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High-speed rail dreams depend on dedicated tracks

(The following story by Aubrey Cohen appeared on the Seattle Post-Intelligencer website on May 28, 2009.)

SEATTLE, Wash. — While rail advocates dream of passenger trains blazing through Washington at 200 mph, freight railroad representatives say anything half that fast won't work on their tracks.

"True" high-speed rail would exceed 150 mph, but the Amtrak Cascades line between Eugene, Ore., and Vancouver, B.C., is more likely to see incremental progress from the current top speed of 79 mph to between 110 and 125 mph (the top potential speed of the current Talgo trains), Cascadia Project rail fellow Ray Chambers said at a forum in downtown Seattle on Thursday.

But Port of Seattle President Bill Bryant said 110 mph would be nothing to celebrate.

"That's charging into 1990s technology," he said. "The rest of the world's already moving at 200 mph. ... I don't know when we began to settle for half of what our competitors already have."

Representatives of the BNSF and Union Pacific railways were receptive to allowing more passenger rail on their tracks. But their stipulations included that passenger service not impede freight capacity, add any liability for the railways or go too fast.

Anything over 110 mph must be on separate tracks in a separate right of way, said Scott Moore, Union Pacific's vice president of public affairs for the Western Region.

Andrew Johnsen, assistant vice president for state government affairs at BNSF, said their tracks can take passenger trains up to 79 mph with little trouble and 90 mph with major upgrades and increased maintenance.

Faster speeds than that, he said: "You really need to have separate tracks. Whether you need to have separate right of way is a question we can discuss."

Clifford Benson, a member of the state Freight Mobility Strategic Investment Board, said any additional passenger service impacts freight movement.

"From our board's standpoint, we would have a problem with that," he said.

State Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond acknowledged that passenger rail would have to get off of the BNSF and Union Pacific lines "at some point ... so that freight can move."

Speeds aside, all of the rail advocates were ready to celebrate a recent surge in federal rail investment, including $8 billion in the recent stimulus package for high-speed rail and President Obama's pledge to spend $13 billion over five years on 10 rail corridors, including the Amtrak Cascades.

"The Cascades corridor is competitively positioned and has an excellent chance of receiving funding," Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said in a video played at Thursday's forum. Murray chairs the Senate Appropriations transportation subcommittee and put rail money in the stimulus measure.

Hammond said Washington would seek $900 million of the stimulus rail money and Oregon would go for about $150 million.

"We have distinct projects that are shovel-ready," she said.

Chambers proclaimed: "It's a new day for rail." He predicted true high-speed rail, with speeds over 150 mph, would come somewhere in the U.S. within a few years.

This year's reauthorization of the federal transportation act is a chance to find a new funding source for rail, which will fail if it depends on fighting with highways for a share of federal gas taxes, Chambers said. "The traditional sources are going to absorb that money and we won't see any of it."

Larry Salci, a management consultant and former rail and transit executive, put the recent federal rail money in perspective by noting that one high-speed rail line in Texas cost $6 billion in 1992.

The $8 billion in new funds "is purely seed money," he said.

Friday, May 29, 2009

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