President Barack Obama's push for high-speed passenger trains raises concerns about crowded rails slowing freight carriers like Union Pacific and BNSF Railway.
This year, the administration committed $8 billion out of the $787 billion economic stimulus package and added $2.3 billion in the fiscal 2010 budget as down payments on a high-speed rail program that could cost hundreds of billions of dollars. The plan is to reduce America's dependence on oil, reduce traffic on highways and eliminate harmful exhaust emissions from millions of cars.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has talked enthusiastically about connecting 85 percent of the country with high-speed rail within 25 years at a cost of about $500 billion.
But the vast majority of high-speed rail projects proposed so far are relatively small projects designed to put slightly faster passenger trains on freight lines owned by companies like Omaha-based Union Pacific Corp. Those projects could delay freight traffic, push business back onto trucks and lead back to crowded highways, said Bob Turner, U.P.'s senior vice president of corporate relations.
Nor should the government force its way onto railroad property, Turner said.
“It's our land, it's our rails,” Turner said. “This is about the government regulating what happens on our property.”
Union Pacific and other railroads balked when the Federal Railroad Administration, which is overseeing the high-speed rail effort, came out with guidance in May that could have imposed penalties on freight companies for failing to meet on-time performance standards for passenger traffic.
FRA Administrator Joseph Szabo said the release was a mistake:
“It was poorly worded, poorly vetted. We pulled that down.”
He said the agency has been working with states and the railroads to come up with guidelines in the next six weeks that better balance the need for passengers to know they will reach destinations on time and the need for freight railroads to avoid congestion with passenger trains.
“We are not going to let anything harm our world-class freight railroad network,” Szabo said. “We think it needs to be improved and preserved.”
Szabo said one key is making certain that additional tracks, signals and other infrastructure needed for passenger trains are paid for with public money, not money from the freight railroad companies.
Right now, government-subsidized Amtrak rules passenger train service in America, and the operator of choice among many states for high-speed rail would be Amtrak. However, about 71 percent of the miles traveled by Amtrak passenger trains are on tracks owned by freight railroads, including Union Pacific and Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corp., a division of Berkshire Hathaway Inc. of Omaha.
And speeding up passenger rail from 60 mph or 75 mph on freight lines to 110 mph to 150 mph could create problems involving safety, capacity, maintenance and liability in the event of an accident. BNSF puts top speed on its current lines at 90 mph.
“At 70 mph to 90 mph you can have integrated service of some kind,” said D.J. Mitchell, BNSF's assistant vice president for passenger operations. At speeds higher than 90 mph, separate lines would be needed, Mitchell said.
Freight railroads say they are 100 percent behind expansion of both freight and passenger railroads, but they also are concerned about the details of cost-sharing as high-speed rail climbs aboard.
“If passenger trains use freight railroad assets and property, they must provide the host railroad with a reasonable return on investment, including recouping costs associated with developing passenger rail project proposals,” the Association of American Railroads says in one of its position papers. “On some freight rail corridors, heavy current or expected freight traffic means there may be no spare capacity for passenger trains. In these areas, new capacity will be needed before passenger trains can operate.”
That means spending billions of dollars to build new track and roadbeds specifically for high-speed passenger trains.
U.P.'s Turner said tracks for high-speed passenger trains would require more maintenance than tracks used for freight or lower-speed passenger trains.
“It gets down to money,” Turner said. “And how much are the taxpayers willing to spend?”
Advocates of high-speed rail, like Joe Shelhorse of the U.S. High Speed Rail Association, said the public must pay for expansion and upkeep of highways if the country stays on a course favoring cars and trucks. But Shelhorse said railroads can move more products and people less expensively and lower America's dependence on oil.
“What is more expensive, doubling our highway system for single-passenger SUVs or building capacity for 100-passenger rail cars?” he asked.
Shelhorse said high-speed rail lines would need to be separated from freight lines in rural areas where land would be less expensive, but the two would likely merge at lower speeds in city centers. Building new high-speed lines across the country could cost about $600 billion, he said.
Nationally, 13 high-speed passenger rail corridors have been identified thus far, with projects in 31 states, including California, Florida, Illinois and Washington state. Only a few lines, such as in California and between Tampa and Orlando in Florida, would have their own track.
Most other lines, including a Union Pacific line between St. Louis and Chicago, would place higher-speed passenger traffic into existing Amtrak service that is shared with freight, potentially creating conflict.
Working out new cost-sharing and on-time agreements between states, freight railroads and the Federal Railroad Administration could take time.
For example, the Union Pacific line between St. Louis and Chicago received $1.1 billion in economic stimulus money toward its full $4.4 billion cost to upgrade for higher speed passenger rail. But only $98 million in upgrades have been approved on that line thus far, with a larger agreement for the overall project yet to be finalized, Turner said.
Details include defining on-time performance and who will be held responsible for any delays, Turner said. A passenger train, for example, can't leave a station before its scheduled departure, but that could hold up freight trains that are ready to roll, he said.
The FRA insists that any difficulties can be ironed out.
“The key here is to do good modeling,” Szabo said, “to make sure the passenger trains have the capacity they need with public investments. But we also have a right to expect that they (taxpayers) get the benefits that they pay for and are able to maintain those benefits.”
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