In the next couple of weeks, Pennsylvania will begin a $750,000 study to determine the feasibility of high-speed passenger rail between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh. It would be an extension of the Keystone Corridor that runs east to Philadelphia.
But the project and other high-speed rail plans around the country using federal economic stimulus money are facing serious challenges from freight rail companies that will not allow high-speed passenger trains to use their tracks or rights-of-way.
The debate could delay expansion of high-speed passenger rail as such issues are discussed between the state and Virginia-based Norfolk Southern Corp. It owns the rails on which Amtrak operates a twice-daily train between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh.
Norfolk Southern says the primary issues are safety and competitiveness, so it expects states and Amtrak to build tracks on their own rights-of-way for high-speed passenger trains.
“Due to safety concerns, along with our need to provide the consistent and reliable service our customers expect, we will not allow passenger trains to operate over our tracks at speeds greater than 90 mph,” Norfolk Southern spokesman Rudy Husband said.
For business, high-speed rail offers an alternative to flying between cities that are less than 300 miles apart and reduces highway congestion, speeding times by which people and goods reach their destinations, according to advocates.
It also offers a fast and reliable mode for commuters, who are using rail more often. Keystone Corridor ridership increased steadily over the last several years, including a 3.9 percent bump in the fiscal year that ended June 30.
That’s a significant problem for the vision of high-speed intercity passenger rail, which includes trains operating well above 90 mph. The train operating between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh travels at about 79 mph, a speed similar to that of most freight trains, according to Norfolk Southern.
On the eastern branch of the Keystone Corridor, Pennsylvania and Amtrak are using more than $25 million in stimulus money to upgrade the line for 125-mph trains, including removal of remaining road crossings in Lancaster County. Amtrak’s trains travel at 110 mph on its rail lines, which were last upgraded in 2006 for increased speeds at a price tag of $145 million.
The state said there’s still time to iron out issues with the freight rail companies and determine the best course of action. Studying the options for high-speed passenger rail will take at least a year, according to PennDOT.
“I think when this study is done, that’s when the bulk of these issues will come up with the railroads,” said Erin Waters, a PennDOT spokeswoman.
Higher-speed trains could be running east to Philadelphia sometime next year, depending on construction schedules. But similar service to Pittsburgh could be a long time off, especially if the state has to buy 200 miles of land to build a rail line. That would cost hundreds of millions of dollars more than using existing rails.
Securing the rights-of-way and building new track is a huge expense and a concern for the state, Waters said.
Although it looks daunting, this process isn’t unusual, said James P. RePass, chairman of The National Corridors Initiative Inc., a Connecticut-based advocate for passenger rail.
“I think the freight-rail guys are being responsible and are doing what’s responsible to their shareholders and public safety,” he said.
The freight companies have legitimate issues on safety, as well as how much control they should relinquish over their property, he said. At some point, passenger and freight rails have to be separated because trains moving at drastically different speeds creates collision hazards, RePass said.
The debate is over where you set that speed limit to separate them, he said. Pennsylvania moving forward with a separate dedicated passenger rail to Pittsburgh is an option that reduces issues with freight companies, he said.
It also would provide another mode of transportation that’s important for the U.S. to be economically competitive, RePass said. High-speed rail would enable commerce, but it must be frequent and reliable so people can do business, he said.
“My advice would be not to study it, build it,” RePass said. “A railroad has existed between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh for nearly 200 years. Do we really have to study whether it’s a good idea? No. We need to study how to pay for it.”
The states and railroad companies need to continue discussions about the expansion of passenger rail because each project is different, and some states, such as California, are more aggressive about having high-speed rail sooner, said Warren Flatau, a spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration in Washington, D.C.
More recently, states and the freight railroads have come closer on some of these issues, he said. That because the FRA issued guiding principles reassuring the freight companies their business interests will be valued as passenger rail initiatives move forward, he said. The discussions are an ongoing part of a national strategy, he said.
“This is part of a longer-term effort to rebalance the transportation sector,” Flatau said. “We want to remedy decades worth of under-investment in railroads.”
National and state leadership is needed to make that happen, RePass said. Large projects cost less when they’re done quickly. Leaders will also need to recognize that the business concerns of the railroads will significantly affect how the vision of passenger rail develops, he said. That means leaders shouldn’t rush to force projects.
Norfolk Southern is listening, but it doesn’t intend to put its business in jeopardy.
“We are willing to have discussions with agencies and authorities regarding passenger and commuter service — at speeds less than 90 mph,” Husband said. “With the understanding that our ability to serve present and future freight customers must be preserved, we are fully protected from a liability standpoint, and we receive fair compensation for the use of our assets.”