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Editorial: Railroads should work out differences with high-speed rail proponents

(The following editorial appeared on the Las Vegas Sun website on September 22, 2010.)

LAS VEGAS, Nevada — The Obama administration aptly recognized the promising future of transporting passengers safely at rapid speeds from city to city and even from coast to coast by making a major financial commitment to the development of high-speed rail systems. This was made obvious when the administration earmarked $8 billion from the economic stimulus package approved last year to help build trains that could exceed speeds of 200 miles an hour.

But The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday that the high-speed rail initiative has stalled because of resistance from freight carriers that own a vast majority of the nation’s rail network. Those railroads, which view trucking companies as their main competitors, have concerns about sharing their tracks or rights of way with swift passenger trains.

The issue of sharing tracks has come up because it would be too costly for the government to build a high-speed network from scratch, the Journal reported. Railroads argue that if tracks are shared with high-speed trains, it could cause safety hazards with slower freight cars and force delays in hauling freight because their trains would have to pull over to let the faster passenger trains pass.

The newspaper reported that these concerns are among the reasons why the Federal Railroad Administration has released only $597 million of the money set aside for high-speed rail. State officials seeking high-speed rail have had a hard time entering partnerships with railroad companies. An example is next door to Nevada, where the California High Speed Rail Authority is facing opposition from Union Pacific to share rights of way to build a north-south passenger corridor.

Before these skirmishes get out of hand, we would hope that the railroad companies would work with the federal agency on compromises that would allow the development of high-speed rail to continue without diminishing the vital role freight trains play in commerce. Many railroads owe their beginnings to partnerships with the federal government. The government played a key role in the construction of railroads through massive federal land grants in the 19th century that gave the companies the rights of way they needed to thrive and help the West grow.

We were glad to see CEO James Young of Union Pacific, the nation’s largest railroad, tell the Journal that his company was “committed to working through the issues” involving high-speed rail.

High-speed rail is not only a clean form of transportation, which would be good for the environment. It would also have the potential to improve commerce among cities and states by making it easier for individuals to go long distances relatively quickly.

There is no good reason why a country as sophisticated as the United States cannot enjoy the benefits of both freight trains and high-speed passenger trains at the same time. With the federal government having made a financial commitment to get behind high-speed rail, it would be foolish to squander that opportunity.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

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