Rail

Freight and Passenger Rail: Friends or Foes?

Posted on January 12, 2010 by Claire Atkinson, Senior Editor

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[IMAGE]ET01freight-.jpg[/IMAGE]With political forces and public interest turning toward rail, growing traffic on the nation's rail network and infrastructure build-outs will no doubt be a part of coming decades. Freight and passenger rail operators are preparing for that growth and looking at options to share rail lines or add capacity through a variety of cooperative arrangements.

Passenger rail advocates see existing freight railways, in many cases, as the first choice for expanding capacity. "The growth of rail is going to require the prudent use of the corridors that exist," says Art Guzzetti, vice president, policy, for the American Public Transportation Association (APTA). 

Freight operators, however, emphasize the importance of balancing both freight and passenger needs on the nation's rail network. "Nobody in the world does freight railroading better than the folks in this country," says Jay Westbrook, assistant vice president, passenger and commuter operations, at CSX Corp. "There are tremendous amounts of freight that travel the nation's railways that are not on the highways impeding our automobiles. It would not make a lot of sense to sacrifice that freight system when you're trying to improve the fluidity of both highway and rail traffic."

A shared history

For Amtrak, freight railway sharing has been a built-in part of the system's development. The agency began in the 1970s as a management entity for passenger trains running on freight railways and evolved into a rail operator in its own right, an owner of some portions of track and employer of its own rail crews.

Amtrak only owns about 600 of the 21,000 miles of track its trains run on - mostly in the Northeast corridor, according to Corporate Communications Director Cliff Black. "Everywhere else, Amtrak is a tenant on the nation's freight railroads."

CSX Corp. is one of the freight operators Amtrak relies on for trackage, operating in 23 states east of the Mississippi River. Of the 220 daily passenger trains on CSX railway, 60 are Amtrak trains. The remaining trains are comprised mostly of what the company refers to as the Big Four group: the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA), the Maryland Area Regional Commuter (MARC) Train Service, the Virginia Railway Express (VRE), and South Florida Regional Transportation Authority's TriRail.

Building partnerships

Amtrak has a dedicated staff - the host railroads division of the policy and development department — that maintains liaison with its freight partners. "The freight railroads also provide an Amtrak liaison," Black says. "They dedicate an upper middle manager to the job, and Amtrak pays the cost of that person, even though he or she is a direct employee of the freight railroad."

In its relationships with freight operators, Amtrak negotiates the cost of using freights' lines and services, and pays for any incremental costs incurred by Amtrak trains running on their tracks. In addition, "Sometimes they sell us fuel and provide on-route mechanical repairs if necessary, and we sometimes lease stations and buildings from them," Black explains.

In dealing with its passenger rail tenants, Westbrook says, "None of them are alike - they have their own unique needs and characteristics."

CSX has established four principles that must be taken into consideration when adding passenger trains on its lines: safety, liability, ability to serve current and future customers, and funding. "If a community can say, 'we've got a solution for all four of those,' then we're willing to take those discussions further," Director of Corporate Communications Gary Sease says.

Westbrook says an example of one of the more successful partnerships is with the VRE. "The reason it is one of the more successful relationships is the belief by the commuter agency, the Commonwealth of Virginia and CSX that one must build the capacity before one adds the trains," he says. CSX conducts capacity studies to determine through engineering the enhancements required for adding passenger trains, and Westbrook emphasizes that funding must be in place to complete those enhancements.

Although rail sharing may not be a source of direct revenue for freight operators, Westbrook says there are still tangible gains. In Florida, he says, CSX was able to sell tracks to the state for passenger rail in exchange for enhancements to the company's freight line. Under a partnership in Massachusetts, CSX will turn over use of tracks around Boston during daylight hours in exchange for clearance to operate double-stack trains.

Amtrak offers freight operators financial incentives for the improvement of on-time performance. Black says that in the past, these incentives were not large enough in number to attract the attention of the freights, but as the operators have become better at choreographing the dispatch of both freight and passenger trains on their lines, the incentives they are now able to claim are an added benefit to the partnership. "Is Amtrak upset about having to pay more? Not at all, because on-time trains bring more passengers and it raises the quality of the service. And with higher-quality service, we can charge a higher fare," Black says.

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