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By Jeff Stagl, Managing Editor
In Chicago, 10 freight and passenger railroads share or cross each other’s tracks numerous times daily throughout a convoluted network stretching hundreds of miles in and around the Windy City. To ease traffic congestion in the nation’s largest rail gateway and accommodate future growth, the railroads have partnered with federal, state and local governments to carry out the multi-phased Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency (CREATE) program.
In New Orleans, home of the nation’s fourth-largest rail gateway, a “mini-CREATE” aims to meet many of the same goals. The New Orleans Rail Gateway program is designed to foster more efficient operations among nine railroads and expand capacity for future freight-volume growth throughout a Big Easy area that includes a 29-mile main corridor, four passenger-rail routes, more than 20 grade crossings, 13 rail yards (including six intermodal terminals) and 10 interlockings.
The city’s 35-mile rail network serves as a vital link in the east/west distribution of freight traffic, provides access to Mexican and Canadian markets, and connects with two ports. Each year, freight railroads operating in the Big Easy average about 1.7 million cars and each day, all the roads average 56 train movements, including 23 manifest, 15 yard/local, 10 intermodal and six Amtrak trains.
Proposed for nearly a decade and currently under further study, the New Orleans Rail Gateway program includes various projects, such as double tracking the 29-mile corridor within existing rights of way, grade separating or closing crossings, realigning and adding track for better route flexibility, automating or improving interlockings, and improving the gateway’s signal system.
The program is being developed via a public-private partnership comprising the Louisiana Department of Transportation Development (DOTD), New Orleans Regional Planning Commission, Association of American Railroads, Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) and six Class Is: BNSF Railway Co., CN, CSX Transportation, Kansas City Southern, Norfolk Southern Railway and Union Pacific Railroad. Amtrak, the New Orleans Public Belt Railroad Co. (NOPB) and Port of New Orleans also are involved in the program.
A feasibility study completed in 2007 identified three infrastructure improvement alternatives involving what program partners characterize as the Front Belt, Middle Belt and Back Belt. The Front Belt running along NOPB lines is primarily single tracked and designed for switching, and would be difficult to double track because there is a limited amount of land that could be acquired, says DOTD Intermodal Transportation Manager J. Dean Goodell.
The Middle Belt, or Carrolton Curve, which involves a KCS line and a connection to the New Orleans Union Passenger Terminal, runs through several minor housing developments and would require the acquisition of a number of homes to accommodate double track, he says.
That leaves the Back Belt, most of which is track owned by NS. Under that option, only about 300 yards of the belt would need to be double tracked to remove a bottleneck and a third track could be built for crew changes, says Goodell.
“But the Back Belt doesn’t solve all public issues and is in heavy residential areas,” he says.
It likely will take two to thee years to sort out the pros and cons and choose the best alternative, says Larry Ratcliffe, CSXT’s director of network planning, and a member of the gateway’s planning committee.
“It’s all about how to get better connectivity between carriers,” he says.
The next step in cementing the optimal option: completing an environmental study Michael Baker Jr. Inc. began last year. Sponsored by the DOTD and FRA, and slated for completion in mid-2014, the study will analyze the program’s potential environmental and social impacts, and help identify the best course of action.
In addition to advancing the environmental study, program partners are trying to obtain federal and state funding for the work. The program is projected to cost about $700 million, or about $500 million minus the costs to remove Back Belt track if the Middle Belt option is chosen, acquire some rights of way and cover mitigation expenses, says Goodell.
Construction could start in 2017, but might take 10 to 15 years to complete because of the funding requirements and multi-phased work, he says.
All in all, the program is a good example of railroads and governments working together to try to find the best transportation solution, says Ratcliffe.
“We all expect the gateway to grow,” he says.