9/24/2010

the conflict between high speed passenger service and freight rail in america

(a minimally-edited off-the-cuff draft):
As the Wall Street Journal summarizes in an article I find a bit skewed and thin on context, the freight railroads see national high speed passenger service as a serious threat [via The Infrastructurist]. And, while we desperately need passenger service of anything even pretending-to-resemble a functional national network, the freight railroads are right. Passenger service is a huge liability for them. After decades of starvation, the US (well, US and Canada - the two are functionally one and the same in the railroad world) railroads have finally had significant growth for the past couple decades, and in the past decade have actually reached the point of spending billions on infrastructure capacity upgrades to handle the traffic. They now carry way more traffic than ever on a fraction the route-miles through much more efficient networks. North America (US and Canada primarily, but Mexico is catching up fast) has the most successful and efficient freight rail systems in the world, and one of the few that is fully-privitized. They simply do not have the capacity for passenger service on any of their core lines without heavy capacity expansions. When there is plenty of open capacity on a line, the incremental costs of an added train are not too major - when the line is at capacity, incremental costs can escalate exponentially in extreme cases (need another track and you're in a mountain range? have fun blasting lots of rock...). A single passenger train actually has the capacity needs of several freight trains - the greater the speed-disparity, the more a passenger train delays the surrounding freights, and their tighter scheduling requirements (federally-regulated and hard-fought in the courts over the decades of Amtrak's life) mean that a delayed passenger train destroys the schedules of every other train around it. Excellent freight and passenger networks can coexist, but that takes massive capital, and exists almost nowhere in the world. Not in Europe, thats for sure - all those countries in western Europe with their excellent passenger service? Yea, they have freight networks varying from small-and-plucky to abysmal. If you have to choose one or the other, then America needs freight way more given our geography, economy, and the far greater efficiencies of freight transport than passenger by rail due to the inherent nature of their traffic patterns (with occasional exceptions like urban mass-transit).

In all of this it's also important to remember that our freight railroads have grown incredibly-protective and wary of any government involvement - one of the biggest things that saved the entire industry from death was the Staggers Act which largely deregulated them and eliminated decades (close to a century even?) of heavy pricing regulations - a holdover from the Robber Baron era. They are still massive corporate interests with great power, but despite being many times larger geographically than ever before (to oversimplify: UP and BNSF are Mississippi to Pacific, CSX and NS are Mississippi to Atlantic, CN and CP are Canada), they have a tiny fraction the actual power and have to compete with the massively-Federally-subsidized highway network. Amtrak was a government bailout that took the passenger service out of the hand of the freight railroads and relieved them of a government-mandated service were collectively hemorrhaging some $700 million annually as early as the '50's and literally bankrupted several mid-sized railroads. But it was inherently a compromise that satisfied no one. It retained a fraction of the routes and was structured in a way that it would be perpetually fucked financially and politically, but they survived at all. And it still forced the freight railroads to give these trains priority dispatching that earned them no money, but at least they were not directly costing them millions.

If we want any remotely-decent national passenger network, we need to mimic the approach of the regional commuter agencies negotiations with the freight railroads. If guaranteed their train capacity needs, some liability protections (liability costs are OBSCENE these days), and some say, they will happily cooperate, hand over some control, and even pitch in some on infrastructure upgrades as long as they see some benefits. The key is not expecting them to give up capacity, control and liability just because.

(Interestingly I am biased in both directions on this matter - as a US railfan, the freight networks are something I know well and care about a lot, but similarly as a train nerd and someone interested in transportation planning, I have always thought our passenger network needed tens of billions in investment annually for a couple decades at least to fix the crimes of the past half-century.)

[edit: an example of a more detailed description of the costs from Union Pacific]

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