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By Jeff Stagl, Managing Editor
Something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue — well, sort of. Our 9th annual maintenance-of-way (MOW) survey generated data and elicited comments that essentially covered the traditional English rhyme for brides.
There's plenty of the "new" variety. For the first time, responses from Class Is, regionals, short lines and passenger railroads reached the 70 mark, including an all-time-high 46 from small railroads and short-line parent firms. Also for the first time, BNSF Railway Co. provided only limited data because it was acquired by Berkshire Hathaway Inc. in February.
In addition, some topics surfaced that we haven't mentioned before, including positive train control (PTC) and high-speed rail projects. For example, RailAmerica Inc.'s survey states that the New England Central Railroad received $51 million in federal high-speed rail funding, and during the next two years will install 70 track miles of continuous-welded rail, 80,000 ties, 14 switches and signal lights at 11 grade crossings. Union Pacific Railroad's survey mentions the Class I has budgeted about $200 million for PTC this year.
Moreover, Sound Transit's survey now includes MOW data on the Lakeview Subdivision near Tacoma, Wash., to reflect the extension of Sounder service to Lakewood later in 2010.
"Whereas up to now, Sounder commuter rail has only operated on freight-owned railroad, the extension from Tacoma to Lakewood is owned by Sound Transit, so for the first time [we] will have primary responsibility for MOW," Sound Transit officials wrote in their survey.
In terms of the "old," many respondents cited challenges that have been brought up in every one of our annual surveys: limited funding and track time, which is more scarce this year because a number of the respondents are handling more traffic than they did in 2009.
Among the 70 respondents, 29 have budgeted less and several have budgeted the same amount for MOW compared with 2009 spending plans. Many of those polled identified tight funding sources as a primary reason, which, to an extent, led to "something blue" — the disappointment expressed by several respondents about the lack of dollars available to maintain track to a desired level.
"The biggest challenge is to be able to stay proactive in conducting MOW work with a reduced budget," wrote Trinity Railway Express officials, who budgeted $3.6 million for MOW in 2010 vs. 2009's $6.1 million.
Officials at Regional Rail L.L.C., which has reduced this year's budget to $1.4 million from 2009's $2 million, simply wrote: "Again relying heavily on Pennsylvania and New York DOT grants to accomplish much of the work."
And Norfolk Southern Corp. MOW officials, who are managing a 2010 budget of $696 million vs. 2009's $706 million, wrote: "Our challenge is to spend the authorized funding wisely to the greatest benefit for each dollar spent."
As for "something borrowed," a few respondents mentioned they are temporarily adding workers to their gangs or hiring contractors to help complete more ambitious MOW programs this year. For example, the Reading, Blue Mountain & Northern Railroad, whose budget will balloon from $3.1 million last year to $15.7 million if the short line obtains state funding for a bridge project's second phase, plans to employ a contractor with two gangs from April 15 to Nov. 15 to assist with tie and switch projects.
Suffice it to say that despite fiscal uncertainties, a majority of the respondents have higher budgets and a lot of work pegged for 2010. In the pages that follow, we provide more summations of the information and comments submitted by Class Is, regionals/short lines and passenger railroads, as well as breakdowns of the MOW programs planned by each of the 70 respondents.