TIFFS: Freight train interference on shared-use trackage and what can be done about it

Number 11 in the Transport in a Fine Fix Series.

“Because of the 1970 Rail Passenger Service Act whereby the federal government allowed private railroads to shed their money-losing passenger services and created Amtrak, the national passenger carrier has exclusive domain to operate passenger trains over their tracks. And while most freight railroads tolerate Amtrak as a nuisance which occasionally occupies their rails, they would have an even lower appetite for private entities with access to their rail lines,” Potomac Express blogger Rich Sampson resolutely wrote on Feb. 11, 2011 in his blog post: “The True Story of High-Speed Rail in the U.S.

Separated freight and passenger tracks (in foreground).
Separated freight and passenger tracks (in foreground).

As it relates, I already made it abundantly clear in: “Should American freight/passenger rail go their separate ways?” on the Air Quality Matters blog on Jul. 19th, that “… it was half-a-century ago that the U.S. freight railroad industry by and large begged to be relieved of its passenger carrying responsibility.”

I also expressed: “I’ve been reading where Amtrak – America’s national passenger rail carrier – has been suffering delays, resulting, in fact, in a 74 percent on-time performance rating overall, that is, during fiscal year 2014 which began Oct. 1, 2013.

“I can say unequivocally that much of the delay is outside of Amtrak’s direct control. Keep in mind that a good number of Amtrak trains are dispatched by non-Amtrak railroad personnel. The reason for this is that on lines where the national passenger rail carrier is the tenant these trains fall under the dispatching jurisdiction of host railroad dispatch employees.”

Sampson, moreover, readily acknowledged: “[Amtrak’s] … long-distance trains are chronically late and infrequent.” And this was back in Feb. 2011.

So, short of having dedicated railroad rights-of-way to support a domestic passenger train network and if limited to a shared-use freight/passenger rail operating arrangement, what then is the solution to on-time performance metrics improvement consistently in the 90 percent or higher range, that is, on corridors hosting both passenger and freight train movements?

I see four possibilities: Passenger trains always being granted highest priority status over all other train movements or passenger-carrier-owned railroad tracks with the tenant freight rail concern in question granted operating rights (in place of freight-carrier-owned railroad tracks with the tenant passenger rail concern in question granted operating rights) and/or more multiple-tracking (double-tracking, triple-tracking) under the existing arrangement and/or the implementation on the line of Positive Train Control or PTC.

Writer Michael Grunwald, in Time magazine, in “The truth About Obama’s High-Speed Rail Program,” offers the following:

“Bridge and tunnel repairs, projects to upgrade and straighten tracks, sidings and double-tracking to help passenger trains pass freight cars, and other incremental improvements can all make rail travel more attractive.”

Grunwald further adding: “The Department of Transportation says it has already sliced off a half-hour between Springfield, Mass., and St. Albans, Vt., while also completing projects to reduce delays around San Jose, San Diego, Fort Worth and Oklahoma City.”

amtrak-train-kandelMeanwhile, on Amtrak’s 457-mile Northeast Corridor (NEC) connecting Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, D.C., begun is an $850 million upgrading program on a 23-mile section of track in the state of New Jersey which will increase speeds of trains to 160 miles per hour and cut delays, according to Grunwald, this being the very first such project of its kind; part of a long-term program of similar upgrading on Amtrak’s NEC.

I’ll be exploring PTC in a third, later article devoted to this topic.

– Alan Kandel