Sunday, February 3, 2013

The future for expanding intercity rail service in America

A group in Tulsa is proposing a public private partnership to introduce passenger rail between Tulsa and Oklahoma City. Most notably, this would require only $50 million from the state of Oklahoma or another agency (or even a private investor presumably) and is claimed to be ready and available within six months for four round trips per day.

Now, admittedly, I'm doubtful about these claims; I would expect about a hundred million dollars and a year in order to install positive train control along the route, but it is possible that the private partner would be sufficiently contributing that the public contribution would be only $50 million. With that said, I believe that this proposal, All Aboard Florida, and Chicago to Omaha all share a common element which represents the future of American passenger rail expansion: The use of Class II or III railroad tracks.

All Aboard Florida is, of course, using their own rails as part of the Florida East Coast conglomerate. More northerly, the selected Chicago to Omaha route utilizes the Iowa Interstate Railroad (with a BNSF connection in Illinois for the run into Chicago). Looking at a rail map of Oklahoma, this proposal would use Stillwater Central Railroad for most of its route (this track is actually owned by the State of Oklahoma and leased to SWCR) and either BNSF or the Trans-Sapulpa Union Railway, another short line, into Tulsa itself.

Why are these rail lines the future of expanded American passenger rail service? In brief, cost and capacity. Class I rail lines running between American cities tend to be utilized at very high levels of capacities, much of which is through freight. As a result, the addition of even a few passenger trains, each of which is equivalent to multiple freight trains in terms of rail capacity utilization, can add a significant strain to freight operations. As a result, expanding rail service frequently involves spending significant sums in order to double or triple track lines and add additional sidings and crossovers in order to add sufficient capacity.

This is often not the case with short line and regional railroads which operate with significantly less traffic and a higher percentage of local traffic. While the Florida East Coast Railway is rather unique among all American railroads in operating with automatic train control and cab signals, the Iowa Interstate Railroad is rather more typical in not having any signaling at all and trains proceeding under track warrants. In such a situation, the simple and cheap addition of signaling, required for passenger train speeds in excess of 59 mph, can result in significant improvements to capacity, allowing for increased freight service as well as the passenger service. A single tracked line operating without signals or only track warrants will have its capacity nearly doubled, from 16 daily trains to 30 daily trains, simply from upgrading the signal systems to a centralized traffic control system (page 4-7). As a result, short-line railroads realize significant value and increased freight capacity from the addition of passenger rail funded improvements and should prove far more amenable towards passenger rail service than their Class I brethren have shown themselves.

This is not to say that there will not still be new operations involving Class I railroads or greenfield projects such as California's high speed rail project. Rather, it is that we can expect either a disproportionate or even predominant number of those passenger rail projects which are successfully built and introduced into service will be utilizing Class II and III trackage to a significant degree.


  1. It's cute but in direct competition with an interstate freeway that only takes 2 hours to drive. Do you think this has a chance?

    Point taken about the Class II and IIIs though.

    1. Not so much, I'd really want to see a lot more info about their proposal before supporting it (especially if Iowa Pacific is the partner they're referring to; their new Pullman service went pretty FUBAR). The "freeway" is actually a toll road, but it's only $4 from Tulsa to Oklahoma City which is dirt cheap and isn't going to affect matters.

      Being a bit slower in general than the interstate isn't necessarily a killer, but I don't think there's enough traffic that it could survive it. Outside of Oklahoma City and Tulsa proper, crossings shouldn't be an issue and the route should be an affordable upgrade to 110mph running. That said, I think they're lowballing costs significantly and I am doubtful of the profit potential for a rail corridor with only 24,000 cars in that corridor in the average day, 12K each direction.

      Don't get me wrong, it's possible and it actually wouldn't be much of a price premium compared to driving (marginal driving cost of $17 with 25mpg, $3.25 gas in Tulsa today, and $4 toll; marginal train cost $21 at 20 cents per train mile which has some potential for operating profit at 250 passenger per train). It's not an out and out crazy idea, but I don't think a four train a day service between OKC and Tulsa will work as a profitable private service.

  2. Another issue with branch lines and Class II lines is that if freight traffic is light enough, it becomes feasible for passenger rail to invest in more powerful freight locos as an alternative to pouring concrete as a way of reducing passenger-fright speed difference.


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