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High-speed rail rules dropped in face of freight rail opposition

(The following story by Bruce Rushton appeared on the State Journal-Register website on August 27, 2010.)

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — Federal transportation officials have backed off a demand that freight railroad companies, such as the Union Pacific Railroad, either pay back federal grants or make track improvements if future high-speed passenger trains don’t run on time.

“It’s our land, it’s our rails,” Bob Turner, a Union Pacific senior vice president told the Omaha-World Herald recently. “This is about the government regulating what happens on our property.”

The federal government in January announced $8 billion in grants for high-speed rail, but little of the money has been spent while the FRA comes up with grant guidelines that act as conditions.

More than $1 billion is at stake in Illinois, where the federal government has agreed to pay for an upgrade to Union Pacific track between St. Louis and Chicago. Plans are to make room for at least three high-speed passenger trains per day that would make the journey in four hours.

The Illinois high-speed route runs through Springfield.

Federal Railroad Administration director Joseph Szabo announced last week that his agency was withdrawing its demand that freight railroads pay if passenger trains don’t meet scheduling targets, said Rob Kulat, FRA spokesman.

The announcement came during a briefing with a small group of reporters on the same day the U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood was in Springfield, telling reporters that the government was making progress in talks with freight railroads.

Szabo said the FRA should have consulted with the railroads before issuing the controversial guideline in May, according to The Journal of Commerce Online.

“It was poorly worded, poorly vetted,” Szabo said, according to the World-Herald.

Railroads have complained that passenger trains could hinder freight operations. In a written statement issued Thursday, Szabo said that freight rail “must be preserved and improved” and that grant agreements must protect public and private interests.

Richard Harnish, executive director of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association, said the government’s retreat from the guidelines issued three months ago show that the rules weren’t acceptable to freight rail companies.

“Since the railroads were the ones, when it really comes down to it, that are operating the trains, we need to make sure they’re happy and that they think this is a good business deal,” Harnish said. “The railroads basically said they would not accept any of the (federal grant) money under these terms.”

Harnish said he still believes the three-trains-daily, four-hour trip goal for the St. Louis to Chicago run is feasible.

“That’s kind of the floor, I think,” Harnish said. “The question in my mind is not whether they will meet that, but it’s how far above.”

Kristina Rasmussen, executive vice president of the Illinois Policy Institute, which opposes government spending on high speed rail, said the freight companies’ refusal to accept penalties for late passenger trains was a “smart move.”

Three trips a day is “absolutely not” worth more than $1 billion in taxpayer money, she added.

“Maybe we’ll get moderate-speed rail out of this – from a traveler’s perspective, it’s not a great time savings,” Rasmussen said.

“We can’t afford our current Amtrak service,” she said. “If we’re having a hard time affording our current service, why are we putting ourselves on the line for expanded service?”

Monday, August 30, 2010

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