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Railroads could hold up high-speed trains

(By Justin Carinci of the Daily Journal of Commerce Oregon, published August 27)

A federal grant could speed passenger trains in Oregon. But not everyone is on board yet.

The Oregon Department of Transportation asked for $2.1 billion for rail improvements that promise to cut travel time between Portland and Eugene to less than two hours. Trains would travel up to 110 mph, compared to Amtrak’s current top speed of 79 mph, according to the grant application.

Trains won’t go anywhere, however, without an agreement from the railway owners and users. In Oregon, that’s a complicated jumble of government agencies and private railroads.

The state owns some of the right-of-way it plans to improve to accommodate high-speed rail. But Union Pacific Railroad, BNSF Railway and Portland & Western Railroad also own portions. Complicating things further, the railroads also own rights to use the rails on sections of land owned by other railroads and the state.

Current agreements allow for Amtrak trains to run through this network. But plans to bring quicker, more frequent passenger trains risk disrupting the freight trains that use the same line.

Portland & Western has not expressed its support for the state’s high-speed rail plans, although railroad officials are in discussions with ODOT’s rail division, said Ronald Russ, president of Portland & Western.

“It’s still a case where we’re studying the impacts, and if our property and operations would be impacted,” Russ said.

Both Union Pacific and BNSF have expressed support for the project, according to ODOT’s application. But that support is qualified, at least in Union Pacific’s case.

“What we support is, if funding is made available, we’d participate in a study,” Union Pacific spokesman Tom Lange said, “… as long as the study includes the entire Portland-to-Eugene corridor.

“Right now, we’ve agreed to nothing more than to participate,” he said.

Unless that participation leads to an eventual agreement, the high-speed rail plan can’t move forward, ODOT spokesman Patrick Cooney said. “The owners of the rail lines would have to agree to the use of it,” he said.

A BNSF spokesman said he was meeting with Oregon officials regarding the high-speed-rail proposal Thursday morning and couldn’t comment yet.

States are competing for a piece of the $8 billion for high-speed rail projects included in the federal stimulus package. Oregon could hear whether it will get a grant through the program, called the High Speed Intercity Passenger Rail program, after a second application phase this fall. Construction could start in September 2010.

While the most expensive part of the application, at $1.84 billion, involves electrifying and improving tracks to allow for 110-mph passenger trains, other items are designed to benefit freight operators as well. Those include improving junctions, building new connections, doubling tracks and easing tight curves.

Gov. Ted Kulongoski said in a statement that improvements identified in the grant application would allow six round trips over the route, compared to the two Amtrak currently offers. Trains would average 65 mph, up from 42 mph, and make the trip between Portland and Eugene in 1 hour, 55 minutes instead of 2 hours, 35 minutes.

Kulongoski touted the plan as a way to reduce carbon emissions, including the possibility of using solar panels to help power the trains.

Friday, August 28, 2009

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