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US freight railroads wary of high-speed passenger push

(Dow Jones circulated the following on October 8, 2009.)

NEW YORK — The US freight railroad industry is finding itself in the role of apprehensive party host amid excitement surrounding the government-led push for high-speed passenger services, Dow Jones reported.

Top railroads, such as Union Pacific and CSX, own the tracks and rail corridors where much of the Obama administration's US$8 billion in stimulus money to jump-start high-speed passenger service ultimately will be spent.

Many of the freight carriers are wary that their recent network efficiency gains – including substantially reduced train dwell times and improved on-time arrivals – could be jeopardised. They're also worried that more and faster passenger traffic will drain future freight capacity and raise safety issues.

But CSX and many of the other freight carriers, which already accommodate trains operated by the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, or Amtrak, have expressed broad support for the passenger-push nonetheless, saying greater public awareness of rail's benefits is good for their industry.

Most say they don't expect to oppose any projects, provided they're not expected to foot the bill for upgrades, such as new tracks and sidings, needed to preserve freight capacity and ensure safety.

The freight railroad industry is federally regulated and has political incentive to retain good community relations. Many railroads also have long-term agreements in place granting access rights to Amtrak.

Requests for the stimulus money already have far outpaced the $8 billion available, with 40 states and the District of Columbia submitting more than $100 billion in pre-applications.

The final amount of requests will go up or down a bit once the Federal Railroad Administration tallies applications that have been refined and resubmitted. It's unclear when grants will be awarded.

Most Amtrak trains operate at maximum speeds of 79 miles per hour, compared to 50 mph or so for freight trains. The stimulus funding likely will result in passenger service of up to 110 mph in some of those corridors.

European-style bullet trains — which zoom by at upwards of 200 mph — would require separate, sealed-off corridors, and are decades away in the US.

Monday, October 12, 2009

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