Are freight railroads starting to take passenger trains more seriously?

For most of the last half of the 20th century and into the start of the 21st, the apparent prevailing attitude of the large private, primarily freight-carrying railroads towards passenger trains was to treat them as a necessary nuisance and a hindrance to efficient, fluid freight movement. But there are signs that senior management at the Class I’s are starting to take passenger trains more seriously, and look to passenger train operators and the government agencies that sponsor passenger trains as potential partners rather than adversaries.

DeKalb Junction, NY
DeKalb Junction, NY

I have heard ample anecdotal evidence of this attitude shift from industry observers with whom I have spoken, and also got a sense of it from two recent speeches by one  Vice President and one Assistant Vice President of two Class I’s — albeit the two that have long been considered more passenger-friendly than the others: BNSF and Norfolk Southern. In his keynote address before Railway Age’s Passenger Trains on Freight Railroads conference in October, NS President James A. Squires reversed the conference’s theme and spoke of freight trains operating on passenger railroads.

Squires noted that NS relies on access to tracks owned by Amtrak and commuter authorities to reach customers that provide more than $1 billion in revenue annually. He called for using this as a model for “being creative about how we wring the most use out of our networks.” He also seemed to welcome the idea of expanded passenger services continuing to share facilities with freight trains:

While light rail and high speed rail certainly have their place, planners may want to consider in some cases if conventional passenger rail solutions couldn’t address the same transportation challenges while continuing to allow interoperability with freight trains. But that’s not to suggest all the challenges of sharing infrastructure are passenger-caused—for example, freight’s desire to go higher, heavier, and even wider also raises interoperability issues, potentially frustrating passenger operations. So there are trade-offs on both sides.

Speaking during the Transportation Research Board (TRB) Annual Meeting in Washington, DC on January 11-13, BNSF AVP for Passenger Operations DJ Mitchell echoed some of the same themes in terms of the challenges that need to be overcome to make shared use successful. He also encouraged passenger stakeholders to consider the cost and business impacts of building infrastructure that accommodates robust passenger service while needing to protect the reliability of freight operations.

Waterville,NY DL&W
Waterville,NY DL&W
Waterbury, CT
Waterbury, CT

Both men agreed that additional right of way would be needed to add capacity to many routes. “I’d propose that expanding the footprints of corridors—especially shared passenger and freight corridors—is the most forward-looking step we can take,” Squires said. If we insist on adding more frequent passenger service on single-track lines, “all we are doing is likely postponing a day of reckoning when either the passenger user or the freight user feels a capacity squeeze,” he warned. Mitchell explained that BNSF’s ability and willingness to cooperate with passenger stakeholders on introducing or expanding service comes down to three C’s: cash, capacity constraints, and capabilities. He also said passenger agencies must recognize the need for, and cost of, the three R’s: redundancy, reliability and recoverability.

“While these long-term investments can be tough to justify in capital-scarce times, [land on which to widen railroad rights-of-way] is surprisingly available,” Squires pointed out, noting that land can be taken on either side of a corridor, but warning that planners should work to prevent encroachments abutting railroad rights of way. “Another focus should be chokepoints that constrain the growth of freight business on passenger lines and vice versa,” he added. “These chokepoints exist for a reason—they are usually difficult and expensive to fix. Otherwise, they would have been fixed long ago.”

Capacity constraints, BNSF’s Mitchell said, “can go away if you build various capacity improvements, [such as] long leads into and out of yards, sidings, [and] adequate station capacity. To get redundancy, he said, you need a system that can accommodate failures, but without resorting to temporal separation or curfews, which “we don’t like” and which BNSF cannot accept.

Mitchell shifted emphasis during TRB’s Intercity Passenger Rail Committee meeting on Jan. 13. “The world around us is changing. Young people are going car-free in places like Chicago.” Mitchell explained that he used CTA’s Blue Line to get from O’Hare Airport to BNSF’s downtown Chicago offices, but after the office was moved to Naperville, a suburb 25 miles west, he still got there without a car: taking the Blue Line to Union Station and the BNSF-operated Metra commuter rail line, followed by a four-mile walk from the downtown Naperville station to the office. “It’s the question of connections that’s most important,” he emphasized.

To compete with the automobile, which he described as a “multi-mission vehicle,” transit needs to offer the “best in class in terms of cost, payment methods, trip planning and convenience.” “Public transit’s opportunity,” he continued, “is in solving the first and last mile problem: working with bicycles, taxis and hourly or daily rental cars. Transit [fare] cards don’t work on any of those,” but this could change. He mentioned several cities in other countries that have better interconnectivity of travel modes. He also envisioned driverless cars being stationed at suburban commuter rail stations, taken by commuters to their homes overnight and back in the morning, and used by visitors to the suburb during the day.

Two days earlier, at a workshop on passenger and freight corridor segregation, Mitchell laid out the weighty cost numbers for rail infrastructure: 40 miles of relayed rail costs $25 million. Crossovers, allowing trains to move between tracks on a line with two or more tracks, cost between $2 million and $6 million each. Positive Train Control is a costly requirement for many lines, including those hosting passenger trains, and BNSF is spending multi-millions of dollars installing it systemwide, and it will cost approximately $46 million to operationalize PTC just between Chicago and Aurora, IL alone.

Another significant challenge is the speed differential between passenger and freight trains. On a double-track railroad with heavy traffic in both directions, giving passenger trains enough room to overtake and pass freight trains going the same direction is a major logistical difficulty. Triple-tracking the most congested sections of a railroad helps alleviate this problem, but this is not the only reason why the State of California invested in triple-tracking BNSF’s ex-Santa Fe line between Los Angeles and Fullerton.

The State funded and “we built [that] third track … to maintain the other two tracks,” Mitchell explained. “If you don’t understand that you build additional tracks to protect your existing ones, you’re not going to figure it out.” Public funding also tripled some of the mileage used by Sounder commuter trains in the Seattle area, which BNSF operates, for the same reason, as well as to minimize slow orders when one track is closed for maintenance of way.

Mitchell also noted that many of BNSF’s eastbound freight trains in the Los Angeles area run in a repeating pattern each day, as do passenger trains, so the railroad can be a lot more regimented and establish regular meeting and passing points. The same is true on BNSF’s San Joaquin Valley line, where the railroad’s high-priority eastbound intermodal trains are operated in a regular daily pattern, the same way as Amtrak’s state-supported San Joaquins.

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