Over most of Obama’s so-called high-speed rail network, the administration proposes to run passenger trains at top speeds of 110 miles per hour on the same tracks as freight trains. But CSX says it will not allow passenger trains to run faster than 90 mph on the same tracks as its freight trains. If the government wants to build new tracks, they must be at least 30 feet from CSX freight tracks.
Since New York, among other states, was counting on using CSX tracks for some of its moderate-speed rail routes, the Empire state has unsuccessfully pressured CSX to change this policy. Last month, the director of the state’s high-speed rail program quit in disgust because she felt other state officials were lying to CSX and not negotiating in good faith.
As noted here before, BNSF also believes that passenger trains faster than 90 mph are incompatible with freight. Other than liability problems, one possible reason for their concern is that the banking of rails around curves must be finely tuned for anticipated rail speeds. Curves banked to allow passenger trains to move at 110 mph might cause slower freight trains to derail.
Union Pacific doesn’t seem to think there is any problem with 110 mph trains, as it happily accepted an Illinois plan to have the government pay to double-track its route from Chicago to St. Louis and eventually run 110-mph passenger trains on that route. But UP’s CEO recently admitted that moderate-speed rail “might not be a good long-term investment.” Perhaps the railroad expects the government will give up on faster trains after it double-tracks UP’s line (which has been funded) but before it takes the additional steps needed to increase speeds above 90 mph (which have not yet been funded).
In other moderate-speed rail news, Wisconsin appears to have decided to terminate its planned Milwaukee-Madison passenger rail route near downtown Madison instead of at the airport, as previously contemplated. Yet this decision reveals just how limited the appeal of the supposed high-speed trains will be.
Initially, Wisconsin plans for trains going at top speeds of 79 mph, which means the trip from Milwaukee to Madison will take longer than existing bus services in the same corridor. But the buses stop both in downtown Madison and at the University of Wisconsin, which (when combined with their lower fares) would make them more appealing to students. Eventually, Wisconsin wants to run trains through to Minneapolis, but that means trains will have to go into Madison, then back out on the same tracks for many miles before they pick up the main line west. The time required to do so will mitigate much if not most of the advantage of rail even if the state is able to eventually boost speeds to 110 mph.
UP’s CEO is right: moderate-speed rail is not a good investment. And neither is true high-speed rail, which costs ten times as much but is not likely to carry ten times as many passengers. The fundamental problem is that high-speed rail advocates want people to switch from faster planes to merely fast trains and convenient, door-to-door autos to merely downtown-to-downtown trains, all at huge taxpayer expense because the trains will cost at least four to five times as much, per passenger mile, as either flying or driving. That is an expensive recipe for failure.
Update: Union Pacific has “vowed to fight” California high-speed rail — or at least fight any attempts to use UP rights of way as high-speed rail corridors. The railroad originally objected in 2008, and has apparently not been swayed from its opposition since then. Rail advocates kindly responded by threatening the railroad with retaliation: “What comes around goes around. If they want to do that kind of thing, watch out.”