Monday, January 10, 2011

Should we add railroads to the list of Passenger Rail enemies?

A lot of HSR stuff in the news.  It’s no secret that Obama’s vision for a national High Speed Rail network is under attack.  Many newly elected officials are far from passenger rail fans.  Everyone’s heard about what’s happened in New Jersey, Wisconsin, and Ohio.  Meanwhile, what should have been a milestone event in Illinois turns out to have simply added more fuel to the anti-rail fire. 

While I do not buy in wholesale to the premise of the article, it brings up some very practical and real issues with the implementation of the Obama Administration’s implementation of HSR and with expansion of our passenger rail network in general.  The biggest and most interesting, in my mind, is the buy-in of the host railroad.  The article surmises among other things that Union Pacific may have “driven a hard bargain” to Illinois and Missouri in exchange for their cooperation with the project.  To me, when they say “hard bargain” they mean $$$.  By money I have a feeling they mean state contribution for upgrades to infrastructure including track and signaling equipment.    

I understand Union Pacific, like all freight railroads want to protect their profitability.  They make their money by moving freight, after all.  However, it’s disconcerting to see they are willing to accept negative effects to our national transportation infrastructure so they don’t see a reduction in their margins. 

The freight railroads, for the most part know they have a captive audience.  Most operating rights of way in this country are private and are owned by corporations.  Any public agency or partnership that wishes to expand service must cooperate with the freight railroads and basically must submit to whatever conditions the carrier lays out, or risk outright refusal to cooperate.  There are legal means to get around this refusal, but a profitable freight railroad is much better equipped to handle a potentially protracted court battle than a coalition using funding which is tight to begin with.  Also, let’s face it, a lot of transportation projects, especially rail projects often face significant opposition, and a public legal battle would not help the situation. 

We’ve seen similar issues here in Pennsylvania.  Look no further than the Keystone Corridor which on paper extends from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh.  In reality, the section from Harrisburg to Pittsburgh is little more than a line on a map.  Between Harrisburg and Philadelphia multiple electric powered trains per day whiz back and forth at maximum speeds up to 110 mph.  West of Harrisburg, a lone diesel powered daily train takes riders to Pittsburgh.  While the line from Philadelphia to Harrisburg sees only local freight service and is owned by the state, the line west of Harrisburg is one of two major rail arteries between New York and Chicago, and is owned by a private company (NS).  Even though there is room to expand (the line was once 3-4 tracks for its whole length, and is now 2-3) NS has gone on record saying that it will require significant investment from public sources for NS to buy in on any service expansion to Pittsburgh. 

Another example is the ongoing Commuter rail saga here in Pittsburgh.  This time last year, it seemed almost a foregone conclusion that Pittsburgh would be gaining two rail lines; one to New Kensington/Arnold via the AVR, and one to Greensburg via the NS.  By July however, NS’s tune apparently changed, as they became “highly unlikely to allow commuter trains on their tracks”.  As a result, we’ve gone from a dual line heavy commuter “system” to a single line light rail system.  While it’s impossible to know what changed, clearly something did. 

Freight railroad's lack of cooperation in allowing passenger operations on their rails is understandable but detrimental to our nation transportation network.  The only real way to get them to help is to force them to.  Unfortunately, that is a thorny subject.  A lot of people in this country don’t like when the Government tells companies what to do.  Additionally, just like every other lobby, there’s a lot of money behind the railroad lobby and any legislation forcing railroad compliance would have to fight not only political will, but good old fashioned money. 

I have to wonder what the answer is.  I for one don’t know.  It’s hard to see our national rail network ever expanding if railroads themselves will make it cost prohibitive.   

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