," says Bristol.
That said, there are instances where higher-speed operations on freight-rail tracks or right of way can work — case in point: the Illinois DOT's proposed Chicago-to-St. Louis operation. And Class I officials continue to reiterate that they're willing to work with states to find opportunities to introduce such services. As long as states are willing to cooperate with Class I policies, high-speed development can progress. That progress just might not come as quickly or as easily as some state DOT officials hope.
"States need to have realistic expectations, and they need to respect the needs of the freight network," says Bristol. "Some states understand that, some don't, but you need to address the freight issues in order to have a successful project."