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— by Pat Foran, Editor
States are beginning to get down to the difficult business of actually getting down to business and making higher-speed rail (HSR) a reality in the United States. One high-speed hurdle they'll need to clear: coming to terms with what the freight railroad hosts will and won't allow on their tracks or right of way. It isn't an insurmountable hurdle, but clearing it will require communication, attention to detail and patience, as Associate Editor Angela Cotey reports in this month's cover story.
Of course, it'll also take money. Lots of it. But patience (or the lack thereof) could be nearly as big of a potential barrier to entry into the HSR realm. Despite all of the hoopla, HSR never was on a fast track. It got a jump start last year, thanks to the $8 billion in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act dollars set aside for high-speed and intercity passenger-rail projects, but the devil is in the myriad details. Liability, capacity and ROI issues always prompt Class Is to proceed with caution when determining whether to enter into agreements with passenger-rail operators, and these HSR ventures will be no different. Toss in the ever-changing winds of political will and/or clout, an anything-but-consensus public view on the necessity of HSR and an enormously uncertain economy, and you might as well buckle up and prepare for a slow ride. Norfolk Southern Corp. EVP and CIO Deb Butler summed it up succinctly, telling Cotey: "There's probably a bit of a disconnect between all of the money that's been talked about and actually getting high-speed rail started and built in many places. This is a very long process."
We'll continue to track that process as it unfolds, primarily on HSRupdates.com, Progressive Railroading's subscription-based website devoted solely to high-speed rail.
On May 28, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Tax Extenders Act of 2009 (H.R. 4213), which includes a one-year (tax-year 2010) extension of the Section 45G railroad track maintenance credit that expired at 2009's end. But it only passed after one of the "most contentious and confused House legislative wrangling sessions in recent years," as Adam Nordstrom, a partner with short-line industry lobbying firm Chambers, Conlon & Hartwell L.L.C., put it in an email.
Short-line lobbyists have been seeking a multi-year extension of the tax credit, but have been pursuing the one-year extension through the extenders bill to make Section 45G available to short lines in tax-year 2010. First enacted in 2005, Section 45G enables short lines to claim a tax credit of 50 cents for every dollar spent on infrastructure improvements, up to a cap of $3,500 per mile of owned or leased track.
The House originally passed H.R. 4213 in December and the Senate amended the bill in March. Section 45G advocates had hoped the Senate would take up the measure before Memorial Day. Now, the Senate likely will consider the House-approved bill later this month and is likely to amend the bill once again, which would require yet another House vote — a procedure "accurately described as 'ping-pong,'" Nordstrom noted.
In the meantime and amid the paddling, Section 45G proponents will keep on advocating. Among the fight's more eloquent advocates: Farmrail System Inc. CEO George Betke Jr., who shares his thoughts on the tax-credit situation this month (see Guest Comment).
Positive train control (PTC) was the top-of-mind topic at the Railway Systems Suppliers Inc.'s 50th C&S Exhibition, held May 17-19 at the Qwest Center in Omaha, Neb. The PTC current guided you as you walked the show floor. But this year, the flow was different.
The near-giddiness that permeated the 2009 show in Nashville, Tenn., wasn't present in Omaha. The mood was sober. Railroaders, suppliers and regulators in attendance were focused on the challenge at hand: meeting the PTC 2015 implementation deadline.
Exhibitors came prepared, saying they'd studied up by reading the railroads' detailed PTC implementation plans, which the roads had filed with the Federal Railroad Administration a month earlier. Some talked about the need to be nimble, and were marketing their technology accordingly. Others did their best to bring the PTC balloon back to Kansas (or, in this case, Nebraska). At Ansaldo STS USA's booth, a station beckoned signal engineers to "Try PTC For Yourself" at a makeshift console. In short: At RSSI, rail execs and would-be PTC players got down to business. As for the giddiness: It left the proverbial building on or about the time the show opened, according to unpublished reports.