Freight rail investment could free passenger congestion

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On rail lines, freight trains have preference over passenger service, which frequently causes delays for Amtrak customers.

Freight also appears to have the upper hand when it comes to money for improving service and infrastructure. Recent federal grant awards to Western Pennsylvania have included $35 million for improvements for cargo-hauling trains and just $750,000 for those that move people.

But people stand to benefit from the freight investment because it will mean fewer trucks on congested highways, less pollution and lower road maintenance costs, railroad officials told a state House committee on Wednesday.

At a hearing at Point Park University, members of the Transportation Committee heard about robust investments planned for the region's bustling freight corridors but not much being spent to improve dismal passenger service.

Of the $8 billion in high-speed passenger rail grants announced by the Obama administration in January, $27 million went to Pennsylvania, most of it to the Harrisburg-to-Philadelphia corridor. Only $750,000 was awarded in Western Pennsylvania, for a study into improving the slow, once-a-day passenger service between Pittsburgh and the state capital.

Last month, another $1.5 billion in transportation grants were announced. The third-biggest grant, $98 million, went to the National Gateway freight corridor for improvements in four states, including Pennsylvania.

The money will be used to clear obstacles that prevent heavier and taller "double-stack" freight trains from using the corridor. Those projects including lowering tracks, raising bridges and carving more height clearance into tunnels.

By 2020, highways in the state will be severely over their capacity, while expansion of the Panama Canal, scheduled for completion in 2014, will boost cargo hauling to and from the East Coast, said Randy Cheetham, regional vice president for CSX Corp.

The industry estimates that a single freight train can carry as much cargo as 280 trucks. Mr. Cheetham said improvements to the National Gateway from Ohio to North Carolina will add thousands of jobs in the state and remove millions of trucks from highways, reducing pollution, fuel consumption and wear-and-tear on the roads.

Brian Pitzer, executive director of All Aboard Erie, said states that got the biggest passenger rail grants "had the best combination of factors including need, planning and financing. The states receiving little or nothing had the least need or were the least prepared."

He drew a contrast between Ohio, where planning for high-speed rail began in the 1970s (and which got $400 million for passenger rail), and Pennsylvania. He said the state has been slow in pushing for links through Erie and Pittsburgh to an extensive network of high-speed service that is contemplated in Ohio and throughout the Midwest.

Such a link could transform Erie from the state's poorest city to "one of the great transportation crossroads of America," Mr. Pitzer said.

"I am happy to report that Pennsylvania appears to be getting its act together," he said, noting completion of a state rail plan by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation last month. "But there is much more to be done."

Pittsburgh Controller Michael Lamb urged that the study of improving Pittsburgh-to-Harrisburg service be expanded to include Pittsburgh-to-Cleveland.


Correction/Clarification: (Published 3/4/10) -- Federal law gives Amtrak trains preference -- not priority, as reported earlier -- over freight trains on rail lines. Amtrak officials have complained that the law has often been disregarded by dispatchers for the freight railroads that own much of the track on which Amtrak operates, contributing to delays in passenger service. Jon Schmitz: jschmitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1868. Visit "The Roundabout," the Post-Gazette's transportation blog, at post-gazette.com.


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