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Freight comes first on rail in Ohio’s passenger system

(The following story by Adrian Burns appeared on the Business First of Columbus website on February 8, 2010.)

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Ohio’s planned passenger rail system could be on a collision course with another one of the state’s key economic priorities – expanding its powerful, growing freight and logistics industry.

The state’s plan for a passenger line calls for running passenger trains on heavily traveled freight tracks that crisscross the state instead of putting them on dedicated lines, as may be done in other states such as California.

The plan raises questions over how to manage a reliable passenger rail system on a highly complex freight network whose owners are likely to place a priority on their cargo deliveries ahead of passenger cars, especially if Ohio succeeds in expanding its role as a logistics and shipping hub for the Midwest.

“We’re a freight railroad, and serving our customers is paramount to us,” said Rudy Husband, a spokesman for Norfolk Southern Corp. “We certainly need to preserve our ability to serve our present and future freight customers on schedules that those customers require.”

Norfolk Southern, CSX Corp. and the Indiana and Ohio Railway own the tracks on which the proposed passenger trains would run from Cleveland though Columbus and Dayton and on to Cincinnati. But the companies have yet to agree to the state’s plan for using their lines.
Competing priorities

With $400 million from the federal stimulus program appropriated to get passenger rail rolling in Ohio, state officials now must turn from studies and advocacy to the task of designing and implementing a system that can operate on time to keep passengers interested and under budget to keep taxpayers from revolting.

Coming up with such a system will be a challenge, cautioned Art Van Bodegraven, a logistics industry veteran and consultant.

“The reality is that if there is a high-priority freight shipment, CSX or Norfolk Southern are not going to park that somewhere while a passenger train with three people on it comes through,” he said.

While Ohio officials are touting passenger rail as an economic driver, they have for years promoted freight rail as an economic engine that will grow as gasoline prices increase, the economy improves and the state continues to attract freight transfer yards and other shipping projects.

The potential for conflict has not gone unnoticed. Before it threw its support behind passenger rail, the ColumbusChamber sought assurances from the Ohio Department of Transportation that passenger train plans would not get in the way of freight priorities, said Dan Ricciardi, executive director of the Columbus Region Logistics Council, an affiliate that promotes logistics industry development.

“The movement of freight creates revenue and jobs in this state, and we want to make sure we do everything we can to make sure that revenue and jobs in logistics are there and that nothing interferes with that,” he said.

State officials said they are confident passenger and freight interests can operate in harmony.

“I think you’re seeing a much greater acceptance of passenger rail on freight rail corridors because freight rail companies are getting it that if these improvements are made to enable the running of passenger trains, then there is a benefit in it for them,” said Stu Nicholson, a spokesman for the Ohio Rail Development Commission, the state group leading the passenger rail push.

The state planned to use $273 million of the stimulus outlay for capacity-boosting track improvements that, in addition to accommodating passenger trains, would reduce track congestion and improve the flow of freight traffic.

Husband of Norfolk Southern welcomes such upgrades, but said the company still has a set of demands it wants satisfied before it allows passenger trains on its tracks. The demands include staying out of the way of freight shipments, addressing questions about liability and paying for passenger trains’ use of the tracks.

“It can be done,” he said. “But again, it’s a very complicated issue and a very expensive proposition.”

The state plans to begin working to finalize agreements with the railroads, Nicholson said, but he didn’t have a schedule for when the accords would be signed.
Complex undertaking

A glimpse of what the state is facing in a passenger railroad can be found in a study completed late last year by Amtrak. The study painted a picture of a dynamic rail system in the state with many points of congestion and high-volume traffic.

For instance, in one area near Cleveland where passenger rail trains would transfer from Norfolk Southern to CSX tracks, between 120 and 160 trains run a day. In Columbus, a planned passenger station beneath the Greater Columbus Convention Center is near a point where five tracks converge to two.

“Through Columbus,” the report said, “the route segment ownership, track configuration, and operations are very complex and require a high level of coordinated dispatching among the freight railroads.”

Monday, February 8, 2010

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