DOT Freight High-Speed Rail

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