The U.S. Emphasis on Passenger Rail and the Future of Freight

» Industry, citing experience with Amtrak, is concerned that more passenger rail services could increase costs and reduce freight train movements.

The American intercity rail system, it is frequently argued, is notable for the world-class efficiency of its freight trains and the miserable record of its passenger system. While we transport a huge percentage of our goods on track, we move just a tiny percentage of people as such.

The Obama Administration, of course, is spending billions to change that situation, investing in true high-speed lines in California and Florida and upgrades to existing track in Illinois, North Carolina, Wisconsin, and elsewhere. Though the current commitment isn’t yet enough to produce service that will connect “80% of America,” it will significantly improve the performance of passenger trains in certain areas.

Will those improvements, however, come to the detriment of freight service? The Economist addressed that issue this week in a shock article that suggests that passenger rail is not directly compatible with cargo. The industry, already worried that the government is planning re-regulation (the railroads were deregulated in 1980), is convinced that its willingness to allow Amtrak on its tracks costs $240 million in lost fees each year, and it has already been subjected to a required $15 billion upgrade to install positive train control.

According to the article, by allowing more passenger trains on freight track, the efficiency of the freight system could be reduced, and that would lead to increasing costs for consumers. American freight transport costs on average about one-half of similar services in Japan and France and one-third of those in Italy. Each of those countries has far more effective passenger rail services than the U.S.

Indeed, there are some merits to the argument that an increasing intermixing of passenger and freight trains will lead to reduced effectiveness of the shipping industry, not to mention less-than-perfect reliability for passengers. The primary reason is that passenger and freight trains travel at different speeds on the same corridor.

As shown by the following image from the British government’s Command Paper for its High-Speed 2 program, allowing trains to run at different speeds on the same track could reduce capacity enormously. If you were to follow a 300 km/h train by a conventional train running at 200 km/h, you would eliminate the potential to run up to six trains at 300 km/h speeds — because they would run into the slower train otherwise. This situation worsens the longer the corridor.

In other words, in terms of capacity there are major advantages to running all of the trains on the same line at the same speed. (This chart provided one of the arguments for the UK’s decision to only allow true high-speed trains on its planned expansion.)

Freight trains are limited to slower speeds — around 50 mph — than even the relatively slow people-carrying trains the Obama Administration is promoting on some corridors, running at 79 and 110 mph. The private cargo companies that own the tracks to be used by these passenger trains are rightfully concerned that intermixing slower and faster vehicles will induce serious reductions in capacity. Is this result, likely meaning increasing freight transportation costs, worth the benefits of more passenger trains? Should the U.S. sacrifice its excellent freight transportation system for a mediocre passenger network?

Fortunately, the situation is not nearly as dire as the Economist suggests. For one, the vast majority of freight movements are through rural areas in the Western U.S., few of which are likely to see many passenger trains any time in the next century. Second, the true high-speed rail lines first planned for California and Florida will feature brand-new track, doing little to freight services. Third, with appropriate coordination between freight companies and the passenger services — such as promoting shipping during the night (done on New Jersey’s RiverLine corridor) — many problems could be avoided.

Nevertheless, there are some places where improved passenger rail service will make the running of freight trains increasingly difficult. This fact indicates that improved passenger services probably ought to run on their own tracks as much as possible, even if they’re only going 79 or 110 mph. Yet the federal government’s investments have been too minor thus far to make that possible in most cases. Strategic interventions, like passing sidings, could provide a half-way solution. If Washington continues to prioritize spending on passenger corridors, these are the cheap options.

If the public is committed to the funding of improved tracks along privately owned freight corridors, it has the right to demand that those companies allow passenger trains to run along them. From that perspective, the freight companies have little room to complain.

But the federal government does have a long-term interest in promoting investments that offer improvements in both freight and passenger offerings. Freight lines that run through the center of cities should be moved to new routes that detour, allowing passenger services to take over these access corridors much more essential for people than for cargo. Lines running both passenger and freight trains should be expanded to three or more tracks to allow multiple running speeds in both directions. Projects could theoretically be sponsored by public-private partnership, using both government and freight company funds directed to investments that benefit both.

The kind of coordination necessary to make such investments, however, is still generally lacking at the U.S. DOT. To appease the growing complaints of the freight rail companies, it may be necessary to find it.

Images above: (1) Freight train in Sydney, from Flickr user dicktay2000 (cc); (2) Comparison of train paths, from UK’s HS2 Command Paper

71 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Kyle

    This is one of the most important aspects, “Freight lines that run through the center of cities should be moved to new routes that detour, allowing passenger services to take over these access corridors much more essential for people than for cargo”.

    These lines used to run mainly passenger services and when these services were discontinued, rail companies that were no longer required to operate passenger services, either sold the tracks or operated increased freight rail. Freight operators should definitely start using abandoned right-of-ways or lines that see little use. The lines that run to the center of cities and towns that will be seeing new or additional passenger service should be mostly or solely for passenger services. That’s where passenger stations were located to begin with.

    It would be pretty ridiculous if we built a system where freight rail lines rain through city centers and passenger trains had stations on the outskirts of the city. That would be pretty ridiculous, and unfortunately I noticed this the other day when stopping in Albany/Rensselaer. My girlfriend and I wanted to walk to downtown Albany. The only way to get there was via taxi, which would have been $40 for the two of us, round trip. Of course we didn’t do that, and instead went to a park right near the station on the other side of the river. On the other side of the river, there was a freight train running through downtown, right by the old Albany station, which now sits abandoned (it used to house a bank). What we experienced in Albany is exactly what shouldn’t happen with passenger services.

    • Jack

      So they are going to stop serving the ports of Seattle and Tacoma as well as countless others in order to stay out of the centers of cities? Get real. Over 40% of US freight is moved on the railroads far more efficiently than they ever would on trucks. Any decrease in freight activity due to passenger rail would just lead to more trucks on the road and increased emissions.

      • Kyle

        Did you actually read my post? It’s keeping freights off center city lines that lead to city center stations, or having them only use those lines at specific hours. Of course we need things moved by freight, including freight going through cities. The main point is that passenger rail going through city center lines, serving city center stations should get priority, whereas freight should use other lines or city center lines at night. Freight traffic is extremely important, but passenger service through the city center is more important.

        The article didn’t say that we shouldn’t use freight rail anymore, it simply stated that the way things work now need to change.

        • Jack

          By restricting freight rail to night operations only in many of the major US cities, you cause a major reduction in capacity that could only be alleviated by further costly infrastructure improvements. Unless the federal government plans on paying for the improvements themselves, then there is no reason to expect railroads to pay for improvements that do not directly benefit them.

        • Chad

          Jack’s point is that in both Seattle and Tacoma the Ports and intermodal rail yards are within 1 mile of the central city passenger rail stations. Segratating freight rail outside of central cities may work in some metro areas, but Seattle is not one of them.

          In my mind triple-tracking with frequent crossovers, combined with advanced signalling systems, should allow trains of various speeds to co-exist in high numbers.

          • poncho

            regarding tacoma, you are sort of getting this with the point defiance bypass. an old deteriorated underutilized freight spur will be rehabbed and used by sounder and amtrak cascades and made into a thru-track. the old coastline route into tacoma will become pretty much freight only.

      • Nathanael

        The Ports of Seattle and Tacoma are not in the center of the cities — merely *near* the center. In Tacoma, freight is going to be separated from passenger with the Point Defiance Bypass and related works. In Seattle, freight traffic is going to be west of passenger traffic for much of the run south of Seattle; the real problem point is the north-south tunnel north of King Street Station, which really is the only possible route for both freight and passenger traffic.

        Seattle could sure use an intermodal yard near downtown, though….

        Anyway, Albany, NY is an example of How To Do It Wrong — bypass lines around Albany already exist and the yards are all on the bypass lines anyway. Though the old Albany passenger station was a stub-end and wouldn’t really work well nowadays, there should be an Albany passenger station on the mainline.

  • Nathanael

    There are plenty of routes — planned high-speed corridors, no less — with room for four tracks, two passenger / two freight.

    The problem is that the freight haulers are being intransigent about allowing the additional passenger tracks in the corridor. *Different tracks!* But no, they want the passenger tracks to be 30 feet away, behind a concrete wall, etc.

    This is the sort of paranoia which is creating trouble, and it is entirely the fault of the freight haulers. The fact is that passenger train planners know just as well as freight train planners that separate tracks are wanted. It’s when the freight companies start making those separate tracks difficult, that you get trouble.

    • Nathanael

      And crucially, it’s this sort of *bullshit* behavior by freight haulers which is going to get them re-regulated if they aren’t careful. They *have* to play nice with passenger trains if they want to retain deregulated freight rates. It’s part of the social contract.

      I think BNSF gets this; I think Norfolk Southern gets this. I’m not so sure about the others.

      • NCarlson

        I would say that for the most part CN and CSX (albeit grudgingly) get it as well. CP is not nearly as bad as UP either, although they do seem to put up barriers when they can get away with it. Ultimately I would say that the real problem is not the freight industry, which for the most part understands that passenger rail will happen and has every right to try and protect it’s traffic in the process, but Union Pacific, which seems to have decided that passengers are, in fact, an outright enemy of their business. In fact, I would argue that UP has a longstanding corporate tradition of treating anyone from outside the company as an enemy…

        • Nathanael

          UP is the one who wants concrete walls *and* 30-foot distances.

          CSX “just” wants 30-foot distances. Which is also unreasonable. (15-foot is reasonable.) So I would say CSX doesn’t quite get it, although they’re a lot better than UP.

          CN does seem to have been behaving pretty well.

          I really don’t know about CP; it has a practically passenger-free network apart from a few miles in Vancouver, a few in Toronto, and the Montreal-Albany route. So I simply haven’t heard much about their interactions. I will assume they’re behaving well. :-)

      • Cameron Slick

        If BNSF gets this, they know how to exploit it to the greatest degree possible. They are the worst assholes to deal with in the business, just ask any commuter rail transit operator in the country. In Minneapolis, where we have terrible leadership at the Metropolitan Council, got a terrible deal out of BNSF.

        “$107.5 million of the $317 million total went to paying BNSF for a perpetual easement for track rights and facilities along the line, and to pay the BNSF employees that operate the trains.”

        • BNSF is expensive, but unlike UP, it doesn’t insist on concrete barriers and wide track separation.

        • Nathanael

          Well, exactly. UP tries to fight it. BNSF doesn’t try to fight it…. it asks for the MOOLAH.

          I didn’t say they were saints. I think they know exactly how to make money off passenger rail *while* having it implemented. It’s not only better for the public than UP’s “passenger rail has cooties” attitude, cooperation is also more PROFITABLE for BNSF.

  • Cincinnatian

    ^ yet this is exactly what is happening in Cincinnati as the current proposal for the 3C rail corridor. Mainly because there is a freight yard just north of one of the most jaw dropping Art Deco train stations in the world. Which is only used by one Amtrak train ever other day in the middle of the night. Abandoned air fields at the edge of cities are custom made to become new freight yards. Comprehensive rail planning should be part of every city’s master plans, but freight lines are often not consulted until the implementation stage of a commuter line.

    • Freight rail traffic through Cincinnati, of course, is normally passing northbound or southbound over a bridge. The same as many passenger services in the early 1900′s, when the Union station was built to bring together what was previously three separate downtown Cincinnati stations.

      With some of the passenger infrastructure abandoned since then, and of course with a growth in freight carried by rail since then, that’s become a bottleneck. Its a bottleneck that has to be opened if there is to be through service from Cincinnati to and from points south … but its not clear that opening up that bottleneck is as important for a route terminating in Cincinnati as being in a location better suited for multimodal transfers.

      For the most part, though, the proposed dedicated passenger track in corridors with higher frequency freight and 10mile:50mile passing sidings in corridors with lighter frequency freight movements seems to be an approach that the corridor owners are reasonably comfortable with, unlike the Express HSR alignments in California where Union Pacific is strenuously objecting.

  • Adirondacker12800

    Freight trains are limited to slower speeds — around 50 mph

    Except when they don’t. Freight runs at speeds of up to 90 right now in the US. It’s not unusual for main line speeds to be 60 or 70. Depends on track condition and signals.

    • NCarlson

      And, significantly, PTC is only going to make this more common. As much as the freight companies have little enthusiasm for the project, I don’t see them not taking advantage of it once in place.

      • Indeed, the common reduction of mainline speed limits to 79mph in the 50′s was a result of the FRA rule that all rail corridors with service 80mph+ required PTC. With the mainline corridors with legacy passenger service obligations requiring PTC in any event, this artificial speed limit is likely to be raised on some lines in any event.

        The Ohio Hub plan calls for the track serving 110mph passenger tilt trains to be 60mph track, which is comfortable operating speed for mainline freight rail in the majority of our terrain … the southeastern part of the state where this would not be as viable is not slated to have any Ohio Hub corridors in any event.

        • Nathanael

          The trains which will take immediate advantage of this are the containerized intermodal trains, where faster deliveries net more profit. These are carrying vast amounts of UPS, FedEx, Roadway, Yellow Lines, etc. traffic, as well as stuff transloaded from ships. Some are even carrying refrigerated containers. Juice trains and the like will also take advantage.

          Coal trains, well, hey, we’re gonna stop burning coal soon to save ourselves from global warming anyway, right? Non-coal bulk trains and coal-for-steel are a fairly minor fraction of freight traffic, and some of those are time-senstive grain.

          The trend in railroading is towards more time-sensitive cargo, so the freight haulers are definitely going to take advantage of higher-than-79 speeds on their transcontinental mainlines, if they have to implement PTC anyway (which they do).

    • Thank you, Adirondacker! I was wondering what it was about freight trains that limited them to slower speeds. It turns out there’s nothing.

      You could argue that it’s a waste to run a train at 110mph if the goods don’t need to get to their destination for days. But is it more of a waste than preventing six high-speed passenger trains from running?

      • Cost is a limit. Even intermodal, electric freight trains don’t run at 110 mph in Europe, unless they’re forced to in order to keep up with passenger trains (or unless they’re TGV La Poste, whose technical specs are the same as those of a passenger train.)

        For diesel-powered freight trains, fuel is a major cost, so the speed profile is constructed to maximize energy efficiency. This turns out to mean going at constant speed throughout the trip. On flat, straight lines, this constant speed can be fairly high – potentially higher than 79 mph – but as soon as you introduce curves and mountains into the picture, the optimal speed drops dramatically. On the Southern Transcon, BNSF’s trains don’t go at 90 mph even though the ATS system permits it.

  • jim

    What the stringline diagram shows is not that half a dozen fast trains need to be canceled, but that there need to be passing sidings every 40 km that the slower train can be diverted into so that the faster train can overtake it.

    It is much cheaper to build a single set of tracks that are used by both freight and passenger trains than to build a separate set of tracks for freight and a separate set of tracks for passenger (and maybe separate sets of tracks for commuter and intercity?). It does not require that much analysis to create the necessary opportunities for trains to meet or overtake without interfering with one another as long as everyone adheres to a common timetable.

    There are other reasons for segregating freight and passenger trains. Freight trains are much heavier and wreck rail tolerances, for example. But the speed differences — at least between unit freights at 50 mph MAS, intermodal freights at 60 mph MAS, conventional/commuter passenger at 79 mph MAS and/or emerging HSR at 90-110 mph MAS — can be accommodated.

    • Passing sidings work for passenger trains that are capable of running on a schedule, but not for freight trains, at least not in the American version. American freight trains have a timetable that says when they need to leave a railyard and when they need to show up at their destination, but have free rein in between. BNSF is somewhat more schedule-strict than the rest and UP somewhat less, which partly explains their different attitudes toward passenger rail. In the UP business model, running on a schedule is just an extra cost and an extra headache, so the company sees no reason to change its business practices to be more passenger rail-friendly.

      • Fortunately those are not the only two freight railroads in the US.

        • EngineerScotty

          For those of us in Oregon, they are the only two long-haul railroads, unfortunately.

          And the most important corridor in the state–between Portland and Eugene–is UPRR.

          (And one reason the Milwaukie MAX line is so expensive is the need to buy lots of ROW from–you guessed it–UPRR….)

      • Nathanael

        The UP business model is a long-term loser. CN went to an all-scheduled railroad several years back and is eating the lunch of its competitors on the high-margin intermodal traffic.

        NS, CSX, CP, and BNSF haven’t gone all-scheduled, but they’ve taken note of CN’s success and have been moving in a much more scheduled direction.

    • SpyOne

      “as long as everyone adheres to a common timetable”
      And there’s the rub.
      My youth of 19th century fiction and model railroad magazines left me with a belief that railroads run with a very strict timetable: train A will pass onto siding 7 at 2:34pm so that train B can pass at 2:40pm, and this will happen every Thursday.

      However, in several shows I’ve seen discussing rail safety (including one from A&E Investigative Reports I found on YouTube), they talk about a complaint from the Engineer’s unions that they do not work a fixed schedule: they are placed “on call” for a couple of days, and are called in to work whenever a train is ready.
      Bob the Engineer doesn’t drive a train load of coal that leaves every Wednesday at 6am, he drives a train load of coal that leaves sometime on Wednesday, or maybe Thursday.

      How on earth are you supposed to schedule passenger trains around that? “At some point on Wednesday, one of the northbound trains on this line will have to pull onto a siding to let a freight train go by. Maybe Thursday.”

      Add to that the freight railroads insisting that their trains get priority since the tracks belong to them, and it’s no wonder folks joke about Amtrak’s schedule like it was pure fiction.

  • Woody

    “Real” HSR lines can’t handle freight, as I understand it, because those heavy trains mess up the relatively delicate tracks of the really fast passenger trains. So ultimately, we’ll end up with passenger-only HSR routes between the big cities, as in Europe and Asia.

    But not any time soon. Congress can’t seem to commit to the $10 or $20 or $30 or $40 billion to bring the NEC up to state of good repair and make modest improvements in speed and capacity. Nobody dares talk about another $20 or $30 billion from the feds to get California HSR built, but without that kind of money from Congress — well, it ain’t coming from Sacramento.

    Meanwhile there’s a LOT of meanwhile. A pathetic few billions to Obamaspeed rail will bring us a handful of faster routes where Amtrak will be sharing tracks with freights. Only a handful. St Louis-Chicago will be the demonstration project for the Midwestern High(er) Speed Rail and 110-mph top speeds. Fearless forecast: Cut trip time from 5 hours to 4, triple the ridership, proclaim success and begin work on a true HSR route. It will be 220 mph and electric, because 110-mph diesel on shared ROW just isn’t good enough for the trunk routes.

    The other big grants:
    Milwaukee-Madison won’t share much or any of the state-owned tracks with freight, iirc. Whether they really want to proceed to St Paul on shared tracks, well, see the St Louis demonstration, above.
    The funds for Chicago-Detroit are going mostly to one of the CREATE projects that will untangle a mess of freight and passenger routes, and that’s all good. But nobody is talking about what to go going east from Kalamazoo. Not long ago there was talk of NS (or CSX?) spinning this stretch off as a short-line, but that seems to have fizzled out. Now it’s a purgatory line, with too little freight to make money, too much freight to give a clear shot to high speed passenger rail.
    North Carolina will double-track a long stretch and make other upgrades between Charlotte and Raleigh, with modest aspirations to reach an average speed comparable to the Acelas. I’m not sure how much freight will be running on the state-owned segment in NC. The as-yet-unfunded segment from Richmond to Raleigh has potential to become at true passenger-only HSR corridor. But for that to happen, we’ll need a multi-billion dollar solution to D.C.-Richmond, which needs to be freight-free and electrified to carry near-NEC passenger frequencies.
    The Cascades investment will improve reliability and add frequency, but it will not actually speed up the trains, not yet, another billion or more needed there. We’ll see if another billion of incremental improvements is the way to go, after we see St Louis.
    The 3Cs is only the first step of the Ohio Hub, which like the Midwest Initiative was planned quite some years ago, and the first priority of these plans was ‘Do It Cheap.’ Not sure cheap is gonna be good enough if we really want to get millions of new passengers on HSR. Instead of another round of incremental improvements, we may leap to connect Cleveland and Columbus at 220 mph on dedicated track.

    Again I’m coming to the conclusion that Obama, LaHood, & Team have managed this pretty well. America isn’t ready to spend tens of billions of dollars on HSR just yet. So meanwhile we’ll get higher speed rail in several flavors and at several different price points. If it works out, the public will demand More! and Faster!, and by the time there gets to be a clamor, it will be much more clear what will works and what does not work.

    • Nathanael

      Hate to say this: Chicago-St. Louis will be a miserable failure. They’ve contracted with UP. They did so once before, and UP utterly failed to build a working signalling system; they threw it all out, money entirely wasted. They aren’t even taking the right route; Midwest HSR advocates have pointed out that taking the Illinois Central / CN right-of-way through Carbondale before cutting west would allow trains to go faster, more cheaply, than the river-following route.

      Madison will be a success and the CREATE projects will be a success, as you suspect.

      NS will probably end up selling the line east of Kalamazoo to the state of Michigan. Yes, even though Michigan is on the verge of bankruptcy.

      North Carolina started with one of the slowest passenger tracks in the country (comparable to the Vermont trackage) and the current projects may finally get it up to respectable speeds where ridership will start growing organically.

      The Cascades investment will technically speed up the trains, because of the Point Defiance Bypass (6 minutes savings). Incremental improvements will continue in the Seattle-Tacoma and Portland metro areas, because who’s going to build a new passenger line downtown? Then the vague, aspirational plan is for separate passenger tracks from south of Tacoma to north of Vancouver, WA (north of Portland).

      DC-Richmond is a mess of problems. The first is the section through L’Enfant Plaza; this leads to both Union Station and the main freight tunnel for CSX, and it will remain mixed traffic. It’s being fully three-tracked; I believe four tracks won’t fit, unfortunately. The second is the bridge over the Potomac. There’s a multi-billion dollar investment right there. The third is the Alexandria-Richmond ‘RF&P mainline’, where third and eventual fourth tracks are planned, but it’s taking a long time and goving very incrementally. The fourth is the reroute of passenger traffic to return it all to Richmond Main Street Station, which has been in planning hell for a very long time despite being essentially fully designed. (It’s expensive).

      Somehow, however, I suspect that the Virginia route will get a lot of money due to its proximity to DC and desire to ‘give something to the South(east)’.

  • There are multiple combined passenger/freight rail projects, benefiting both sides. The biggest one in the US would be creating grade-separated paths out of Chicago, which would dramatically speed up both freight and passenger operations serving the city. However, freight rail is perceived as unsexy, so most of the reformist ideas of how to improve US infrastructure ignore it.

  • Cameron Slick

    There is a big effort in Rochester, MN to get the Chicago-Twin Cities corridor routed through it. Of the three alternatives (Red Wing, Eau Claire, Rochester), it is the most expensive and longest, mostly due to rebuilding 50-year abandoned track from Rochester to South St. Paul.

    While the Mayo Clinic is a huge international draw, the real motivation for Rochester is to justify having passenger trains through town and get DM&E coal trains routed through the countryside. (http://www.semnrail.org/faq_src.html#whatisSRC). They don’t say this outright on the site, and it’s not a cynical observation. But Rochester has virtually no grade-separation in town and hates the freight trains. By building a bypass corridor, it will free up capacity through this medium-sized city and will allow inner-city industry to real freight access.

    • Nathanael

      I have to say I personally like the Rochester route as it would give a stop near Northfield, where I went to college. Nothing else is proposed to do so currently.

  • truth teller

    A transportation company, such as UPS, should buy the Maglev-2 patents (Gordon & Danby – inventors of EDS Maglev currently deployed in Japan), prove the tech for about $650 million, and appreciate a substantial return on their investment by cornering he high speed freight rail market (upwards of 300mph speeds).

    Why does the nearly all discourse on the future of US rail completely ignore the most substantive issue of our time: security?

    While it is not glamorous for passenger rail to run in tunnels (whether above, below, or half above or below ground level), there is good reason to remove any potential for passenger rail infrastructure to be security-compromised.

    It’s fair to say that freight lines are equally vulnerable to security threats.

  • I presume the higher cost mentioned in the article is per ton/container per mile. I could think of a couple of factors that make shipping more expensive in Europe besides the relatively decent passenger rail affecting freight.

    For one, diesel is much more expensive there. Also, cost of freight shipping per train is related to the traveled distance: The longer the route, the cheaper it becomes per km. Europe is clearly disadvantaged in that regard. A third aspect is different market over there — shipping by truck is more expensive, and the freight train markets are basically run by monopolies, possibly driving up prices.

    • A fourth factor is the much greater coverage of main freight routes by river and canal traffic for heavy bulk freight, so that the rail freight in Europe tends to be more specialized in higher margin business.

    • Cameron Slick

      Do European nations charge an excise tax on diesel, or any fuel, not used on highways? In the United States, railroads, farmers, and airlines are exempt for these excise taxes.

      If the case is like in the United States, freight trains would have comparable fuel prices.

      • Yes. European fuel taxes apply to everything. However, diesel is taxed at a lower rate (but still much higher than in the US), in order to give drivers an incentive to use it instead of gasoline.

  • Max Wyss

    A few comments:

    The diagram shows one view of the situation. You could also say that one high-speed train uses the time slots of 7 regular speed trains… This is actually one of the highly political aspects in calculating access fees in Europe. There is always one (average) speed which is the “base” of the calculations, and anything faster AND slower will reduce capacity. However, this aspect gets only serious when the line is at its capacity limit. Also, high-speed trains are considered to be big moneymaker, therefore the “base” slot is not optimized for the high-speed train (well, of course, it is on a HSR ). Also, observations in Switzerland showed that a local passenger train and a freight train may actually end up requiring an equal slot; the passenger train’s maximum speed is higher, but the stops will get the average down. Actually, on the Rhaetian Railways, the then new commuter train sets were able to operate in the same time slots as the express trains (thanks to high accelleration and a slightly higher top speed). And, in general, same use of the tracks by passenger and freight works well in Switzerland and other European countries.

    One thing, the USAn freight railroads will have to learn in a mixed operation environment: there are schedules, to which they have to adhere, and even their freight trains have to run after a schedule. However, things are made way more difficult, as the majority of the lines are owned by the freight railroads themselves, and any “guest” is more or less accepted. There is a need for according legislation, ensuring non-discriminating access.

    Another thing the USAn freight railroads will have to learn is that it is more suitable to run shorter, but faster freight trains (let’s assume that by law, the “standard” slot is set for a passenger train, which means that a slow freight train will actually have to pay higher access fees than a faster one).

    One consequence of the freight railroads following schedules is inherently positive: it is possible to do proper staff planning, which means that staff can be scheduled, and the workers are also able to schedule their working time (what a concept ).

  • Allen

    “For one, the vast majority of freight movements are through rural areas in the Western U.S.”

    Source????

    “Third, with appropriate coordination between freight companies and the passenger services — such as promoting shipping during the night (done on New Jersey’s RiverLine corridor) — many problems could be avoided.”

    This would only work with short lines with a no more than couple freight trains per day. And at that it does’t acknowledge the affects of this timing (even slower calendar time for freight movement increasing chances of losing freight to trucks, missed connections, crew scheduling, etc)

    “The problem is that the freight haulers are being intransigent about allowing the additional passenger tracks in the corridor. *Different tracks!* But no, they want the passenger tracks to be 30 feet away, behind a concrete wall, etc.

    This is the sort of paranoia which is creating trouble,”

    Paranoia? Freight derailments are very, very real. For example, on Denver’s RTD’s SE LRT line a BNSF coal train deraied @ 2 years ago shutting the line down. Had the timing of the incident been different, a lot of people would’ve been injured or even killed.

    “While the Mayo Clinic is a huge international draw, the real motivation for Rochester is to justify having passenger trains through town and get DM&E coal trains routed through the countryside”

    The DME does’t run coal trains on the line. They’ve had a proposal to extend into the Power River Basin for decades but it hasn’t happened and it’s not clear that new owner’s Canadian Pacific are going to pursue the matter. Even if they do it’ll be very difficult to get STB approval and raise capital.

    • Derailments happen to railroads that let them happen. Part of the low-cost business model of UP et al is skimping on maintenance, and relying on passive safety instead: FRA regulations, wide train separation, publicly-built crash barriers to protect from lawsuits. From the point of view of passenger rail, 10,000-ton trains and 2,000-ton trains are equally deadly, and yet Europe and Japan’s 2,000-ton trains haven’t led to massive accidents in recent years even without concrete barriers.

      • allen

        “Derailments happen to railroads that let them happen. Part of the low-cost business model of UP et al is skimping on maintenance,”

        To imply that all derailments are 100% preventable is preposterous.

        • simple

          That’s not the implication at all. The point is that it is in fact possible to maintain and operate a freight railway in a manner that reduces the risk of derailment to a level that would ensure (probablisticly speaking) safe operation of adjacent passenger/transit trains, thereby allowing shared corridors with reasonably close track centers (i.e. 15-20′). But that sort of attention to operations and maintenance would cost the freight RR’s money that they’re unwilling to spend, so they effectively prohibit sharing corridors instead — which passes the cost back to the public. The public in turn needs to create a new or widened corridor rather than leveraging the under-utilized historic (often 100′ wide) corridors that were granted to the RR’s by the public in the first place many years ago!

          • Allen

            It’s possible to reduce the risk of derailment to the point where corridors can be shared? Really? If so, please cite a source that shows what level of risk that is.

            The land grants that were given were for different reasons. More so, not all railroad lines are the result of land grants.

          • Allen, lightweight passenger trains routinely share tracks with freight trains in Europe and Asia. It’s routine in Japan for freight trains to host multiple passenger trains per hour, for example on the Musashino Line. The level of risk is effectively zero: in recent years passenger train accidents have occurred due to drivers speeding to maintain on-time performance, but not due to collisions with derailed freight trains.

          • Nathanael

            Duh, of course it’s possible to reduce the risk of derailment to the point where corridors can be shared. It’s done worldwide in countries with modern signalling and proper track maintenance.

            Furthermore, there are derailments and then there are derailments. “Minor derailments” where cars leave the track are not completely preventable. “Major derailments” where the trains actually fall over appear to be, effectively, completely preventable. They simply don’t happen in most of Europe or Japan.

            15 feet of separation is plenty for a train which slipped its track. You only need more if you expect your train to fall over completely on its side.

    • Cameron Slick

      I talk to Canadian Pacific employees on a regular basis and they are likely to fund the Powder River Basin expansion soon. Currently, an average of four trains/day run through Rochester (http://www.dot.state.mn.us/ofrw/maps/MNRailVolSpeed.pdf)

      • Allen

        So the CP has $6 – 8 billion in financing lined up for their Power River Basin expansion plan? Have they secured the land to build the 275+ miles of new rail line that would be part of the project? Have they filed anything with the STB? More importantly, have they secured access to the Orin cutoff? Otherwise how are they going to compete with the UP and BNSF, both of which could carry the coal to Chicago and already have arrangements with other roads set up for carrying those unit trains.

        I’m not saying CP isn’t about to do it. Maybe they are. But employees talk about a lot of things. It doesn’t mean they’re going to happen.

        That said, thank for the inside scoop. That the rumors are still positive in that direction means it’s likely that management is still looking for ways to pull off the move.

        One other thing, do you happen to know if CP/DME has access to the Orin Cutoff? Are they counting on gaining it? From my reading on it, I haven’t been able to figure out exactly how they’re hoping to serve the PRB.

    • SpyOne

      “The problem is that the freight haulers are being intransigent about allowing the additional passenger tracks in the corridor. *Different tracks!* But no, they want the passenger tracks to be 30 feet away, behind a concrete wall, etc.

      This is the sort of paranoia which is creating trouble,”

      Paranoia? Freight derailments are very, very real. For example, on Denver’s RTD’s SE LRT line a BNSF coal train deraied @ 2 years ago shutting the line down. Had the timing of the incident been different, a lot of people would’ve been injured or even killed.”

      Then it would be a very reasonable thing to insist upon if you were the passenger line.

      Since it is the freight lines insisting on it, there can be only two reasons 9I can think of anyway)
      1) they are afraid of passenger derailments interfering with their freight right-of-way
      2) they are afraid of a fatal freight derailment being proven to be preventable and their fault, putting them on the hook for all the damages resulting, including the people killed when a passenger train hit the derailed train.

      Both are valid concerns. To the first, I say this: Many of those lines were actually given to you by the government. Many more were bought by you at a significant discount, again courtesy of the government. The rail infrastructure is vital to national security and the public good, and it is frankly bizarre that it has been allowed to remain in private hands.
      I have nothing wrong with competition: if someone wants to build a spur or something and make a go of it as a private toll rail line, he’s welcome to do so, just as certain toll roads are not actually owned by the government. But the majority of the roads ARE owned by the government.
      I am not suggesting that we take the rails away, but I AM suggesting that if you can’t learn to share your toys, mommy and daddy will take them away, especially if they weren’t really YOURS to begin with, but loaned to you by mommy and daddy.

      To the second, I say suck it up: you guys have a terrible record on maintenance to begin with. Welcome to the real world: unless you can show that you did everything reasonably required to prevent an accident, you could be on the hook for hundreds of millions of dollars. How do you think your stockholders will feel about the CEO when they see the pictures of the people he let die to get them an extra ten cents a share?
      I don’t see this as a bad thing, as it only ensures that you will behave better.

      Sorry, got a bit ranty.

  • Ocean Railroader

    The Great Four track wide Broadway Pennsyvinia Rail main line from Philli to Pittsburg was made in into a great four track main line for high speed passanger trains and the others with penty of room for them both but they cut out the other two tracks and turned it back into a double track. If they restored the other two sets of tracks they could raise passanger rail speeds and not have to buy any new right of way.

    I saw site plans for the new high speed rail from Richmond VA to North Carolina and what they want to do is turn the double track sections into triple track and the single track inot double track. Along with that they want to open up and flaten out the abandoned S line that was ripped up in the 1970′s. To make it even better they want to rememove every singel railroad crossing on it.

    • Nathanael

      Same with the New York Central main line (four tracks, wide separation between them). Except CSX wants unreasonbly wide track spacing. So that they can knock their freight trains on their sides without bumping into passenger trains, I guess; CSX has an appalling record on maintenance in New York, and was under investigation a couple of years ago.

  • Tom Marney

    I’ll be cursed and reviled for saying this, but I think that motor coaches with direct point-to-point service would be a better alternative than passenger rail in many of the corridors under discussion. Really, for most mixed freight/passenger corridors, 110mph top speeds are needed just to raise average speeds to 70mph because of station dwell times. Direct motor coach services would circumvent that problem.

    • Tom, you’re underestimating the capability of modern trains to accelerate and decelerate quickly. When the curves are properly superelevated, and the trains are modern and lightweight, express trains can average much higher than 70 mph when the top speed is 110. The Tel Aviv-Haifa 100 mph express trains average 75, even though they’re hauled by a diesel locomotive, which limits acceleration. An EMU could do much better.

    • NCarlson

      You’ve also go to remember that a big part of HSR in the US at this point is to bypass congestion on the highways. Sure, you can say build bus lanes, but A) the record of such systems in North America is that drivers see empty lanes (as they would largely appear with intercity frequencies) and get them opened up for general traffic and B) we are at the point that as expensive as HSR is (in any form discussed) the level of highway expansion to get things moving reasonably well in a lot of the corridors is considerably more expensive.

      You’ve also got a real perception problem, that combined with the issues above make the idea of buses competing successfully with air traffic in North America unlikely without major economic changes. In any case, you should take a look at the bus schedules in these corridors. For the most part the service is actually pretty good, and often has real competition. The reality is that the North American intercity bus industry is reasonably healthy and growing, but people just are not accepting it as a real alternative to flying in the way Acela has proven they do with rail.

      • FG

        If Amtrak was as quick and as cheap as Megabus in the Midwest it would be great. But congestion on interstates in the Midwest isn’t too bad for the most part, so speeds are high for bus companies.

        • Nathanael

          Congestion on Interstates is not bad in *some* parts of the Midwest. In Chicago, it’s terrible. And what do you know, Chicago gets a lot of train passengers.

  • Matt Roberts

    Also something to remember is that any purpose built passenger train for use on existing trackage needs to be built much heavier than one built for a separated right of way. I recall reading a French designer riding an Acella and saying it was a tank (or a brick) compared to a TGV or nearly any other purpose dedicated train. This is as a need for protection of teh cars in both rail collisions as well as level crossings that are found in America and still even in the NEC

    • Matt, you’re just stating the FRA buff strength regulations. In countries other than the US and Canada, lightweight passenger trains safely run on shared track with level crossings.

      Caltrain investigated the safety benefits of the North American requirement for high buff strength, and found that except in a very narrow and unlikely set of circumstances, FRA-compliant trains do not fare any better than noncompliant trains in crashes with freight trains. On the contrary, lightweight trains are much less likely to topple, which makes them on the whole safer.

      In either case, there’s a good chance the FRA regulations will go away in five years. The FRA is requiring all shared freight/passenger tracks to be equipped with positive train control, which means a computer will take over from the driver and stop the train before it can collide with another train. It’s already made statements in the past saying that the buff strength requirements do not apply to lines with PTC. Even Amtrak expects the next-generation Acelas to be much lighter.

      • NCarlson

        We also seem to have a much easier time of things in Canada. While we do have largely FRA equivalent requirements, Transport Canada has generally been more willing to grant exemptions in a flexible way. While O-Train has shown that they can be difficult, the former Nightstar equipment is running daily throughout the Quebec Windsor corridor, and out to Halifax, in mixed traffic and at speeds comparable to Acela in a few areas (ok, very few, but they do hit high speeds).

        • The equipment on the Quebec-Windsor corridor is still supremely heavy. Some Canadian cities have admirable urban rail programs, but anything that runs on mainline track has to be heavy. The LRCs weigh about 110 tons each.

          • NCarlson

            The LRC’s are pretty much the same as the Acela stock. I was referring to the Renaissance stock (used in the corridor and on the Ocean) which was built for the never started Chunnel sleeper services. I believe that there was some strengthening done, but the units are still basically European, and have been running successfully on a North American mainline for something around ten years. The point of all this is just that yes, it is possible to do this safely, and that Transport Canada has proven somewhat more open to waivers than the FRA (I only mention O-Train to be clear that more open is not the same thing as an actual abandonment on heavy buff strength requirements).

    • Nathanael

      The FRA’s “dead weight” rules need to be changed. A study done by Caltrain showed that modern lightweight equipment with crumple zones was *safer* in crashes than FRA-complaint equipment.

      Apparently the FRA is actually listening and may revise its rules. Some day.

  • poncho

    whats to say the private freight railroads arent going to want to get back into the passenger rail business in the future assuming peak oil makes passenger rail profitable again?

  • allen

    “The level of risk is effectively zero” – Alon Levy

    Is their a source for that? Has some organization empirically measured the level of risk? If so, what countries did they use for “Europe”? Albania? Moldova? Bulgaria? Hungary? Portugal? Or was it the usual “Europe” that really means the rich western and northern European countries?

    And what exactly is the point of comparing to Europe? Did they measure risk on lines that were carrying 30 – 60 freight trains a day? Did that empirical measurement of risk take into account 105 car coal unit trains? How about 142 car coal unit trains? How about ethanol trains that, if a derailment occurs, necessitate evacuation?

    I’m asking because yes, technically derailments are preventable. In theory they could all be prevented. And over the last 30+ years, the number of them in the US has been reduced from about 6,500 per year to about 1,750 in a year. But around a 1/4 of those were due to human error. How do we ensure that that human error never happens? As for the other 3/4, how many of those are really preventable? What is the marginal change we’ll see by installing 20% more hot box detectors or doubling the number of rail inspection vehicles?

    ““Major derailments” where the trains actually fall over appear to be, effectively, completely preventable. They simply don’t happen in most of Europe or Japan.”- Nathaniel

    Do you have a source for this claim? Are you saying that someone’s sabatoged wikipedia with the image of derailed locomotive in Austria ?

    http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/b/b1/Off_the_Rails_%281%29.jpg/800px-Off_the_Rails_%281%29.jpg

    Did the Hatfield disaster not happen in England and those people not die? The same with Grayrigg, so it did not happen? Did people not die in Oslo this spring with a freight train derailed? Did 100+ people not die in a passenger derailment in Osaka @ 6 years ago? Around the time the tech bubble was big but not looking like popping yet didn’t both Germany and England experience huge derailments where 100+ people died in each accident?

    And is Greece not part of Europe?

    http://www.safetynews.co.uk/March%202008.htm
    Greece
    Intercity derails near Larissa
    An Athens – Salonica Intercity train with 174 passengers derailed near Larissa early on Saturday, 28 people, including 3 children, were injured, later in the day 5 were still hospitalised although none is in life-threatening condition. OSE (Helenic Railways Organisation) has speculated that human error or points failure may have caused the accident 225 miles north of Athens. 9th March 2008

    So really, they don’t have accidents in Europe anymore? So people didn’t die in the explosion let alone this gas train never derailed and exploded? Is that what you’re saying?

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/worldnews/article-1196457/Massive-blast-kills-13-people-derailed-gas-train-explodes-demolishing-trackside-houses.html

    How about instead of making silly claims like “there is no risk” or “they don’t have dem dare deeerailments over in Your-Up” we take the time to find a source that will lay out what the assessed risks are or talk about number of derailments or other accidents per year? Would it be too much to ask to talk about facts instead of fiction????

    • First, the US has several times the per-passenger-km fatality rate as other major developed countries. In the last ten years, the US has had one death in about 7 million passenger-km, and France and Germany one in 50 million. In Japan the JRs have had about one in 25 million among them. In Italy I don’t think there have been fatal accidents at all.

      Second, many of the train accidents you’re talking about have nothing to do with freight trains. The Amagasaki accident did not involve a freight train; it involved a passenger train driver who exceeded the speed limit, something that automatic train control would’ve prevented if the line had had it. And the Eschede disaster was not about a freight train, either: the passenger train had a faulty part that failed at high speed, and crashed into a bridge. Neither would have been fixed by the concrete barriers CSX and UP are demanding.

      And third, the US isn’t special just because its trains are longer. From the perspective of a passenger train, colliding with a 10,000-ton freight train and colliding with a 2,000-ton freight train are equally deadly. And while Western Europe and Japan do not have the same freight traffic as the US, they have more passenger trains to collide with derailed freight trains. Even though JR Freight runs trains on lines with a passenger train once every 9 minutes, it manages to avoid freight-on-passenger accidents.

      • Nathanael

        And the famous UK crashes *also* had nothing to do with freight trains… but they *were* due to *poor track maintenance*.

    • John W

      @allen – Around the time the tech bubble was big but not looking like popping yet didn’t both Germany and England experience huge derailments where 100+ people died in each accident?

      That’d be no, not both. Not sure which crash in the UK you could be referring to with 100+ deaths. There’s not been one that big for more than half a century (list of UK rail accidents by death toll).

      And for balance, as I grow so tired of sensationalised reporting of rail deaths in the media with them almost never putting it into the context of the daily carnage on our roads, and don’t want to repeat that behaviour, here’s a corresponding list of serious road accidents.

  • cellisis

    Ohio is planning a conventional train rail linking Cleveland, Columbus to Cincinnati first and make it high speed much later, which totally makes no sense to me. It’s simply wasting more money with such 2-tier plan. It would be more efficient of using money to build a high speed rail to being with.

  • John

    Allen, you seem awfully sure that running passenger lines next to freight lines is too risky. Have you ever ridden a CTA train in Chicago? The CTA runs lightweight subway style trains on corridors arms length away from busy freight corridors, including the UP main line with 100 car freights. I have lived here 52 years and never recall a single fatality due to a freight derailment hitting a CTA train. Next time you fly into Chicago, try the orange line from Midway airport and you will see what I mean, running alongside the former IC/GMO main or a green line train out to Oak Park along the UP main. Real live operations is a as good of a source as anything in my eyes. Safe shared corridors are being done right here in the RR capital of the good old USA.
    If you are still skeptical, check Google Earth maps and you will see how close these tracks really are.

  • Allen

    @John, I am merely trying to point out accidents and problems in response to those who claim they don’t happen in Europe, etc, etc. I’m not speaking to the exact claim the freight railroads are making other than it’s understandable.

    I’m merelyh trying to point out the risk is there, that those accidents do happen. I don’t mean to speak to their likelihood. Unfortauntely some are obsessed with delving further and further into trite little points in order to avoid facing up to the absurdity of some of their claims that it becomes toiught to figure out what the point of it all is.

    Accidents happen and the freight railroads know that it’s one thing to have to spend $200k to clean up some spilled grain and quite another to be dealing with having dead bodies to clean up.n It may not be a huge risk but for them, why would they want to take it in the first place? They stand to gain nearly nothing yet risk losing a lot if something were to go wrong.

    • The accidents that freight railroads are afraid of haven’t happened in Japan in decades, and happen in Europe extremely rarely with few deaths. The serious incidents involve passenger trains derailing all on their own, and none of the FRA apologists’ ideas about how to improve safety would have prevented them. When a bridge falls on a train, or when a train runs into an apartment building, FRA compliance and 40-foot track separations are entirely irrelevant. Japan and Europe not only are safer than the US, but are perfectly safe from an objective point of view when it comes to the issues Americans are worried about.

      In contrast, the problems coming from excessive FRA meddling – derailing-prone trains, steam-era train control, locomotives so heavy they demolish the cars behind them, trains that emphasize buff strength over crumple zones – have all led to large number of accident fatalities. Amagasaki and Eschede would have been equally deadly with US trains; Chatsworth would not have happened with Japanese trains.

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