Some Interesting Things about Freight and Passenger Trains

By Noel T. Braymer

I recently got a copy of Trains Magazine’s extra edition of Railroad Maps. It is a compilation of material and graphics from previous Trains issues about changes in American Railroading mostly since 1980. A fact that stood out was Cajon Pass in Southern California is the busiest railroad pass in the country and has been for some years. This triple tracked segment of the BNSF Mainline from Los Angeles to Chicago via Armarillo is now part of a mostly double tracked line. The reason for this is the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are the busiest ports in the country. This is also why much of the UP between Los Angeles and El Paso is also double tracked.The UP is also largely doubled tracked between Chicago, Cheyenne and Salt Lake City. The CSX is mostly double tracked on the old New York Central Mainline between Albany and Chicago as is the Norfolk Southern on the old Pennsylvania Railroad Mainline between Philadelphia and Chicago.

But compared to the past the railroads have much less double tracking today. Yet the railroads are carrying much more freight today. They are able to do this by running much longer, heavier and fewer freight trains than in the past. This has both good and bad news for rail passenger service.

When looking at California rail freight traffic the Tehachapi Pass hasn’t seen much traffic growth. In 1972 Tehachapi was the 5th busiest rail pass in the US with 60 million tons that year. By 2002 it was ranked 11th and carried 75 million tons. By comparison Cajon Pass went from 76 million tons in 1972 to 167 million tons by 2002. When looking at 2005 traffic between the Bay Area and Tehachapi there is fairly little traffic compared to other UP Lines. BNSF carries more traffic between Fresno and Tehachapi than the UP but neither railroad carries much traffic between Stockton and Fresno. The UP’s Coast Line carries so little freight that it isn’t even shown on the map in Trains showing rail line tonnage. The I-5 corridor in California is a busy route for freight by truck but not by train.

The good news about this is the freight railroads have plenty of potential capacity for both future freight and passenger service expansion. The bad news is the railroads are not interested in building additional tracks on their rights of way at their expense for more passenger trains. The railroads complain that giving Amtrak priority on their lines disrupts their train operations. In order to accommodate Amtrak trains and give them priority on their mostly single tracked railroads they often reserve more space for Amtrak on their tracks than they would for their freight trains. When an Amtrak train is late and misses its time slot this further disrupts dispatching on their lines.

A simple solution for this problem is to add more sidings and segments of double tracking. The problem is who will pay for this? Certainly not the railroads. If we could create a ” Federal National Passenger Train Capital Fund” for track improvements to accommodate passenger trains on the freight railroads the attitude towards passenger trains could greatly improve with the railroads. They might even lobby for more if they see a financial benefit to them.

What would be in this for the public? Improved transportation is popular because of growing transportation costs and increasing congestion. Being able to share the rights of way of the railroads would be an economical way to increase mobility. Finding rights of way is the hardest thing to get for transportation. Expanding highways is never easy in urban areas when there is talk of condemning private property. The biggest problems high speed rail projects run into world wide is  opposition to condemning private property for new alignments.

We are seeing railroad right of way sharing happening already. California has spent billions of dollars improving right of ways shared by freight and passenger trains. Generally the railroads have no problems with track capacity when sharing double tracks with freight and passengers trains with top speeds up to 79 miles per hour. The plan between Fullerton and Los Angeles is to build 4 tracks in the near future on the BNSF mainline. As new grade separations are built a third track is also built. When the railroad between Fullerton and Los Angeles is fully grade separated, adding a fourth track will be fairly easy to do. All grade separation built on the line since the 1970’s have been built to handle 4 tracks. This will create a double track railroad for freights and a double track railroad for passenger trains. The speed limit for freights will be 70 miles per hour but for passenger trains it will be at least 110 miles per hour.

Building separate tracks on railroad rights of way will be much cheaper than building a new railroad. That includes paying the railroads to use their right of way. Most of the mileage for improved passenger service will be needed for Long Distance Trains. For this additional sidings or sections of extended double tracking could be needed on many routes with Long Distance Passenger trains sharing single tracked railroads with freights. But in order to spend tax money to improve railroads across America for passenger trains we also need expanded passenger service to justify these improvements. Also needed will be greater revenue from passenger trains to pay the railroads competitive rates for using their tracks and to finance additional passenger equipment to generate the revenue for this.

Over twenty years ago Dr. Adrian Herzog and Byron Nordberg worked out a plan to develop a rail passenger service that would serve the entire nation, operate at a profit and pay the railroads enough to welcome passenger train business. This service would be based on trunk services with sections branching out to serve the maximum number of markets. Dr. Herzog liked to joke that with their plan there might be 5 trains scheduled to arrive in Albuquerque at the same time, but it would be just one very long train.

Let’s briefly look at what Herzog and Nordberg planned just on the 4 major transcontinental rail routes in the country. Starting with the Southwest Chief they would combine it with the Capital Limited. This alone would add more markets directly served by these trains. One section would run from San Jose down the San Joaquin Valley and connect to the Chief at Barstow. At Kansas City this section from San Jose would split to head to St. Louis then Chicago. A section from Los Angeles would connect with another section from El Paso at Albuquerque where it would join the trunk train. In Colorado these two sections would split or rejoin the trunk train to and from Denver. The last section would start in Tucson, serve Phoenix and join the Chief at William going all the way to Chicago with connections to the other cities served by these combined trains.

For the current Sunset Route it would again be extended from New Orleans to Florida serving Orlando and Tampa. It would exchange cars with the Texas Eagle extended past Chicago to Toronto. The Sunset service would also be combined with Superliner service on the Cresent to Washington DC  with low level car service from New Orleans to New York and Boston. This would be combined with a section from Houston to Florida ending in Tampa. A final section from Los Angeles would split off at El Paso to Abilene, Dallas, Atlanta and Washington D.C.

For the trunk California Zephyr it would start in Los Angeles traveling up the Coast Line to Oakland and on to Chicago. A section would start in Los Angeles and serve Las Vegas and continue on the UP Mainline through Wyoming and connect with the trunk train in Denver and extend past Chicago to Boston on the Lake Shore route. Starting in Vancouver trains would also serve Seattle and Portland while connecting with the trunk Zephyr in Utah. In Kansas this train would split off on the route of the Heartland Flyer heading from Dallas, then to Houston and New Orleans.

On the Empire Builder route the train would be extended to Vancouver and past Chicago on the Cardinal route heading to Newport News instead of Washington. The Portland section of the Builder would be extended to Eugene. Connecting to the Builder would be a new Broadway Limited extended past Chicago to Minneapolis and Duluth.

This is only a small portion of what Herzog and Nordberg had planed. They grouped the Country into Rail Corridors, I have listed only parts of 4 Corridors. This plan has 15 Rail Corridors including local and international connections! This would have to be accomplished in increments.  Some track work would be needed but time would be mostly needed for build enough cars and locomotives to bring this network into full operation.Trains of at least 18 cars would be run to carry the passengers in these markets. Several Hubs would be created to allow connections for passengers to many more destinations.

Central to this plan is expanded frequencies as the system develops. Most Long Distance Corridors would have 2 to 3 round trips a day. Since many of these sections would have connections or break off and join with other trains, this means that only 4 to 6 additional trains movements would be needed for passenger trains on the freight railroads for this operation to work. With much larger carrying capacity these trains could pay more to the railroads than what Amtrak pays now at a discount to the railroads.

To really make an impact on travel which for all rail service now is less than 1 percent of miles traveled in this Country, we need to think big. This would be done at a fraction of the cost of High Speed Rail just for the major urban areas. This level of service combined with connecting buses would allow travel by train to almost every section of the US to almost every area in the Lower 48 States.

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