High-speed railroading does not mix well with freight

Publish Date: 
Saturday, June 28, 2014 - 4:45pm

 Source article at The Economist

California's plans were given a boost by Barack Obama's stimulus package last year. This earmarks a lump sum of $8 billion, plus $1 billion a year, to help construct fast rail corridors around America (see map). This project has now ramped up to 68 BILLION. Such lines are common in Europe, Japan and, increasingly, China, yet the only thing at all like them in America is Amtrak's Acela service from Boston via New York to Washington, DC. It rarely reaches its top speed of 150mph (240kph) and for much of the way manages little more than half that, because the track is not equipped for higher speeds. Acela, like virtually all trains run by publicly owned Amtrak, has to use tracks belonging to freight railways, whose trains trundle along at 50mph; passenger trains must stick below 80mph. Despite the excitement of railway buffs and the enthusiasm of environmentalists, high-speed rail in America is likely to mean a few more diesel-electric intercity trains at 110mph, not swish electric expresses going nearly twice as fast.

Freight railways' very success is starting to create difficulties for them. The Department of Transportation estimates that many are already exceeding their theoretical capacity and are congested. It estimates that lots more investment will be needed, because capacity will have to rise by nearly 90% to meet forecast demand by 2035. The investment bill could rise yet more because of a change in the pattern of trade: in 2014 the Panama Canal opens a second lane, doubling its capacity and allowing it to carry bigger container vessels and bulk ships. Coming through to Gulf of Mexico and East Coast ports, these vessels will increase the need for better rail links inland.

The emergence of express intercity rail services may cause the freight railways the biggest problem of all. The policy is not only laid down by the president but also often has enthusiastic support at state level. The railways can hardly oppose Mr Obama's plan to boost high-speed rail, but they are apprehensive about what it will mean for them.

The trouble for the freight railways is that almost all the planned new fast intercity services will run on their tracks. Combining slow freight and fast passenger trains is complicated. With some exceptions on Amtrak's Acela and North East corridor tracks, level crossings are attuned to limits of 50mph for freight and 80mph for passenger trains. But Mr Obama's plan boils down to running intercity passenger trains at 110mph on freight tracks. Add the fact that freight trains do not stick to a regular timetable, but run variable services at short notice to meet demand, and the scope for congestion grows.