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High-speed rail, electrified Caltrain may prove disastrous for freight rail

(The following story by Mike Rosenberg appeared on the San Jose Mercury News website on August 14, 2009.)

SAN JOSE, Calif. — Caltrain's plans to electrify its trains with the inception of high-speed rail would devastate the region's freight business, drive up consumer costs and force trucks onto crowded Bay Area freeways, industry leaders say.

Electrification of the Caltrain corridor from San Francisco to San Jose in the early part of the next decade is expected to help the agency expand its commuter service and save on operating costs. The electric rail will also accommodate state high-speed rail trains as they zip from San Francisco on their way to Los Angeles.

But it would also close the window in which freight trains can operate on the corridor from 15 hours to 5 hours, from midnight to 5 a.m., under current proposals.

Electrification would also prevent 40 percent of freight car trains from using the railroad because of proposed height restrictions from overhead wires. Additionally, several thousand feet of freight track at the pivotal South San Francisco rail yard would be torn up.

Fighting for freight rights is the newly-formed Peninsula Freight Rail Users Group. The group represents 24 freight shippers between San Francisco and San Jose, the maritime industrial users of the ports of Redwood City and San Francisco and the local International Longshore and Warehouse Union.

The companies that would be imperiled include mostly manufacturers such as lumber and building material distributors. They typically serve suppliers throughout the
Bay Area and beyond, and use Union Pacific Railroad service along the Caltrain corridor.

The group says the restrictions will force Peninsula freight shippers to send more cargo via truck, which would further clog Bay Area freeways and spew more carbon emissions into the air.

The trucks are also costlier to operate, which will drive up prices for companies and, in turn, consumers, they said. For example, to ship one ton of cargo using one gallon of fuel, a freight train can chug along for 436 miles while a truck can travel just 80 miles, they said.

The group estimates they move about 2 million tons of cargo per year on freight rail, which would translate into an additional 100,000 truck trips.

Ironically, the advantages of freight rail — economics, the environment, consumer costs, ease of movement — were the same justifications for approving high-speed rail and electrified Caltrain.

"It's essentially transit for goods," said Greg Greenway, the Seaport Industrial Association executive director who is heading the group.

Port of Redwood City Operations Manager Don Snaman said the restrictions are so choking they may force some freight companies to cease operations.

Marty Monfredini, vice president of South San Francisco-based Pacific Agri-Products, which has been shipping freight rail along the Peninsula for more than 20 years, said the company may be forced to move out of the Bay Area.

He said that would leave an uncertain future for the food shipping company's 30 blue-collar workers.

"If passenger rail is expanded along the Peninsula at the expense of freight rail, it will be taking one step forward and two steps backward for the future of the economy and the environment of our region," the freight rail users group said in a recent letter to Caltrain.

Caltrain CEO Mike Scanlon acknowledged their concerns in a letter last week and said agency officials plan to meet with freight rail leaders.

Scanlon said Caltrain and the California High Speed Rail Authority will heed the freight contingency's concerns during the agencies' extensive outreach process, which is already underway and should last for some time. High-speed rail and electrification construction is scheduled to begin in three years, although that may be optimistic given the difficulty the two groups have had in securing funds for their projects.

Caltrain spokeswoman Christine Dunn said policy makers are still vetting the proposals and none of the project's specifics are set in stone. Officials recently halted the electrification planning process after completing about one-third of the project's environmental review because they ran out of money.

The freight group says they need at least nine hours to operate on the weekdays, from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m., plus more time on the weekends, to keep freight rail viable. They also want height restrictions raised from the proposed 17 feet to at least 22.5 feet.

Monday, August 17, 2009

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