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.

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

  1. Acela only runs on Amtrak/state agency owned trackage, where freight trains have inferior priority to passenger. Acela’s top speed is lowered more by the aging infrastructure (particularly the Overhead Caternary System) and commuter train conflicts than by freights.

    I personally think HSR with freight can be done in lower demand corridors, or in areas where funds cannot be obtained for dedicated infrastructure.

  2. Acela’s average speed is mostly lowered by the need to comply with FRA safety regulations which require American trains to be very, very stiff and thus very, very heavy. This regulatory approach, which is different from everywhere else in the world and which is far stricter than it was during the heyday of American railroading leads to very heavy passenger trains that not only require lots of energy to move and accelerate slowly but also wear out tracks very quickly. This is why mixing passenger trains with freight trains in the U.S. is a very bad idea (a passenger only system can use sensibly designed equipment).

    Steve is right that oudated overhead wires are an issue, but not nearly as big of an issue as the fact that the entire U.S. regulatory system makes high speed passenger rail difficult. It would make a world of sense and save a ton of money for the U.S. to adopt European or Japanese passenger rail safety regulations but this is unlikely because the freight railroads are pretty happy with the current regulatory climate.

  3. To Elaborate on Winston’s point regarding FRA regulations for “compliant” train designs. It would be the same as if NHTSA required all cars to be built like a Box truck (Strait, solid frame rails, massive amounts of steel and a minimum weight of 10,000 lb) because there are trucks on the road. Disallowing crumple zones and preventing anything close to an efficient vehicle. Or all bikes being required to weight 200lb and withstand the impact of a high speed collision with an SUV.

    If this one regulation was re-evaluated, and European safety standards introduced we would have access to a great number of clean, safe, and efficient passenger train designs that are already available for use today.

  4. The people of California voted for Proposition 1A, High-Speed Rail. They were promised at least 217 mph (the current speed of the fastest trains). Sharing tracks with freight cars will damage the aluminum-alloy high speed rail tracks necessary to reach speeds in excess of 200 mph. New and advanced technology overhead catenary lines will have to be installed. This is not your grandparents railway system. It is extremely-advanced technology which hopes to exceed speeds of 300 mph in five to seven years.
    Either we build a 21st century High Speed rail system…or we remain locked into the 19th and mid-twentieth century.

  5. It’s all good until a high speed train crashes into a freight train. Then there will be blood on someone’s hands. Build it right in the first place. The US always tries to do things on the cheap.

  6. As a follow-up to Jeremiah – Metrolink’s new cab cars do feature crumple zones. I have a feeling that this design will start to prevail across the country to better meet FRA criteria.

    And I agree with vito – there are larger levels of risk here than in Europe. Keep in mind that a long freight train by European standards is 20 cars. A long freight train by American standards is 200 cars. It is a vastly different philosophy, which one could is the reason our freight rail share is the envy of European countries.

  7. Anson- Aluminum alloy rails is not necessary for speeds in excess of 200 MPH. Aluminum alloy never has and never will be used as a wheel or rail material. All high speed rail systems (with the exception of Mag-Lev) operates steel wheels on steel rail.

  8. Steve:

    Given that European trains perform better in collisions with solid objects than American trains and that they also perform better in simulations in collisions with U.S. freight trains than their American counterparts, it is fair to conclude that FRA regulations do little to protect passengers. Metrolink’s new cars are actually a great example of how FRA regulations endanger passengers. Yes, they have crumple zones, but the cars are about twice as stiff as they need to be meaning that the crumple zones can’t absorb nearly as much energy as they would on comparable European, Japanese or Chinese equipment, which means that passengers suffer a much stronger, injury causing jolt in a collision than they would in trains in developed countries.

  9. there is no way in hell sharing high speed and freight lines will work. ugh. cant barely make it happen with the metrolink amtrak and freight. sharing with high speed would be ridiculous.

  10. Winston – I had never heard that claim that they would perform better in a crash with FRA-Compliant equipment before. Do you have engineering studies, crash test data, or other engineering reports to back it up?

  11. Steve:

    I don’t have the info handy, but simulations are in a report done for Caltrain which is planning to run non-FRA compliant vehicles on track shared with FRA compliant passenger trains. They also plan to run a small amount of freight on the line when passenger trains are not running. If you’re really interested check the caltrain-hsr compatibility blog ( which is where I believe I saw the report some time ago.

  12. Steve: consider also the fact that Australian, Russian, and Chinese passenger trains run safely even as they share tracks with long freight trains. Or for that matter the fact that from the perspective of a 100-ton commuter train, it really doesn’t matter whether it’s colliding with a 2,000-ton European freight train or a 10,000-ton American freight train: in both cases, it’s like running into a wall.

    You’re right that the Acela’s biggest problem with top speed is not sharing tracks with freight but the way the commuter agencies treat it, but the weight regulations are a huge problem in other ways.

    First, heavy trains wear the tracks more, which increases maintenance costs. The amount of track wear is proportional to the fourth power of axle load, which means that a 23 tons/axle Acela/Regional locomotive alone creates the same track wear as a 16-car 11.5 tons/axle Shinkansen trainset.

    Second, the maximum speed allowed on curves depends on track geometry, which depends on how heavy the trains on the tracks are to be. The maximum cant for a lightweight passenger train is about 8″. Heavy trains can’t do this, because they demolish the track, creating defects that make high cants unsafe; this cuts the cant on the NEC to 4″, forcing trains to slow down more for curves. On top of it, the cant deficiency permitted is higher for lighter trains. The Acela is limited to a cant deficiency of 7″, but European tilting trains routinely do 10-12″. Cant and cant deficiency add up, so overall we’re talking 11″ equivalent cant instead of 18-20″, which would raise speeds by 28-35% on curvy track.

    (Another reason cants are low in the US is that cant excess is regulated based on freight rail’s needs. Even compliant passenger trains, such as Metro-North equipment, could safely take the cant excess implied by 8″ cant. But the rules are based on what’s good for freight even on tracks freight rail will never use.)

    And third, freight trains have a limited ability to climb grades. High-speed trains and modern EMUs easily climb 3-3.5% grades; freight trains groan at anything higher than about 1-1.5%, and just can’t do more than 2.2%. The gentler grades force changes in elevation to take place over longer ramps, increasing cost and visual impact. You’d much rather the el in your suburb were only 1 kilometer long and not 3 kilometers long.

  13. FYI, the plans for the Midwest network, although they *do* envision sharing track with freight, end up with several corridors with minimal sharing, including Chicago-Fort Wayne-Toledo and Chicago-Detroit.

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