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3CRISIS OF CAPACITY Americaâs surface transportation network is laboring under the strain of population growth, longer commutes, skyrock- eting demand for intercity freight, and international trade patterns that favor offshore manufacturing and assembly of consumer goods. The impact of this âcrisis of capacityâ is felt most acutely by the public at large on the nationâs highway systemâin rush hour traffic jams or on some major intercity alignments. An illustrative example of driver frustration is summarized in the 2000 Special Virginia Safety Task Force study on the I-81 Corridor: Contributing most dramatically to the increasing concerns of motorists is the increasing presence of truck traffic. In certain areas of this interstate and at certain times truck use exceeds 40% (1). A partial solution raised by many to freight and passenger motor vehicle congestion is to increase the use of the rail mode for commuting, intercity passenger travel, or freight movement. This strategy, however, faces major challenges of its own. The U.S. rail freight network as measured by miles of track in service is approximately one-half the size of that network in 1980, when the Staggers Act substantially dereg- ulated freight railroad market entry and exit decisions. Despite that reduction, todayâs rail network carries approxi- mately twice the ton-miles of freight moved in 1980 by rail carriers (2). (Approximately 919 billion revenue ton-miles of freight were moved by the Class I carriers in 1980 vs. 1.70 trillion ton-miles in 2005.) After the 1980 statutory deregulation, all major rail freight carriers embarked on a continuing program of comprehensive network rationalization. This involved shedding underper- forming rail infrastructure in a number of ways. Marginal low-density lines were either abandoned outright or sold to lower-overhead short line railroads. Increasingly, the large Class I railroads concentrated on trunk line corridors and left the gathering and distribution of low-density traffic to smaller railroads. [Approximately one in four carloads of freight now originates or terminates on a short line railroad (3).] Even on trunk corridor routes, the major carriers also greatly reduced the throughput capacity of many lines from pre-1980 levels. Where a main line had two or more tracks, it was often reduced to one. This allowed the rail carrier to gen- erate salvage or reuse opportunities from the removed rail and ties and to lower its maintenance costs by avoiding the burden of upkeep on multiple tracks deemed to be excessive relative to projected traffic levels. Despite the resurgence of rail traffic, over the past 15 years a substantial portion of the Class I rail network remains as single track. By the late 1990s, a combination of factors led to a sub- stantial expansion of rail freight traffic levels. Overall growth in the U.S. economy and population probably would have pro- duced a significant traffic increase anyway, but certain sectors of traffic grew even faster. Increased intermodal traffic in the form of trailers and containers resulted from increased foreign trade and from the advantage perceived by trucking compa- nies in using more efficient rail-borne long hauls, with the truck-borne portions limited to initial consolidation and post- rail distribution. In response to the 1990s growth in traffic, a number of major railroads embarked on multi-billion dollar capital improvement programs on their key routes. In certain network âchoke points,â notably the Alameda Corridor in southern California, federal and state funds were combined with private railroad capital to construct major intermodal projects aimed at increasing the throughput of key corridors. Overall U.S. rail freight traffic is expected to grow sharply from current levels by 2020. The increase in traffic has already resulted in service and capacity constraints at some locations and on some rail corridors. Increasing network capacity to keep up with this demand is a challenge that presumably must be met by some combination of complementary efforts. Private freight rail operators are reluctant to invest in new freight rail services that do not meet the profit or service pri- orities of their overall network services. Even where excess rail capacity exists, carriers are reluctant to accommodate passenger rail operations given the disproportionate con- sumption of line capacity (because of higher speeds), liabil- ity issues associated with moving people rather than freight, and the inevitable restrictions on adjustments to freight rail operations. Surface freight capacity (highway or rail) is time- consuming and expensive to obtain. Highway expansion proj- ects are particularly time-consuming and contentious given the environmental and property acquisition elements of such projects. Rail freight capacity, by contrast, can generally be achieved within existing rail corridors through construction of CHAPTER ONE RAIL CORRIDORSâNOT SIMPLY A WALK IN THE PARK
additional track or through reactivation of dormant or lightly used rail alignments. Given these challenges, the value of retaining dormant or lightly used rail alignments for future needs appears obvious. A surprising number of jurisdictions have no policies in place to encourage corridor preservation. Most states do have some type of short line railway assistance programs to preserve local freight service in support of economic development or job preservation strategies (see chapter three); however, the suc- cess or failure of these efforts is generally not tied to any long- term vision for other uses of the alignments. Resource scarcity leads to a focus on shorter-term needs, placing corridor preser- vationists at a severe disadvantage no matter how compelling the long-term case may be for retention of an alignment. A few states do have long-standing policies and solidly funded pro- grams to preserve rail corridors and encourage the preservation and/or expansion of rail freight service (see Table 1). SHORT LINES AND REGIONAL CARRIERS Local rail freight initiatives for lines spun off from the major Class I carriers have led to an explosion of short line and regional rail operations in the United States. The Staggers Rail Act of 1980 encouraged the creation of short lines by requiring that preference be given to potential buyers of lines who would preserve rail freight service rather than simply liquidate the properties. New owners and operators have, in many cases, found suc- cess by implementing flexible labor rules, providing enhanced customer service and pursuing smaller-volume traffic oppor- tunities that simply âdid not make the radar screenâ of the large rail operators. The number of short line and regional carriers has more than tripled in the past quarter century, from approximately 180 in 1980 to more than 550 today. Currently, approximately 32% of the rail-route miles in the United States is maintained and operated by non-Class I carriers. (The Federal Class I carrier definition is based on an inflation-adjusted revenue threshold that stood at $319 million in 2005.) Encouraging and/or providing financial support to local rail service providers is an important corridor preservation strategy, but is not one that should be casually embraced. Some considerations and pitfalls are described in chapter two, Preservation Strategies. RAIL BANKING Rails to Trails to Rails A major step forward for rail corridor preservation was the pas- sage by Congress in 1983 of Rail Banking amendments to the National Trails Act. For the first time a federally sanctioned 4 mechanism to preserve rail corridors was made available to those seeking to keep alignments intact through interim con- version to trail use. Many rail corridors contain easements that revert back to adjacent landowners when an abandonment is consummated. Under rail banking, however, the corridor re- mains available for future restoration of rail service and is not, therefore, technically abandoned. More than 4,400 miles of former rail rights-of-way has been preserved nationwide under rail banking provisions, with approximately one-half available to the public for biking, hiking, and other recreational use (Figure 1). It should be noted that the use of the National Trails Act for rail banking activities has been largely driven by trail interests rather than those seeking to restore rail service at some point in the future. Preserving rail rights-of-way does carry an obli- gation for financial resources that are most often met by trail- use organizations, public park and recreation authorities, or through access to federal Transportation Enhancement fund provisions. Planning coordination of recreation and active rail use possibilities for a given alignment is the exception rather than the rule. Rail banked rights-of-way present a potentially valuable resource for communities engaged in the development of new or expanded transit links or other dedicated transporta- tion interests. It is clear, however, that biking and other trail use interests have grown in political stature and clout. Such organizations are often sympathetic to rail (and particularly transit) development. Addressing their needs as part of a FIGURE 1 Chisago County, Minnesota Trail Posting. (Source: Michael Rogers, Washington County Transportation Planning.)
5corridor service restoration plan is an important political element of transportation planning even though trail inter- ests may lack legal standing to block new rail service under the federal rails-to-trails provisions. As a practical matter, some jurisdictions acknowledge the permanence of recreational or commuter trail use and its need to be accommodated in some manner even when active rail service is resumed. An example comes from a 2003 Twin Cities area corridor review: In 1995, the HCRRA (Hennepin County Railroad Authority) adopted a land use management plan that allows for the interim use of their corridors for parks and trails until such time as the property is to be utilized for transit. The HCRRA adopted this interim use policy because it allowed for the provision of won- derful community amenity, trails.... Overall, 43 miles of trails have been constructed on land acquired by the HCRRA to pre- serve it for a future transit use. The current study is NOT about eliminating the Southwest LRT Trail, it is evaluating the possibility of providing an additional community amenity, rail transit, for the Southwest Metro Area (4). Preservation of trail and recreational facilities may serve to solidify support from environmental or âgreen advocacyâ groups whose natural affinities to the rail mode might be compromised if forced to choose between transit and trails. âRails with Trailsâ solutions carry some important design and liability considerations as described in chapter three. When the Trains Come Back (or not) Having once preserved valuable rail corridors, the difficulty of restoring active train service may vary considerably depending on the intensity of use of adjacent land holdings, the duration of service abandonment, and the nature of the new rail service being proposed. Installing even the most basic rail track, ties, and ballast on a pregraded route can cost on the order of $1 million/mile before any signaling, safety, or security features are involved. Still, the advantage of a âpreservedâ corridor when compared with a brand new align- ment is hugeâindividual property negotiations are avoided, environmental processes are streamlined, and major struc- tures (for corridors preserved under Rails to Trails) will have been kept intact. Most successful restoration efforts have included a signif- icant public agency role, well-defined job impacts, and/or a depressed local economy that was sorely in need of new eco- nomic activity. Rural freight rail restorations carry the dual advantages of less intensive land use along the rights-of-way and positive job impacts for clients to be served. Urban freight rail proposals typically face more problems. Transit agencies are in the position of developing products that benefit the general traveling publicâan advantage not available to rail freight carriers. The use of existing rights-of- way for transit is an essential element of forging cost-effective public transportation networks. The cost and availability of suitable real estate in built-up urban environments means that growth of rail passenger service will be highly dependent on access to existing rights-of-way. It will often make sense to use existing railroad right-of-way for new commuter rail projects (5). Some public agencies develop specific programs that pre- serve a higher profile of future needs and possible used for âdormantâ alignments, giving notice to adjacent landowners and the public generally that an interim period of low-impact or recreational use does not proscribe future development of active passenger or freight rail activity. Provisions may include large, conspicuous signage along the trail alignments and/or disclosure requirements for adjoining property sale transactions that make clear the potential future use of the corridors in question. TOURIST TRAINS AND OTHER SOLUTIONS A number of threatened freight rail lines have been preserved by local business and community interests through conversion to irregular excursion or regularly scheduled tourist passenger operations. Literally dozens of such specialized train ser- vices are scattered across the country. Most operate from 10 to 50 miles of track, rely heavily on volunteer labor, and appeal to train enthusiasts in addition to general tourism interests. The casual reader of this report may already sense that there is no âone size fits allâ solution to the challenges of rail corridor preservation and restoration. Federal âRails to Trailsâ provisions do provide some important tools for preservation- ists to at least buy time; forestalling the dismemberment of rail corridors as longer-term strategies and funding to restore rail service are brought to bear. In other circumstances, the recre- ational use of such alignments may be the âhighest and best useâ for the corridors, particularly if combined with existing tourism amenities. We will now examine in turn the issues surrounding corri- dor preservation, service restoration, and some best-case examples of dealing with these issues from around the country.