Tuesday, May 9, 2017

"Economics and Politics of High-Speed Rail"

I recently read The Economics and Politics of High Speed Rail by Dr. Daniel Albalate and Dr. Germa Bel. Both the authors hold PhD’s in economics. Their findings were quite informative.

The authors indicate that only Tokyo to Osaka and Paris Lyon are the sole profiable routes in the high speed rail category - 124 mph plus.

So, it seems that the opportunities lie in the higher speed rail category of 90 to 110 mph. But, whether higher speed or high speed rail the rationale is to either compete with other passenger modes in order to lessen capacity pressures for that mode or to encourage and enhance railroad freight capacity by increasing speed for both passnger and freight on existing freight railroads.

As a Pennsylvanian it would be a pleasure to have greater cross state passenger rail options. But the former Pennsylvania Railroad mainline from Pittsburgh to Harrisburg is essentially a line built to civil engineering and construction standards of the 1850’s. Yes, the Horseshoe Curve is remarkable but it is a historical curiosity. If John Edgar Thompson, the civil engineer largely responsible, were alive today he would use modern mapping and survey tools together with dynamite and diesel powered machinery to design and build the line. Confronted with the Allegheny frontal, rather than a Horseshoe Curve, he would likely follow a straight diagonal line from Tyrone to Gallitzin. That would be a one per cent grade.

Having looked at the existing line from Pittsburgh to Harrisburg it appears that construction of 90 mph curves where required is theoretically possible together with the Tyrone to Gallitzin diagonal for a higher speed line. But notwithstanding doing such, might a entirely new line, not adjustments to alignments make sense?

It is informative that a .03 percent line was proposed at the beginning of the Twentieth Century to have been called the New York, Chicago and Pittsburgh Railroad. It was surveyed from Easton, PA to North Bessemer, PA and the route identified. An easier grade is possible. Famed Pennsylvania Railroad President Samuel Rea, after he retired, did a study for what would have been a higher speed railroad across Pennsylvania leaving the Pennsylvania Railroad mainline at Lewistown and going west being a 1% railroad. But both routes required lengthy tunnels. So, if favorable routes across the Alleghenies were found years ago with transit, theodilite and chain, is there a way to identify a better route  with modern technology? Would it be cost effective to make a freight railroad faster  with its higher speed capability (90 to 110mph) making a practical integration of passnger and freight operations?

An enhanced freight railroad across Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh to Harrisburg, would be designed to attract traffic from highway to rail. The higher freight speed would allow for increased passenger service not currently practical on the existing line.

Studies by both the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the Norfolk Southern concluded that adding an additional passenger train let alone trains on the Pittsburgh to Harrisburg line would require substantial investment into an allignment designed and built essentially in the 1850’s. The required investment would do nothing for passenger train speed. It would remain as it has been for decades. The only purpose would be to NOT have passenger train interference with the large volume of freight trains.

Is it time to build a modern higher speed railroad across Pennsylvania? Perhaps yes. Simply based upon projections for highway capacity and railroad capacity say to 2035, significant bottlenecks are likely both nationally and in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. An engineering study is required.

While the focus is upon Pittsburgh to Harrisburg, given the peculiar problems of the Allegheny Mountains; the engineering study should consider where the higher speed line should be located first from the ideal location of a 1% or less grade. The end point and beginning point might be outside the bounds of Pennsylvania - Ohio / New Jersey?

More than one line might be considered. As the Norfolk and Western owns the current Pittsburgh to Harrisburg line, the CSX operates a line across western Pennsylvania through Pittsburgh to Baltimore that was once the line of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. Can freight operations of the CSX be combined with a new higher speed line to benefit that freight railroad’s efficiency and competitiveness as well?

Assuming that an engineering study finds a new higher speed railroad line to be feasible, then the study should address. how it might be financed. Might is be a publicly owned and financed Pennsylvania corporation for its entire length even if its end points were out of state? This would be as if Pennsylvania bought the Ohio Turnpike and folded it into the Turnpike Commission. Or, could the proposed line be a private company? What government guarantees and inducements might be considered?

Surely the need for greater railroad capacity for the future argues for the study to be undertaken.

As Abelate and Bel note, high speed rail (HSR 124 mph plus) practical costs are narrow, unique and specific. Higher speed rail (HrSR 90 to 110 mph) should be the focus.

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