Tuesday, September 21, 2010

US High Speed Rail Hits A Metaphorical Freight Train

Legislation to Develop HSR May Leave Washington Open to Criticism
Shipping News Feature

US – Every week the Handy Shipping Guide news desk is flooded by reports of freight train crashes which, given the nature of the beast, normally involve fatalities. Our business is to publish freight and shipping related news however and so it is not normal practice to enter comment on this particularly ghoulish subject. Many of these accidents happen on American territory and now seems an appropriate time to mention the subject.

When planners began to plot high speed rail facilities for passenger traffic, different attitudes prevailed dependent on where on the globe one looked. Most Asian and European countries realised early in the game that mixing the new technology in a system that also carried slower freight trains was simply not a viable option. The combination was quite literally a series of accidents waiting to happen and the authorities ensured that the new developments were given their own infrastructure.

Even developing tracks adjacent to each other can be a risky business as the sway factor on the respective trains can be the source of collision if all the parameters are not carefully checked. In the US however it seems the opinions of the freight railroads are considered as a deliberate attempt to extort money from the Government. Most of the big freight carriers, BNSF, Norfolk Southern etc. own and manage their own track and are actively resistant to 200+ mph locomotives either using their tracks or passing too close.

No matter how hard officials try to persuade the freight companies that the $8 billion the Obama administration has earmarked for the high speed projects will be of long term benefit to their business the railways disagree. On the contrary the rail freight operators say cargo will find its way back onto trucks as disillusioned shippers find problems caused by the preference shown to passenger traffic disrupts scheduled freight services.

To satisfy all parties it will be necessary to buy up vast tracts of private land countrywide even to build a close parallel track system in most states especially with Washington currently looking to restrict the profitability of the freight rail carriers, a move strenuously objected to by the Association of American Railroad’s. The AAR also say that $8 billion is a drop in the ocean compared to their investment over the past three decades.

Rail freight companies are not afraid of investment when they smell a profit as with the Heartland Corridor double stack container route and similar projects. Also considering the inherent dangers of running freight and ultra fast passenger trains simultaneously, there seems no clear way for the Government to settle the matter without serious risk to profits, lives or its credibility.