Now comes Brian Palmer in the Washington Post, letting the establishment know.
U.S. trains may not be the best at moving people, but they're great at moving everything else. More than 40 percent of U.S. freight miles are done by rail, compared with less than 15 percent in Europe, according to Christopher Barkan, a professor who heads the railroad engineering program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In terms of carbon footprint, that's a great statistic. The railroad industry likes to brag that it can carry a ton of freight 436 miles on a single gallon of diesel -- three times better than a truck can do -- but even that is just an average. Some freight lines manage 517 miles.The technology for making this happen, however, is not conducive to putting passenger miles away at 200 per hour.
The problem is that freight track and high-speed track are built with completely different considerations in mind, making it difficult for a country to maintain both a world-class freight network and a first-rate passenger system.Mr Palmer's ensuing discussion of railroad technology is right in part, wrong in part, but on balance accurate. (What intrigues is the mention of California's bullet trains carrying time-sensitive goods such as computer chips. Fast emergency package service, anyone?)
An Economist article is more to the point. America’s system of rail freight is the world’s best. High-speed passenger trains could ruin it.
The balance of the article is a pretty good capsule summary of material detailed in the last thirty years of Trains and elaborated on as required at Cold Spring Shops. Read and understand. Note, however, that a lot of that missing track, and much of the missing signalling, reflect decisions made by railroad managements during their era of downsizing. The Lackawanna Cutoff, the second track and the automatic train control on Illinois Central south from Chicago, the second track on The Milwaukee Road ... motivated by productivity gains in freight that might not have been realized.
Despite the excitement of railway buffs and the enthusiasm of environmentalists, high-speed rail in America is likely to mean a few more diesel-electric intercity trains at 110mph, not swish electric expresses going nearly twice as fast.
But the problem with America’s plans for high-speed rail is not their modesty. It is that even this limited ambition risks messing up the successful freight railways. Their owners worry that the plans will demand expensive train-control technology that freight traffic could do without. They fear a reduction in the capacity available to freight. Most of all they fret that the spending of federal money on upgrading their tracks will lead the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), the industry watchdog, to impose tough conditions on them and, in effect, to reintroduce regulation of their operations. Attempts at re-regulation have been made in Congress in recent years, in response to rising freight rates. “The freight railroads feel they are under attack,” says Don Phillips, a rail expert in Virginia.
RUNNING EXTRA. Destination: Freedom reacts to The Economist.
Yes, [the freight railroads are] annoyed –- but the sky is not really falling. The high speed rail program inaugurated by President Obama is a capacity-building opportunity disguised as a problem for the freights. Let’s hope they can seize it.Unfortunately, the dispatchers and telegraphers who routinely mingled 110 mph Hiawathas and Zephyrs and Chiefs and Mercuries with the shorter, slower, and more numerous steam freight trains have crossed the final summit. The mouse-jockey train delayers of today will have to learn from scratch. It is a capacity-building opportunity, but there is no such thing as free capacity.