For the transit system, the most important question is whether the line is already double track or can easily be converted to double or even track. Not only does double track allow bi-directional operation at the same time, but it also allows one train to overtake another, including a disabled train. Yes, all of those actions are possible on a single-track line, but they have to take place at specific siding locations and are usually much more time consuming.
Operating speed is another important question. For higher speeds, the FRA requires that the line be signaled.
But, ultimately, one of the biggest questions is one of liability. Any accident on a rail line carrying passengers can be devastating. Who pays if the freight railroad is found to be at fault?
Massachusetts is currently trying to implement commuter rail between Worcester and Boston on tracks currently owned by CSX, but so far the plan is at an impasse due to the liability question. CSX is willing to sell the state the right of way, but only on the condition that it be allowed to continue to operate some freight trains — and that it be absolved of liability if a freight train injures passengers.
Massachusetts legislators are struggling with the issue. While they concede that the likelihood of a major accident is remote, they also recognize that if such an accident happened, it could potentially leave the state facing huge bills.
What do Freight Railroads Want?
Assuming that questions of liability can be resolved, what do freight railroads want in order to let a commuter operation use its tracks?
They want to come out ahead on infrastructure. Most of the improvements needed to run commuter trains — signals, double or triple tracking, improved grade crossings — also help the railroad’s freight trains operate safer and faster.
The Bottom Line
One of the reasons that most freight railroads are unwilling to say much about possible commuter rail operations on their lines, other than that such an operation should not have any negative effects on existing freight operations, is that every rail corridor is different — as is each proposed commuter rail operation.
Rail lines have different amounts and types of traffic. If a line has a substantial number of rail-served industries, switching those industries consumes a large amount of track time, requiring that these local freights work off a main line track, other than the one used for through traffic and potential commuter trains.
If your city or metropolitan area has one or more freight rail corridors that coincide with commuting patterns, consider yourself lucky. But, don’t assume that putting commuter trains on these lines is going to be easy.
Journalist Ernest H. Robl is the author of more than 50 magazine articles on railroad and rail transit topics.
North Carolina Builds Toward a Rail Transit Future
The president of the North Carolina Railroad Co., Scott Saylor, tells civic groups and anyone else who will listen that he envisions a future North Carolina that has both increased long-distance passenger train service and commuter rail serving several of the state’s major cities. And he may just be right.
Never heard of Saylor or the North Carolina Railroad Co. (NCRR)? It is a state-owned corporation that owns and manages a rail corridor stretching from Morehead City on the coast to Charlotte, the largest city in the two Carolinas. That corridor passes through Raleigh (the state capital), Durham and Greensboro, among other cities.
One reason you probably haven’t heard of the NCRR is that it is under long-term lease to freight railroad Norfolk Southern (NS), and the equipment operating on the NCRR is pulled by black and white NS diesels. (Amtrak trains also use part of the NCRR corridor under NS dispatching.)
But, NS pays millions of dollars to lease that corridor, and the NCRR is putting much of that money back into the rail corridor’s infrastructure, as an investment in the North Carolina economy. The Rail Division of the N.C. Deptartment of Transportation has also contributed significantly to most of these projects, primarily through planning and engineering work.
The changes on the NCRR corridor have been slow and steady during the past decade, but they have also made a tremendous difference.