Planner Calls For ‘Fight’ Against High-Speed Rail Sharing Track With Freight

As federal and local officials plot out the future of U.S. high-speed rail, a prominent speaker at this week's American Planning Association conference is urging fellow urban planners to "fight" the prospect of high-speed rail sharing roadbed with freight lines -- a significant dilemma for Amtrak, which must split an estimated 70 percent of its track with freight.

371487850_3908ba93fb_thumb_461x500.jpgAmtrak's Acela can feasibly top 100 miles per hour, but is often relegated to lower speeds by the need to share roadbed. (Photo: Flickr/pgengler)
Leslie Pollock, a principal at the Chicago-based firm Camiros, today outlined his high-speed rail presentation from the conference for reporters, focusing on two issues that he depicted as major obstacles to a successful domestic high-speed rail network.

Pollock noted that two of the three bullet train plans receiving the bulk of early federal funding -- California's and Florida's -- would build dedicated new track for high-speed service, while the midwest initiative would attempt to share track with freight companies.

"As soon as you begin to" rely on track where freight and passenger rail coexist, Pollock said, "you begin to slow down travel and start to create inefficiencies. Indeed, one of the problems underlying Amtrak for many years has been it that it has to operate at the pleasure of freight lines on its road bed." 

The limiting effect of shared track on new high-speed service was felt most acutely in the northeast corridor between Washington and Boston, where Amtrak has acknowledged that trains are forced to share an "overcrowded, and often overwhelmed, track."

The northeastern area got just 1.4 percent of the first round of Obama administration high-speed grants, a move that prompted blowback from some Republicans but ultimately was acknowledged to be a consequence of local planning deficiencies and aging track.

The shared-tracking approach, according to Pollock, is a "challenge" that "you have to fight" -- and he outlined another problem facing high-speed rail planners: "Frankly, you have to fight political demand for stops, because everybody wants a station."

The location of stops along Florida's planned line has drawn particular criticism in recent days. A recent New York Times report identified weak links in the state rail system's connections with local Tampa and Orlando transit, as well as its failure to include the Tampa airport as a stop.

Despite his warning of the risk inherent in splitting track between passenger and freight rail, Pollock did highlight the value of an improved rail network in the northeast, one of the few areas in the nation where train travel times are competitive or more attractive than those for air trips.

The planner closed by emphasizing the importance of a long view in gauging the success of U.S. high-speed rail. "These things take time" to be integrated into the culture of travel, Pollock said, warning that five or ten years would be too short of a period to truly expect bullet trains to remake American infrastructure.