National Academies Press: OpenBook

Preserving Freight and Passenger Rail Corridors and Service (2007)

Chapter: Chapter Five - Conclusions

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Suggested Citation:"Chapter Five - Conclusions." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2007. Preserving Freight and Passenger Rail Corridors and Service. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/14115.
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Page 25
Suggested Citation:"Chapter Five - Conclusions." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2007. Preserving Freight and Passenger Rail Corridors and Service. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/14115.
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Page 26
Suggested Citation:"Chapter Five - Conclusions." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2007. Preserving Freight and Passenger Rail Corridors and Service. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/14115.
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Page 26

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The rationalization of railway trackage in the United States has a long history; peak network mileage was achieved in the 1920s, and has fallen steadily since the end of World War II. How states and communities react to the shrinkage of rail ser- vice varies dramatically from state to state and community to community. The rising cost and complexity of establishing new transportation corridors for passenger or freight service and the growing congestion for all surface freight modes has focused new attention on the issues surrounding retention of rights-of-way or restoration of rail services. • State and Local Engagement A number of states treat these issues very seriously, and the study’s “best practices” conclusions are drawn from those states. States including North Carolina, Ohio, and Pennsyl- vania act on specific rail lines from policy foundations that recognize the value of corridor preservation and enjoy sub- stantial (if still modest compared with other modes) annual funding. These states also do an excellent job of tracking the benefits of public rail line investment and communicating those impacts to political decision makers. Generally speak- ing, those benefits have much more to do with job creation and retention and rail-client investment than in relieving the stress on the corollary highway networks. The structure of public rail assistance for a given line often includes a combination of state department of transportation (DOT) and local (usually county-based) agencies in a joint- powers relationship designed to preserve or rejuvenate a spe- cific rail property. The prospective rail service provider is often identified very early in the process and directly partici- pates in the capital condition and business volume forecasts that justify or disqualify the injection of public funds. A recurring challenge for those seeking to preserve light- density lines is the marginal divestiture strategy most Class I carriers pursue in pulling back their services. If operationally feasible, a Class I carrier will seek to preserve direct access to the one or two viable clients remaining on a line while jettison- ing the balance of the rail alignment. Agencies or short line carriers seeking to create a viable substitute operation must then try to negotiate a larger scope of asset transfer that includes the “critical volume” necessary for a new operator to get started. Support from multiple shippers and local economic de- velopment agencies is essential for preserving local rail 24 service, particularly on lines devoted to the movement of general freight and industrial traffic. Preservation of services on lines devoted to a single large shipper or commodity (e.g., grain or coal) may be simpler to execute, but the longevity of the property may be at more risk given the lack of diversity in the traffic base. For example, many Midwestern states are struggling with the rail policy implications of disruption to traditional flows of grain caused by the expansion of shuttle train service, conversion of corn to ethanol, and new interest in smaller-lot “identity preserved” agricultural products. For many of these lines there is little or no other rail-susceptible traffic to replace traditional bulk grain commodity flows. • Federal Role No new policy initiatives to preserve rail lines or restore rail services have been promulgated by the federal government since the 1980s. The federal influence on the current situation facing states and municipalities however is very clear. It was the federal rail assistance programs of the 1980s and early 1990s that triggered formal recognition of the rail mode in many state DOTs. Those programs were specifically de- signed to identify and preserve those lines that were believed to be the most viable for the long term. Formal assessment and “triage” mechanisms were put in place for the lines and specific DOT personnel were assigned to coordinate state rail policies. Revolving loan funds for local rail authorities or short line operators were established with a portion of those federal funds, and the repayment of such loans in some states still pro- vides the bulk of rail assistance funding available in any given year. Some states supplement the load repayment cash flows with specific new appropriations from the state’s general fund or with a dedicated funding source such as rail diesel fuel tax receipts. The last federal funding to be provided for local rail freight assistance was appropriated in 1996. Another federal influence has been felt through the “Rails to Trails” provisions of the National Trails Act of 1983. Private or public bodies may take advantage of the Rails to Trails provisions and effectively preserve federal preemption of any local or state efforts to dismember a line. Because a line is never technically “abandoned” under Rails to Trails, the possibility for renewed rail service is always there. The law has survived numerous court challenges and enjoys bipartisan support in the U.S. Congress. It should also be CHAPTER FIVE CONCLUSIONS

25 noted that the Surface Transportation Board is clear about the priorities of the Act—“interim trail use” means exactly that. The original rail service provider or a new operator may quickly reassume control of any Rails to Trails corridor to reinitiate train service. The reader should also recall that only approximately 20% of all rail-trails nationally have achieved that status through application of the federal rules. Locally, authorized rail-trails may be forever devoted to recreation or other uses, and advocates of new rail service will enjoy no special legal advan- tages in overcoming typical “not in my back yard” concerns that accompany such proposals. • Shipper and Carrier Roles As noted previously, some of the best restoration efforts have included direct engagement by the future rail service providers from the earliest stages of the rail line assessment. Rail clients and carriers understand very well that restoring rail service to a line is not a “build it and they will come” proposition. Shipping by means of rail is a far more complex endeavor than securing truckers to move goods over the pub- lic highway network. The situation is made even more com- plex for most short line customers in that most shipments must move by means of at least two rail carriers to reach their final destinations. The long-distance “line haul” carrier is often the very company that sought to divest itself of the branch line in question. Once a physical track network is restored, competitive rail service depends on good faith cooperation and commitment from three parties—the rail shippers and receivers, the short line or regional rail service provider, and the Class I large railroad connector. Some Class I roads provide excellent and disciplined connecting service to and from their short line partners. A key point for restoration advocates is the need to discuss, in detail, how such service will be configured before a decision to restore a line moves forward. A few larger short lines or regional carriers have sufficient geographic reach or specialized movements wherein they handle traffic from origin to destination under their sole con- trol, but such situations are the exception rather than the rule. Finally, it may be noted that many short line and regional carriers have rebuilt much of their rail franchise volumes on former Class I lines by simply showing up and paying atten- tion to the needs of their local clients. Several short line operators reported that their customers had no face-to-face contact with a railway employee for “several years” before the transfer of operations. An excellent local rail presence can begin to overcome that history, but as noted earlier the full origin–destination transit performance may still depend heavily on the Class I connecting service. • Recreational Interests Recreation and trail interests often contribute momentum to rail corridor preservation initiatives, but are understandably less enthused over prospects to restore active train service to such alignments. “Rails with Trails” may provide a win–win solution in certain circumstances, particularly where the rail use is sponsored by a public authority and/or relatively low- speed train operations are involved. Class I carriers are by far the most reluctant partners to entertain rails with trails pro- posals owing to concerns over liability and trespassing. • Transit and Passenger Rail Transit agencies have an interest in preserving rail alignments to reduce startup costs for new services and to minimize com- munity disruption as service networks are expanded. A number of urban planning agencies have developed comprehensive cor- ridor preservation programs to protect future transit needs. St. Louis Metro officials made excellent use of old railway tunnels in service to the downtown core with the first leg of their new light rail system. Salt Lake City, Minneapolis, St. Paul, and other urban centers have similarly laid the groundwork for fu- ture, more robust transit services. The transfer of such align- ments to public hands is only the first step, however. An active program to remind the public at large, interim recreational users and adjacent property owners of plans for transit development can help to mitigate downstream not in my back yard concerns and may help to spur transit-complementary development ad- jacent to the corridors in question. • Areas for Future Study Rail corridor preservation and reuse is and will likely remain a trial-and-error exercise for many corridor advocates, given the wide range of political, land-use, and environmental conditions under which such efforts take place. Much may be learned from the experiences of others, and many of these “best practices” have been documented in this report. There appear, as well, to be some general areas of further enquiry related to rail corridors that would be worthy of further, for- mal investigation. • Corridor preservation does not, at present, appear to be a leading concern for intercity passenger rail advocates. Current FRA-designated high-speed rail corridors assume upgrades to current main line freight routes rather than development of new, passenger-dedicated alignments. A reevaluation of this approach might reveal cost and service advantages to segregation of freight and passenger operations that would in turn bring new atten- tion to redundant or lightly used corridors. What corri- dors should receive priority for preservation under a “service segregation” scenario? • What lightly used or dormant long-distance rail align- ments are worthy of preservation for future use? What mechanisms would be appropriate to effect such preser- vations? Building political support for “corridor preser- vation” where on-line business is scarce is a particular

challenge for those seeking to preserve long-term options for use of such alignments. • What roles may short line carriers play in moving shorter-distance freight that does not interface with the Class I rail network? Are there public or private busi- ness models that would position such operators to divert medium-distance intercity freight from the highway system through shared capital investment in terminals, specialized rolling stock, or new technologies? • Are there complementary roles for freight and passen- ger movement on urban rail transit networks? How can transit systems be designed to play a dual role to both move passengers and provide freight mobility in the inner city? In late 2006, TRB expected an interim report 26 for TCRP Project A-27, “Shared Use of Railroad Infra- structure with Non-FRA-Compliant Public Transit Rail Vehicles.” This report will deal in particular with the safety challenges of shared passenger and freight rail operations. More work may be warranted on the market and service implications of specialized rail freight ser- vices on urban transit networks. • What role should metropolitan planning organizations play in preserving freight rail infrastructure? Most such efforts have historically centered on alternative uses such as urban transit or recreational corridors. Given rising fuel costs and growing highway congestion, should railway yard facilities be given special consider- ation as centers for freight movement or consolidation?

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TRB's National Cooperative Highway Research Program (NCHRP) Synthesis 374: Preserving Freight and Passenger Rail Corridors and Service explores issues associated with the retention of railroad rights-of-way or restoration of rail services.

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