The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is made up of distinct geographical sections. The need for increased ground transportation capacity exists wherever the dart is thrown at the map. But, achieving the increased capacity for each section has different anaswers.
The focus upon increased capacity for passenger rail is upon the rail line from Pittsburgh to Harrisburg. But, that line is among the heaviest freight railroad's in the country. There is no incentive for the private corporation that owns the line to accept additional passenger trains for operation. Penalties for passenger train delays is a disincentive. The reimbursement for track use to the freight railroad is a disincentive. The likely adverse impact on freight operations by additional passenger trains is a disincentive.
Now, looking at freight transportation across Pennsylvania to 2035, there are projections for severe bottlenecks on railroads and highways.
So, to increase potential passenger train capacity Pittsburgh to Harrisburg, the first step is to increase railroad fright capacity.
Should the Pittsburgh to Harrisburg line have a capacity increase. Will positive track control, PTC, add freight capacity? Positive track control is a system that makes the existing signal system of railroad smarter. It does not rely soley upon the engineer operator in the cab of a locomotive. It assures brake application before a collision happens with another train. As such, the space between trains can be shortened.
PTC was authorized by Congress to be installed upon the freight railroad system in 2008 by 2015. The impetus was the collision between a California Metrolink commuter train and an Union Pacific Railroad standing freight train. The accident happened at Chatsworth, CA on September 12, 2008. It caused 25 deaths, 135 injuries with 46 injuries being critical.
The passage of of the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 was a classic example of an unfunded mandate. As such, there were legal and technical delays in its implementation. The law said get the PTC done by 2015. Subsequently the date was moved to 2018.
How will PTC affect freight train productivity? It should increase productivity. Given the tonnage from Pittsburgh to Harrisburg it is doubtful that PTC alone will be enough to make it practical to increase passenger train operations.
As the interstate highway system will have significant capacity constraints by 2035, let alone currently, a logical alternative is highway shipping containers on the railroads. That leads back to the existing Pittsburgh to Harrisburg line.
The line is 258 miles long Amtrak to Amtrak station. The Turnpike is 204 miles long. Length alone makes any realignment of existing curves for high speeds not likely to do anything more than make the two modes speed competitive. There is an argument to build 90 mph capable curves for much of its length. That would allow faster freight operations and as such the ability to absorb increased passenger service. Will doing so be cost effective as opposed to other alternatives? The first goal is create more productive freight operations and increase freight capacity. If with that increased passenger operations tag along, so be it.
Perhaps a different solution is to design a new shorter line with lesser grades between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg? The intention would be to provide freight railroad capacity first.
A new line poses some new problems. Who might own it? The Norfolk Southern alone or with the CSX? A publicly funded new line with private Norfolk Southern and CSX freight train operations?
Might the public entity be the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission as additional railroad capacity will relieve capacity restraints upon the Turnpike.
While population growth for the Commonwealth has been flat for decades, the population surrounding the keystone state has not been static. Controlling the impact of freight tonnage crossing the State ironically may benefit passenger train service.
Sunday, May 21, 2017
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