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Modern Transportation for the Virginias

East coast high-speed rail summit

From VARP’s On Track newsletter, winter 2008

By Michael Testerman, VARP president

The conference, held October 22 in Raleigh, NC, was well planned and executed, and the North Carolina Chapter of the Women’s Transportation Seminar did it all with volunteer labor.

The purpose of the summit was to examine “co-mingled” traffic—how to advance passenger and freight services that are compatible with each other. “The summit was prompted because with new leadership in Congress, U.S. oil dependency on people who, as one speaker said, ‘don't like us very much,’ nightmarish congestion and climate changes, rail is increasingly seen as a necessity,” wrote Nancy Finch of Virginians for High Speed Rail. For the most part, the panelists fell short of covering the subject head-on.

Missing from the summit was an illustrated presentation of what a high-performance rail line developed publicly and privately would look like and how it would operate—carrying domestic intermodal shipments and passengers in midrange markets. The best slide of the day showed the promise of rail—a high-speed (electrified) rail line being built through the wilderness of Finland, of all places.

National Corridors Initiative president Jim RePass attended. Notably absent were any speakers from Virginia’s Kaine administration, except Kevin Page of the Department of Rail and Public Transportation, who introduced a panel. North Carolina, Georgia, and Florida sent some members of their transportation boards and commissions and from their rail divisions. Tennessee had the Nashville and Eastern Railroad Authority’s Val Kelly.

The panelists comprised state rail officials Pat Simmons of North Carolina, Karen Rae of New York, and Frank Busalacchi of Wisconsin (he also heads States for Passenger Rail); a transportation professor, Anthony Perl; an Amtrak official, Drew Galloway; an industry consultant, Louis Thompson; rail industry reps Craig Lewis of Norfolk Southern and Lisa Mancini of CSX; and Washington insiders Donald Itzkoff, Mort Downey, Jennifer Esposito (House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee majority staff director), and Stephen Gardner (U.S. Senate staff). There was a video interview with Jim Oberstar and teleconference interviews with Reps. John Mica of Florida and David Price of North Carolina.

Columnist Neal Peirce led off the summit, explaining that passenger rail will be the only way to get around the nation’s emerging mega-regions as the Interstates become congested with local traffic.

Most everyone gave status reports instead of offering visions of what could be. Perhaps the person to get closest to the subject was Norfolk Southern’s Craig Lewis, who suggested that intermodal freight could be an “incremental user” of a publicly developed “higher-speed” line that is mostly for passenger use. He was probably referring to the Raleigh-Greensboro-Charlotte portion of the North Carolina Railroad. His notion is actually the basis of the whole Steel Interstate concept, which has evolved from former Federal Railroad Administrator Gil Carmichael’s “Interstate II” proposal. Any rail renaissance needs to include higher-speed freight trains. The most appropriate shipments are now in road trailers, not international containers or bulk-commodity railcars. Interstate II would overlay on existing trunk rail lines a double-track national system roughly paralleling the Interstate Highway System, totally separated from road crossings and engineered for track speeds between 80 and 110 miles per hour. Mid-range intercity passenger trains and open-technology intermodal trains would run on it—all scheduled, all at track speed, all nonstop between terminals, with lower-speed access and pull-off tracks. This Steel Interstate should be able to easily handle 7,000 diverted trucks per day and over 8,000 passengers in every 500-mile market. The beauty of this system is that would economically justify electrification, getting the United States started on a national energy independence program. (Rail Solution Executive Director Dave Foster spoke personally with Craig Lewis, giving him a copy of the latest brochure, which elaborates on the Steel Interstate concept. Craig Lewis asked for a copy of Gilbert Carmichael’s “It’s Time for Interstate II” paper, which Dave sent him.)

The federal Corridors of the Future program is a very small step in that direction. CSX dropped the ball, in my opinion, by not focusing more on its I-95 corridor rail proposal for the Corridors of the Future. The I-95 corridor is a prime example for developing co-mingled higher-speed rail. Lines on a map are a poor substitute for illustrations of the finished product.

Many references were made to the comments of Canadian National Chief Executive Officer Hunter Harrison at the Standing Committee on Rail Transportation meeting in Biloxi, MS, where he had said that Canadian National does not want to enter public-private partnerships. Craig Lewis was more positive, mentioning another speaker at that committee conference, John Fischer, who said that intermodal rail and passenger trains serve the same markets and regions.

Karen Rae also had some refreshing comments, listing four keys to success and four barriers. Three of the barriers are funding silos for individual modes, missing stakeholders in the planning process, and politics (that is, earmarks and dumb regulations) over analysis.

Louis Thompson gave a well-illustrated presentation in which he diagramed the ways rail corridors can be publicly developed on private right-of-way. He itemized a list of must-haves, if rail is really to be developed:

Most of the suggestions Louis Thompson proposed require executive execution by public- and private-sector leaders who strategically understand the role for rail in 21st-century transportation policies. We are nowhere near there yet. Advocates need to press forward with a campaign of education and grassroots organizing.

Pictures of where we want to go, as well as high-profile speakers willing to lay out a detailed plan for how to get there, are still lacking from rail conferences. Most consultants and university researchers who understand rail are not being visionary because their bread-and-butter work serves the status quo. It’s not in anyone’s self-interest to be very visionary. But passenger rail advocates need to understand that they will not make real progress—expanding passenger trains—until they start addressing fundamental transportation policy reforms that also take domestic freight shipments off the Interstate highways. There must be a national rail equivalent of the Interstate Highway system. Like the rest of the world, we must become accustomed to earth-movers building new rail right-of-ways, just as we observed when the National Interstate and Defense Highway System was built.