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Rail News: Passenger Rail

New bill proposes to improve passenger rail access to freight rights of way


You can’t squeeze blood from a turnip, but with Surface Transportation Board’s help, transit agencies might be able to wring access out of freight railroads.

Congressman Bob Clement, D-Tenn., July 26 introduced to the House Transit Rail Accommodation Improvement and Needs Act for the 21st Century (H.R. 2654) — dubbed "Train-21." If enacted, the bill would "designate STB as a forum to improve passenger rail and other fixed guideway passenger transportation by allowing improved access to freight track and rights of way for fixed guideway transportation for just and reasonable compensation to freight railroads," according to Train-21’s summary.

In the process of creating Amtrak, Congress mandated that it should have priority access to the nation’s rail network. But that only covers Amtrak.

Historically, agencies that want to run commuter — and sometimes light-rail — trains on freight-owned tracks have had to rely on their own negotiating skills and freight rails’ willingness to share access when it wouldn’t interfere with their own operations.

Although passenger and freight rail systems do enjoy some successful working relationships, such as Chicago’s Metra, California’s Caltrans and Washington, D.C., area’s Virginia Railway Express, that’s not always the case.

After concluding its Class I trackage negotiations in April 1999, Central Puget Sound Regional Transit Authority’s plans were delayed another 19 months due to ongoing discussions with a short line.

Sound Transit and BNSF agreed to a 20-year, $4.6 million-per-year contract for the Class I to operate Sounder commuter trains and for use of BNSF’s right of way. Sound Transit also agreed to pay $200 million toward capital improvements on 40 miles of track between Tacoma, Wash., and Seattle. Washington Department of Transportation contributed $60 million, and BNSF and Union Pacific Railroad, $11 million.

However, in a November 2000 agreement with the city of Tacoma, Sound Transit agreed to pay $1.5 million to improve about a mile of adjacent Tacoma Rail track, and $8 million to build a new connection between the short line and BNSF’s mainline, then coordinate schedules to share the single Tacoma Rail track.

Similarly, Maine passenger rail proponents, who have been trying for more than a decade to procure Amtrak service, have faced numerous delays in negotiating with Guilford Rail System — even though Amtrak’s access already is mandated.

If passed, the proposed bill would grant STB authority to "order that the trackage be made available and related services be provided to the mass transportation authority," and to "prescribe reasonable terms and compensation for use of the trackage and provision of related services," if an agency had been unable to reach an agreement with a freight carrier on its own.

STB also could consider the rail carrier’s quality of service as a major factor when determining track use compensation; prescribe the number and speed of trains to be operated; determine whether an agency could add more trains; order increased or improved track maintenance or related capital work improvements; and require the rail carrier to allow accelerated speeds and related capital work.

And, except in an emergency, a fixed guideway transportation provided by or for a mass transportation authority would have preference over freight transportation in using a rail line, junction or crossing, unless STB ordered otherwise. STB would issue its decisions within 120 days of a mass transportation authority’s application.

Association of American Railroads’ top official was quick to cry, "Foul!" on behalf of the freight roads.

"Freight railroads should not be forced to allow passenger operators to use their assets any more than any other private business should be forced to allow another company to use its assets," said Edward Hamburger, AAR president and chief executive officer, in a prepared statement.

The proposed bill has five co-sponsors: Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore.; Michael Honda, D-Calif.; Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio; John Mica, R-Fla.; and Ellen Tauscher, D-Calif.

The House referred Train-21 to the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, which, in turn, July 27 referred it to the Subcommittee on Railroads.