NEWS BLOG (WSAU) What’s the difference between high speed rail and really-high- speed rail? It’s an important question. The Obama administration gave out $8-billion in high speed rail grants earlier this year, but no one envisions running the 240-mile-per-hour trains that France or Japan currently run.
Trains that run above 125-miles-per hour need dedicated tracks that aren't shared with freight trains. It’s simply unsafe to run a bullet train like the Paris-to-Leon TVG when it has to share track with a 15-mile-per-hour heavy coal train. High speed rail lines also have to minimize or eliminate railroad crossings. There isn’t enough time for crossing gates to come down and vehicles to clear the tracks when a super-fast train is approaching at-speed.
This kind of true high speed set-up, with new trackage that passes over or under existing roads, would consume more than the $8-billion that’s been spent already for access to a single city, like Miami or Los Angeles, where land around downtown terminals is at a premium. San Francisco is a good example. Today long-distance and commuter trains run at street level down the middle of a road like a trolley, to reach the terminal at Jack London Square. Chicago’s Amtrak and METRA trains also crawl at street level before entering the tunnel at Union Station.
Most of the U.S. train projects are not-quite-high-speed rail. Wisconsin’s share of grant money will upgrade the Chicago to Milwaukee line to 100-miles-per-hour. The line from Milwaukee to Madison will have 79-mile-per-hour service. Both lines will share track with freight trains. (The lines themselves are owned by Canadian National.) Both lines would have dozens of railroad crossings.
In recent weeks freight railroads have announced major objections to the rules for upgrading their track. The issues involve rail line capacity and on-time performance of passenger trains. The freight railroads are paid by Amtrak or commuter rail authorities to dispatch the passenger trains. Freight railroads are supposed to give passenger trains priority over their tracks, based on the idea that people shouldn’t have to wait while merchandise moves ahead of them. That’s fine in theory. On the railroad, that isn’t always the case. What happens when a passenger train has mechanical problems, and the dispatcher moves slower freight trains around it? When she’s moving again, the passenger train will get later and later. What happens when a long distance train is delayed leaving the West Coast, and arrives on a Midwestern road’s track several hours behind schedule? The freight railroad was planning to on the passenger train already passing by, allowing slow moving freights during the later time slot. Shall they miss their port connections on the east coast because of an Amtrak problem? What about ‘hot shot’ freights that the railroads run under contract for trucking or shipping companies? UPS and BJ Hunt require on-time guarantees. If their freight is delivered late, the railroad gives them rebates. If it happens often enough, that high-revenue freight will get taken off the rails and put back onto interstate highways.
The Obama Administration is willing to provide grant money for high speed improvements. But there are strings attached. Freight railroads would face steep penalties for passenger train dispatching delays in their territories. They would lose more control over their tracks. And several railroads have said “no thanks” to the federal money.
So what will happen?
There will be a compromise. Freight railroads are also facing difficult congressional hearings on shipping rate regulations. They will make a deal for more favorable rates in exchange for high speed rail projects. Railroad management also knows the Obama administration will be willing to play ball. The White House can’t be seen as using regulations to block the inferstructure jobs that track upgrades would create. And the President has made high speed rail a high-profile issue. There can’t be a glitch that holds up these projects in an election year.
Operations Manager-Midwest Communications, Wausau