» Freight companies rejoice now that they won’t have to pay for passenger train delays.
It was inevitable: Distraught by the possibility of having to increasingly open up their tracks to passenger trains, the freight railroad companies have staged an open rebellion against a proposed U.S. policy that would have penalized them if they caused delays.
The rule, which was proposed in May by the Federal Railroad Administration, would have enforced “stakeholder agreements” that went along with funding for new or improved intercity rail routes advanced by state governments. In exchange for a public investment in track, signaling, and the like, freight rail companies would be required to ensure that passenger trains aren’t delayed by oncoming traffic or slowed-down cargo trains.
In the Omaha World-Herald earlier this week, reporter Joe Ruff described some of the opposition to these rules. D.J. Mitchell of BNSF railways, suggested that the situation was stacked against the freight companies since their existing lines simply are not built for trains running at speeds higher than 90 mph whereas the Obama Administration has been adamant in pushing projects that increase maximum speeds to 110 mph along freight corridors. Meanwhile, Ruff quotes Bob Turner of Union Pacific, who argued not only that the passenger trains could delay freight traffic but also that “It’s out land, it’s our rails… This is about the government regulating what happens on our property.”
This was a sad reaction from an industry that could potentially benefit handsomely from the infusion of significant federal dollars. The freight railroads have operated mostly without government help for decades. Yet Washington clearly did not approach this situation with the necessary tact, failing to inform the industry of the proposed rules changes… before they were proposed, which evidently is the way things are supposed to work.
Joseph Szabo, head of the FRA, concluded that the rules were a mistake, and pulled the regulations out of consideration, a move veteran transportation insider Ken Orski dubbed as “sensible.” Orski concluded with a hope that Mr. Szabo “do no harm” to the freight industry, a message most people can agree with but one that provides little sense of what direction the government’s future initiatives need to point. But the decision also seems to suggest that the federal government is unwilling to mess with the freight industry no matter the costs. Is that an acceptable position for the future of the national transportation system in general?
The fundamental problem is that the U.S. government has failed to produce a guiding document that lays out the national goals for the railway system, both in terms of both freight and passenger movement. The national rail plan, whose preliminary draft was released last fall, is by all evidence likely to be a manifesto of vague, uncontroversial ideas, with few specific “plans” for the country’s future mobility. This means that the manner in which the DOT awards intercity rail grants — generally on a state-to-state basis, without much consideration of national needs — is likely to be the way it’s done over the next few years as well.
It also means, in more direct response to the issue posed here, that the government has failed to mediate a compromise between the proponents of freight and passenger rail service. The difficulties raised over the recent proposals by the FRA are only the start of things. For the future of American intercity rail, the government has a responsibility to take further steps to coordinate policy so that it benefits both sides of the rail equation, but it has not done so thus far.
As I discussed last month, despite the fact that allowing trains of different speeds (freight trains are slower than high-speed trains) would (and does) cause problems, there is significant ground for compromise that would allow both services to be improved substantially over the next few years. Notably, were the government to encourage joint use of tracks in city centers by rival freight companies, other inner-city corridors could be devoted to passenger rail without much of a problem.
But that won’t be possible unless the federal government abandons the hands-off policy it seems to be enforcing through its recent decision; at some point, if freight railroads benefit from national investments in their tracks, they should face penalties if they prioritize their trains over passenger vehicles. Freight companies may own the tracks, but if they’re getting funding for improvements, they have to compromise to allow passenger trains to operate effectively.
It’s time to develop a dialogue between freight railroad companies and advocates of improved passenger rail. Improvements for both don’t have to be set in opposition to one another.
Image above: C&NW freight train, by Flickr user vxla (cc)