TIFFS: Sidelined ‘n’ singin’ the single-track blues

Number nine in the Transport in a Fine Fix Series.

In “Making the grade – Part 1: American infrastructure report card: Rails,” it was written: “As it relates, particulars like capital investment and on-time performance are barometers of ridership strength or weakness.”

amtrak-train-kandelIn concluding, asked was how American rail infrastructure could be improved. The response: “Infrastructure improvement could come in the way of electrification of non-electrified lines, adding high-speed rail lines and upgrading of locomotives and equipment to increase fuel efficiency, advance environmental sustainability and lower drag and rolling resistance (friction) all for improved operation where both warranted and feasible.” One thing not mentioned was: double-tracking, the focus of today’s discussion.

In America, one of the commonest complaints expressed by those who ride trains is that the train on which they were riding was put in the siding the purpose of which was to permit another, opposing train – or an overtaking train, i.e., one headed in the same direction (one perhaps having a higher priority) – to pass. So, here exists a situation that, presumably, occurs more often than not; a condition owed mainly to multi-track infrastructure being in limited supply. It goes without saying then that it is over a mostly single-track network (with passing sidings) on which the bulk of America’s intercity passenger trains operate – a physical plant covering some 140,000 route-miles in sum.

‘All Aboard!’

In 2012, there were 31.2 million Amtrak boardings. Last year added were another 400,000 more – an improvement of 1.3 percent.

From “Amtrak year-over-year ridership gains impress, inspire,” written was: “If evenly distributed, this would be roughly 86,575 Amtrak trips made on average per day. What this means is that this many daily trips were not made in gross polluting motor vehicles. And, this is of tremendous benefit to the air and the environment.”

With greater efficiencies, meaning less delay, come greater on-time performance ratings coupled with more convenient passenger rail travel. With such being the case, the presumption is, even more such trips would be taken.

A case study

Way out west in California near Fresno, it wasn’t long ago that a double-tracking project on a section of single-track Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) Railway line in the San Joaquin Valley between Bowles and Calwa (a distance roughly 10 miles in length) was completed.

Part of an ongoing improvement project, what this project in effect did was provide for greater operational efficiencies not only for freight but passenger operations and this, in turn, created greater environmental benefit. The whole project came off without a hitch. Case in point: Between those locations and where trains once were sidelined for meets, now, this condition is not likely to arise.

Keeping (and extending) track

Sometime thereafter and several miles to the north, meanwhile, the outcome was decidedly different.

Whereas, unlike in the Bowles-Calwa double-tracking project, situated in what is predominantly an area zoned for industry and agriculture, at a location on the railroad known as Figarden, it is at precisely this place where the line traverses a residential area.

Running for approximately two miles between Shaw Avenue on the south and Figarden Drive on the north is located the appropriately named Figarden Siding.

At one time a proposal was put forth to lengthen this siding, for all intents and purposes from West Avenue (about a mile farther south of Shaw Avenue) to just south of the San Joaquin River crossing (about two miles farther north of Figarden Drive), a distance of roughly five miles which, in effect, would produce five more miles of double-track. Coupled with the Bowles-Calwa double-track section, resulted would have been 15 miles of double-tracking total.

But it was not to be. Interested Figarden residents protested, pointing to standing (idling) trains, which, to them, would mean three things: more noise, more vibration, more pollution. Their opposition to such was made clear to BNSF representatives, city officials and others at a town-hall-type meeting held in the Figarden Elementary School cafeteria.

There is no telling the reason or reasons why the project has not yet moved beyond the proposal stage. Maybe it has to do with the fact there still remains single-track between Figarden and the Fresno Amtrak station located at Santa Fe and Tulare avenues downtown and multi-tracking that section seems unlikely. Who can say.

Besides the freights, Amtrak California San Joaquin trains also traverse this track. Even with operational conditions being what they are, San Joaquin on-time performance is quite respectable.

It should be noted that should freight rail traffic pick up, San Joaquin service could be affected.

Need for high-speed

Which brings up a final point and that is, understanding what’s involved operationally regarding passenger trains running on freight railroads and vice versa, it is with respect to this exactly that high-speed train service could be just the ticket, said trains running on rights-of-way dedicated exclusively for high-speed use.

In America, a service whose time has come?

– Alan Kandel

This post was last revised on Dec. 4, 2019 @ 3:38 p.m. Pacific Standard Time.