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The fight over America’s rails

Nancy Marshall-Genzer Mar 25, 2015

The fight over America’s rails

Nancy Marshall-Genzer Mar 25, 2015

There’s something romantic about a train whistle. It makes you think about far-away places. Adventure. Lawsuits.

Yep, lawsuits. The jostling for rail space has actually made it all the way to the Supreme Court

Part of the problem is the way rail traffic is split up in this country. Privately-held freight railways are thriving. Amtrak gets government subsidies, and it mostly runs on track owned by the freight lines. 

Delays peaked over the past few years for both passenger and freight rail.

“Our biggest concern was our customers,” says Ed Hamberger, president and CEO of the Association of American Railroads, a trade group for freight rail companies. “We move what Americans consume, what American manufacturers make, what American farmers grow,” he says.

Meanwhile, over at Amtrak, passengers were frustrated by all the delays.

“We watched on-time performance plummet,” says Jim Mathews, president and CEO of the National Association of Railroad Passengers.  He says, on some trains, there were: “Five, six, seven hour delays.”

Federal law says passenger trains  get priority on the rails. Amtrak says that means freight trains should pull over for passenger trains. But Mathews says that doesn’t always happenHe says at one point, Amtrak’s Capitol Limited train, from Washington to Chicago, was late more than 90 percent of the time.

“It had on-time performance in the single digits last summer,” he says.

The freight railways say they’re often blamed for delays that weren’t their fault — delays caused by weather, or accidents. They say they actually subsidize Amtrak, because it uses their tracks. Which they pay to maintain. 

“Last year they spent $26 billion – private money,” Hamberger says. “This year they’ve announced plans to spend $29 billion.”

And that lawsuit, the one that ended up in the Supreme Court? Amtrak scored a partial victory. But the case was kicked down to a lower court, and the legal fight continues. But court battles aside, here’s the deal. Freight and passenger lines  need to figure out how to share the rails.

“The primary issue between the freight and the passenger railroads is both have growing business,” says Steven Ditmeyer, adjunct professor of railway management at Michigan State University. 

You could build more track, Ditmeyer saysThe passenger association certainly wants the government to spend more money on rail infrastructure. The freight railways would welcome more government cash, but not if it came with more regulation. 

Ditmeyer says: Let’s think about what we can do, now.

“There can be ways to make sure that both get the time and space they need on the track,” he explains.

Freight trains could run on more set schedules, Ditmeyer says, making it easier to coordinate them with strictly scheduled passenger trains. There’s also a sort of air traffic control system in the works for our railways, designed to eliminate bottlenecks and improve safety. 

It was supposed to be finished by the end of this year, but it’s behind schedule.

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