If you've ever ridden the TGV between Paris and Lyon, you know what a pleasure it can be to zip along the rails at speeds of up to 200 miles per hour, more quickly and a lot less stressfully than traveling by air or passenger car. And you might have thought: wouldn't it be great to have something like this in the U.S.?
There's been talk of high-speed rail in this country for years, but real progress has been stymied by a lack of political will and the massive price tag. Now, the concept might be inching toward reality. Early this year, President Obama announced $8bn in federal grants to launch a High Speed Intercity Passenger Rail Program. The plan calls for construction of a number of high-speed corridors between major city pairs, including Tampa/Orlando and San Francisco/Los Angeles, in addition to upgrading some existing passenger services. The money, part of federal stimulus funds under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, is little more than a "down payment" on the actual cost of building a modernized rail system. (The Federal Railroad Administration has said it received requests for nearly $57bn in funding from 37 states and the District of Columbia.) But it's a good beginning, and it bodes well for a venture that could greatly improve rail operations in this country, while generating thousands of jobs and providing another kick-start for the still-dormant economy.
Someday, then, you might find yourself tapping away at your laptop while zipping through California's Central Valley. But what about freight? As it's currently envisioned, high-speed rail will mostly be limited to passenger trains. You can't help but wonder if all the excitement will draw attention and funding away from crucial initiatives for improving the commercial rail system.
The Association of American Railroads likes the Obama plan; president and CEO Edward R. Hamberger called it "good for America." At the same time, he put in a word for freight. More than 90 percent of Amtrak's passenger operation moves over rights-of-way owned by freight railroads, he pointed out, and the two sides will continue to share a good amount of track under the new initiative. Hamberger noted that FRA's guidelines for high-speed rail "make clear that states applying for grants for intercity and high-speed rail projects are required to have written agreements with the host freight railroads on issues such as safety, infrastructure capacity, compensation and liability." And, he added: "This ultimately will help ensure that higher speed rail does not compromise the vital present and future role of freight rail in America's economic recovery."
Do I detect a slight nervousness on the part of freight interests?
Leslie Pollock is a long-time urban planner who currently serves as principal of Camiros Ltd. in Chicago. He points to the nightmarish tangle of tracks that already slows the switching of freight cars between rail systems there. "It's an astounding amount of time that it takes, just to get through the Chicago freight network," he says.
It's not clear whether any of the money earmarked for high-speed rail will address that situation, or the need for additional dedicated freight corridors and intermodal yards throughout the country. It's true that the U.S. Department of Transportation has earmarked $1.5bn in grants under the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) program for a variety of purposes, including some intermodal improvements. But such projects must share the money with plans for new train stations, bridges, streetcars and even bicycle paths all over the country. On top of that, there's a push to spend even more on public transit, instead of projects that would benefit freight.
For all their track sharing, passenger and freight services have divergent interests. Pollock notes that switching delays in urban centers such as Chicago are partly due to the simple fact that many freight yards are in the wrong place. They grew up around urban centers in the big industrial boom between 1850 and 1920, he says, but they should be moved to outlying communities where there's more room to operate, and less congestion. Ironically, cities like those big rail facilities because they generate income from property taxes, but the situation doesn't help freight providers to function at maximum efficiency. And when it comes time to dole out limited dollars for major rail improvements, whose interests - freight or passenger - will prevail?
Freight and passenger services do share the dilemma of how to negotiate the last couple of miles of a trip, Pollock says. To that end, there's an ongoing program in Chicago called CREATE, a partnership between industry and government to improve the efficiency of all kinds of rail movements through the city. So there's hope for real cooperation among all parties.
I still worry, though, that the glitz factor of high-speed passenger trains could derail essential improvements on the freight side nationwide. Anthony Perl, director of the Urban Studies Program at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, B.C., agrees that high-speed rail is almost exclusively a passenger issue. He thinks it's entirely possible that freight-oriented funding will suffer as a result. He argues for the electrification of conventional rail for freight, along with the greater use of alternative modes such as coastal shipping.
The railroads have made substantial investments in their networks and equipment since the huge system bottlenecks of just a few years ago. But there's a lot more work to be done, and public funds are needed, too. The question remains: will high-speed trains cause freight to slow down to a crawl?
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