Viewpoint: "Corridors for Freight - How freight railroads could share in the benefits of Amtrak's reauthorization," by Gil Carmichael (6/12/2001)


Congress soon will begin considering proposals to reauthorize Amtrak — and the process may not be completed until late 2002. Given the widespread concerns about Amtrak's operating performance and capital investment needs, the debate likely will be spirited.

What's in it for freight railroads?

Normally, freight railroad CEOs and Association of American Railroads follow Amtrak legislation mainly with an eye on its potential impact upon the compensation levels that freight carriers receive for use of their tracks. There's much more at stake this time. I'm convinced that Amtrak's coming reauthorization offers freight railroads a unique opportunity to share in the benefits — mainly because we've dramatically redefined freight railroads' business environment over the past 25 years.

In the mid-1970s, I served on President Ford's National Transportation Policy Commission, and vividly recall discussions about freight railroads' future. Railroad CEOs, AAR and the commission's members were nearly unanimous in believing the freight carriers' destiny was that of providing long-haul, slow-speed, heavy-weight shipments. Coal, chemicals, grain and metals would provide the traffic base. All the evidence pointed to that. No one in 1975 foresaw the need for a system built and operated to accommodate a surging volume of high-speed container trains.

The focus on heavy-weight and slow-speed delivery of bulk commodities prompted railroads to rip out the second track on their mainlines, obliterate passing sidings and downsize yards. After deregulation in 1980, light-density lines were spun off to hundreds of new local and regional railroads. The spin-offs were an inspired solution that preserved thousands of right-of-way and track miles. The other actions turned out to be mistakes.

Partnering with states for mutual benefit

Today, confronting the impact of hefty growth in intermodal business, railroad managers are forced to correct and reverse those mistakes. It's an expensive proposition, and Wall Street no longer serves as a source of capital investment at the levels railroads require.

The most visionary freight railroads are partnering with state governments as a source of funding that will serve mutually beneficial purposes. But this concept still is in its infancy, negotiations with individual state transportation agencies can be prolonged and the entire process would move faster if federal policy determined that such arrangements are desirable — and qualify for federal funding.

One could argue that a "typical" Amtrak reauthorization bill won't address these issues or necessarily facilitate partnership creation among the freight carriers, states and Amtrak. I don't expect this reauthorization to be "typical." More than 30 states have been included in the Congress-designated list of high-speed corridors. Their transportation officials are growing impatient to get beyond planning into construction. And most urban expressways are clogged with traffic, badly needing congestion relief. Meanwhile, many people doubt that Amtrak, as presently organized, can effectively lead the effort to develop these new high-speed corridors.

The proposed corridors are vital to the freight railroads as natural conduits for intermodal trains. Capacity will be expanded, improved signal systems installed and many grade crossings eliminated. In addition to serving as intermodal train thoroughfares, these projects can relieve the congestion that exists today on several freight mainlines.

Several Midwestern and Southern corridors would use routes that now rank as secondary freight lines — and provide fresh capacity and alternate routes for intercity freight movements.

Reauthorization's potential

If I were sitting in AAR's Washington office strategizing for ways the freight railroads can augment their thinly stretched capital resources, I'd take a hard look at the potential residing within Amtrak's reauthorization framework.

Could it be designed to promote public/private relationships to accelerate high-speed corridor development?

Could it provide the basis for sharing capital investment costs in projects benefiting freight and passenger service?

Would it offer a rational framework within which to evaluate and build high-priority corridors at an early date?

I'm convinced that the potential benefits justify a major effort on the part of AAR and its members to influence the forthcoming reauthorization. The process probably won't be completed for another 18 months, and there's ample time for the industry to develop a strategy and weigh in on the debate.

It's an opportunity that the freight railroads cannot allow to escape them, given the price tag they face for infrastructure improvements.

Gil Carmichael chairs the Amtrak Reform Council, is board chairman of the University of Denver's Intermodal Transportation Institute and is a former Federal Railroad Administrator.

Source: Progressive Railroading Daily News