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Maryland, Delaware investigate a return to the rails

(The following story by Colin Murfree appeared on the Delmarva Daily Times website on September 6, 2009.)

SALISBURY, Md. — There are a few people on Delmarva who remember being able to ride up and down the peninsula on the busy old Pennsylvania Railroad. But the majority of the Shore's residents only notice the tracks when inconvenienced by the occasional passing of a freight train. There is, however, the possibility that in the coming years that may all change.

Whether because of rising traffic issues, the economy or the environment, railways across the country are receiving increased attention.

The Maryland and Delaware departments of transportation have been investigating the possibility of extending passenger train service from northern Delaware down as far as Berlin, and perhaps even Ocean City.

But the primary use of existing rail infrastructure is, and has been for many years, freight.

"The need to move freight in the next 20 years is going to nearly double," said Rudy Husband of Norfolk Southern, a company that manages tracks in the area.

And Delmarva's needs will be no different.

The tracks that currently carve their way through the area are owned and operated by a mixture of local companies, including Maryland and Delaware Railroad and Baycoast Railroad, as well as larger companies such as Norfolk Southern and CSX. Together they create a network of railroads that serve the Peninsula in a variety of ways.

"Our rail system on the Eastern Shore predominantly serves agricultural purposes, particularly the poultry industry. It is the lifeline to the poultry industry," said Caitlin Hughes Rayman of the Maryland Department of Transportation. "We have a very important industry (on the Eastern Shore) that depends on rail, and rail depends on poultry."

Along with such necessities as grain, fertilizer and liquid wax for the poultry industry, products such as stone, concrete, cement, aggregate, coal and liquefied petroleum gas are regularly moved across the Shore.

The senior vice president of Operations for Baycoast Railroad, Larry LeMond, sees even more product opportunities on the horizon.

"The future is bright," he said. "We have some things we are working on. And with the growth of Wallop's Island and their projects, it's going to mean more rail business."

Increased rail business is what MDOT would like to see. On Sept. 14, the department has scheduled a freight summit to release its first ever state freight plan and they say now is the perfect time to increase rail business.

"As a result of both the actions of Congress and the Obama administration's emphasis on rail, there are now increased opportunities for federal investment in passenger and freight rail," Rayman said. "We expect that to continue in future appropriations and authorization legislation."

Return of the passengers train?

The future of Delmarva's rail system is bright and coming quickly -- that much is unanimous. What has yet to be decided is whether passenger trains will once again play a role in that system.

"Not in my lifetime," said LeMond of the possibility of passenger trains returning to Delmarva. "Not to the Lower Shore anyway."

There are, however, those who are slightly more optimistic. The Maryland and Delaware departments of transportation have been investigating the possibility of extending passenger train service down from Wilmington to Dover, with the possibility of continuing as far south as Berlin. Ocean City has been part of the discussion, but transportation officials said without existing rail lines to the resort, the destination would require more resources.

At this point the idea is nothing more than that, an idea. There are a number of obstacles that must first be dealt with, including how such a system would share tracks with freight, Husband said.

"The issues are, first of all, that (Norfolk Southern) needs to retain the ability to serve present and future customers on the schedules that they need," he said. "We need to be compensated for the use of our assets, and we need to be protected from a liability standpoint."

As Husband's comments illustrate, many of the obstacles can be traced back to money. A shared line would require new safety regulations, additional track maintenance and new stations along the way, which would add up to a seemingly insurmountable price tag.

But as Rayman said, there have never been more opportunities for federal funding than there are right now. DelDOT has submitted applications for federal funding as a part of the government's stimulus program for a rail industry study. MDOT wants federal dollars to expand its existing rail service -- passenger and freight.

A study conducted between 2001 and 2005 revealed an additional issue in the plans for a commuter rail between Wilmington and Dover that had not been anticipated.

"We discovered that there was no fundamental reason why you couldn't run rail service down here," said David Campbell of DelDOT. "But one thing we found that was kind of surprising was the ridership projections were not high enough to justify the service."

But DelDOT has not given up. As recently as August, the department submitted an application for an additional study for a High Speed Intercity Rail Program, but this time the rail design is much different.

The 2001-05 study investigated the possibility of a commuter train that runs several times a day as opposed to a more long-distance train that ran once or twice a day.

"It has been a very cooperative effort. (Maryland and Delaware departments of transportation) are very interdependent," Rayman said regarding freight service. "Obviously we need the rail lines in Delaware to get north and onto the rest of the rail network. They also need volume shipments coming out of Maryland to help keep the line viable for joining the national rail network."

But the same theory holds true in the passenger business as well, she said. If DelDOT's application for research money is accepted, the agency wants to begin with investigating extending service to Berlin in the south and to the north to such destinations as Philadelphia, Baltimore and even Washington in an effort to find enough business to meet the necessary projections.

Assuming projections can be met and the funding comes through, Amtrak and DelDOT would look to bring a high-speed intercity line down the Shore between 2025 and 2030. Such a line could have a significant impact on how people travel to and from Delmarva -- beach traffic in particular.

"We are for anything that brings more people to the area," said Donna Abbott of the Ocean City Tourism Department.

She, however, questions how open beachgoers will be to the new form of transportation. Worcester County Tourism Department Director Lisa Challenger wonders the same thing.

"I think the nature of our destination means people like to lug beach chairs, Boogie boards, surfboards and beach towels, and that requires a lot of packing," Challenger said. "I think people are just too wedded to their own vehicles that work for that kind of packing. To lug all that on a train, I just don't know."

An increase in rail passenger traffic across the nation may require a paradigm shift.

As for its success with beach traffic, Tom Posatko, president of the Delmarva Passenger Rail Association, pointed out existing bus services throughout Delmarva that already ferry people to and from the beach, which according to him have been "tremendously popular."

In order to be a viable option for beach traffic, the train must be cost-effective, fast and, once at their destination, people must have another way around, Posatko said.

Existing services may only need to be enhanced, Abbott said, adding Ocean City has spent a lot of money in recent years developing a 24-hour public transportation system that allows people to go wherever they want within the town.

Such networking between and within cities, which the intercity passenger and freight line will run through, is what Rayman says needs to happen sooner rather than later.

"If the locals are bringing their priorities to the state, it would behoove them to look at whether they want to include rail in their plans or not," Rayman said. "I think, traditionally, people have looked at the state planning process as one of highways and transit. But as funding opportunities become available for freight and rail, we are going to need to make sure those things have support from the local level, up. So we urge early involvement for freight and rail planning."

If Delmarva is to see its tracks transformed from the seemingly inconvenient traffic delays into a convenient alternative transportation network, local government and citizen participation will be key, according to Rayman. She said early and strong planning would help secure much-needed funding for such an ambitious project -- a project that will only happen when the people of Delmarva weigh in and make their opinions, priorities and needs clear.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

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