The ‘Infrastructure Condo’ That Could Help Make High-Speed Rail Happen

As the Obama administration prepares to roll out its ambitious new investment in high-speed rail (HSR), right-of-way — primary control over a stretch of train track, whether existing or envisioned — has become a major consideration for states that want to jumpstart local networks.

In California, freight railroad Union Pacific is negotiating with HSR planners over sharing right-of-way. In upstate New York, planners concede that proposed HSR trains may not reach Niagara Falls because of the hard bargain getting driven by CSX, the freight company that controls right-of-way.

So how can the White House’s HSR plan avoid miring in local right-of-way struggles?

Urban studies professor and transportation expert Anthony Perl outlined his proposed solution today at the U.S. High Speed Rail Association conference. Perl’s answer to the right-of-way conundrum: the "infrastructure condominium."

Perl’s term may not roll off the tongue, but his concept is simple. Instead of freight railroads engaging in high-stakes dealmaking for rights-of-way, HSR planners would lease the rights to the track.

"Freight railroads can collect ‘rent’
for their rights-of-way," Perl explained today, "and can get involved in the operation end [of HSR] if they’re
interested. All they have to do is sign the right documents … and they’ll
get a check every month."

Perl, director of the urban studies program at Simon Fraser University, explains the concept further in his book Transport Revolutions:

In a railway infrastructure condominium, the right-of-way would be owned separately from the tracks, communications and signalling systems and electric power distribution equipment. … The tracks occupying a railway condominium could remain quite segregated operationally, or some could be integrated into a common network. Rents could be paid to a ground-lease holder, which in many cases would be a private railway company that had previously owned the integrated tracks, signals, and right-of-way. These rents could be used to finance electrification of America’s freight rail network, which could remain in private hands.

Perl acknowledged that his "infrastructure condo" would not solve all the difficulties facing the U.S. government’s HSR buildout, and that the freight industry "would fight such an idea" given that their existing rail infrastructure stands to receive a major upgrade as part of the U.S. DOT’s first round of HSR grants.

Still, with conservative critics predicting that the need to accommodate existing track ownership could turn into a "subsidy" for freight railroads, the prospect of reining in the freight industry’s bargaining power — while providing it a guaranteed source of revenue for rights-of-way — could catch on in Washington.

4 thoughts on The ‘Infrastructure Condo’ That Could Help Make High-Speed Rail Happen

  1. I suggest offering the rail companies a bargain: give access to HSR or we’ll drop the immunity provision for track maintenance from the next budget. Currently, rail companies maintain track for the government, which then immunizes them by paying for the results of lawsuits when they do it negligently. I suggest we tell them that that provision will go bye-bye unless they cede right of way to HSR.

    And then I suggest doing it anyway.

  2. I want to keep somewhat anonymous because of where I work… I do have a unique perspective as I do work on a high speed rail project, but my father works for one of the big freight rail industries.

    While the issue of right of way as described in this article is a major problem, I think one major drawback was not discussed. And that is the liability incurred by the freight rail operators. Freight trains derail much more than people expect, and that causes some major headaches. What if these trains derail onto the high speed rail tracks? HSR will be operating with 5min headways in some parts of the US. A derailment could cripple HSR operations or even result in major fatalities.

    There are ways to avoid this, of course, but there is still that concern—especially where ROW is very constricted.

    Also, HSR construction will have major impacts on freight rail delivery. There are huge penalties for freight operators sometimes if cargo arrives even 1 minute late. This is a serious point considering HSR improvements won’t greatly benefit freight operations in many corridors. But I’m sure that every freight operator could appreciate some extra cash.

    I also want to clarify that I’m talking about separate tracks for passenger and freight rail. Sharing the tracks brings many more issues to the table and probably prevents “true” and effective HSR from happening.

  3. The freight railroads that don’t want HSR right next door have a point. There have been several cases where freight derailments “slopped over” into passenger rail tracks, such as in Denver and Metrorail in DC, even when they share only a general r/w. In one Denver case, there were even walls around the freight tracks but they didn’t stop cars from coming through and even if they had the chemical spill resulting from the crash would have closed things down. As an example, see:

  4. Sooner or later we must realize that cheap HSR is not possible. Sharing tracks with freight is a non-starter, and even sharing ROW is problematic as outlined above. Real HSR requires dedicated track and mostly-dedicated ROW, and it will be expensive. The only thing more expensive will be transport with $5 per gallon gasoline and jet fuel.

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