The last time Mass Transit magazine visited John Inglish and the UTA, its TRAX light rail line was just starting out. Now it is a qualified success. The story of how TRAX comes together goes a lot further back than that, though.
“Railroads are interesting,” Inglish chuckles as he talks about how TRAX got its start. “We had some expert consultants who could explain to us the railroad business.”
Inglish explained to me that freight railroads are moving more and more into interstate operations. Small intercity switch lines, like the one UTA wanted to purchase to start TRAX, aren’t really efficient for a large railroad company like Union Pacific. It’s cheaper and more efficient to have a short-line operator come in and operate that sort of line. This knowledge is important Inglish says when working with the freight rail companies.
“To work with them the condition that becomes really important I believe is that you understand their business. Because if there is no clear understanding of why they are in business, what they do and how they operate, you’re not going to reach an agreement because you are going to keep insisting that you want to do something that just does not work with their business plan,” Inglish says.
“And so we spent about two years on what I call Railroading 101, 102, 201 on through until we understood railroads with them. And they were patient with us, and they worked with us and we had a lot of meetings.
“And then one day we got invited to Omaha so we knew we were going to have some serious conversations. And we ultimately bought that railroad right of way with the condition that we would operate between midnight and five in the morning the freight service using a short-line operator.”
From that deal TRAX was given birth and it continues today as a success not only as a light rail transit service, but also as a freight line. According to Inglish, about 50 to 60 percent of the line is in operation every weeknight as a freight service with a short-line operator and the situation is working out well for everyone.
“I think the customers are even happier with that arrangement,” says Inglish.
“They get a freight car brought in one night, they unload it during the day and the short-line operator drags the car out the next night. So it doesn’t interfere with what they do and it doesn’t interfere with what we do.
It’s this successful understanding of the freight process and line use as an overnight freight service that allowed UTA to go back to Union Pacific when it needed to make its next step into rail — commuter rail.
I had a chance to ride on UTA’s new commuter rail service, Front Runner, while visiting the agency in December. The line was still being tested, so we couldn’t ride the entire length of it and couldn’t reach top speed at any point, but it was still a great trip. This line, much like its light rail predecessor TRAX, came about as a result of a deal between UTA and Union Pacific, this time not for a defunct line, but for unused right of way along the I-15 corridor.
This freeway corridor operating north and south from Salt Lake City is one of the busiest in Utah. The rail line operating in that area was too heavily used to allow mix commuter passenger service on it, but there was this little matter of a spare 20 feet of right of way adjacent to the freeway corridor.
That they could deal over.
“So we went to the state, we got some help from the state in terms of right of way. We got some help from the railroad. And we were able to put together a corridor through there that took advantage of the already existing grade separations,” Inglish says.
“In fact, we made some significant improvements to grade separations and track alignments. And the net effect was everybody is happy. The railroad — in fact we solved a major problem for the railroad in what’s called Grant’s Tower where the railroad had a big curve it had to operate through very, very slowly. And to avoid that curve they were doing other things that were not making neighborhoods happy, driving trains through areas they hadn’t been before.