Lack of HSR Funding Undermining Agreements With Freight Rail
Over at Trains Magazine, Fred Frailey writes about the problems being faced in several states as state transportation agencies struggle to negotiate with freight railroads for trackage to run high speed passenger rail service:
It’s do-or-die time for President Obama’s high speed rail initiative, which badly needs a lift. Negotiations are stalled with three Class 1 railroads involving projects in North Carolina, Virginia, and Washington, according to informed railroad and government sources. The Federal Railroad Administration needs to come to terms soon with at least one of the railroads or risk having them walk away (or having the grant rescinded by Congress). The sticking point: Fear by railroads that their freights will be muscled aside by passenger trains. In all three instances, so-called service-outcome agreements reached by the states and railroads have been rejected by the FRA, which administers the grants.
Together, the three projects involve almost $1.4 billion in High-Speed Intercity Passenger Rail Program outlays, accounting for 13 percent of $10.5 billion in HSR grants announced last year. And they are but the latest of these grants to either be scuttled or endangered.
Frailey writes about the efforts by Washington State to work with BNSF to come to agreement on nearly $1 billion in upgrades to tracks between Tacoma and Vancouver WA, which would enable new and faster trips to be added to the Amtrak Cascades corridor. According to Frailey, these efforts are stalling:
Several times, BNSF and Washington’s Department of Transportation have agreed on service standards — for instance, how to measure delay to passenger trains and how much delay is acceptable — only to have FRA reject the agreements as not stringent enough on the railroad. The benefits of this project all accrue to passenger trains, rather than its own freight trains, the railroad contends. The parties are continuing to meet.
The problem is that the freight railroads, who own the track, want to maintain operational flexibility for their trains. That’s a sensible logic for them, and it suggests that the problem here might not be that the freight railroads won’t play ball (and in fact they are negotiating in what appears to be good faith) but that there’s simply not enough money to help make some of these problems go away.
President Barack Obama’s HSR plan is really two plans in one – and without the funding to really pull off either one. The first plan is to spend some money to upgrade existing tracks, owned by the freight railroads, to carry faster HSR service. The second plan is to spend some money to build true high speed service of over 150 mph on new tracks owned by the public.
Neither plan is adequately funded by Congress. Florida got just enough to get a starter HSR line, with some state and private funding rounding out the total. California will get a starter line too, but it’s really just one piece of the larger SF-LA route.
The first plan, intended to be more economical, isn’t producing the quick and efficient benefits that were anticipated. New rail infrastructure is badly needed, but needs more funding to be able to manage both the freight and passenger trains’ needs.
That’s not to suggest we give up now. High speed rail is essential to this country’s future. Instead it suggests that we need to keep pushing Congress to step up and fund the future, instead of finding ways to preserve the past.