Monday, May 03, 2010

CSXT limits N.Y. train speeds

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CSX Transportation, citing safety concerns, has told the New York Department of Transportation that passenger trains traveling faster than 90 mph would have to do so in a separate corridor located at least 30 feet away from the nearest freight track, the Albany Times Union reports.

A copy of the letter, which was sent to Transportation Commissioner Stanley Gee on March 8, was obtained by the Times Union. The state DOT has long touted its plan to build a separate track dedicated to passenger trains between Schenectady and Buffalo, but separating it by at least 30 feet could require land purchases and other infrastructure improvements, according to rail industry observers. In the meantime, high-speed passenger trains would share the existing tracks with CSXT freight trains.

CSXT, which owns the tracks, currently limits Amtrak trains to a top speed of 79 mph. State officials have said they want to operate trains as fast as 110 mph. The CSXT letter reminded the DOT that it had agreed to a top speed of 90 mph and other conditions in a memorandum of understanding it signed in October 2009. Now, CSXT says DOT is backing away from that.

"Despite the signed historic agreement between the State and CSXT, recent comments by New York State Department of Transportation officials indicate a desire to abandon the carefully negotiated MOU," wrote Louis Renjel, vice president - strategic infrastructure, for CSX Transportation. "More specifically, NYSDOT is again advancing the concept of introducing high-speed passenger operations with CSXT freight trains."

The agreement to which Renjel referred was reached as the state sought federal high-speed rail funds. New York received about $151 million, which passenger rail advocates considered a paltry amount when compared to the allotments received by Florida and California. New York's plan would require more than $10 billion in investments.

Gee, in a reply to CSXT, said that CSXT "may have ... misinterpreted" the goals that the DOT established for high-speed rail. But the misunderstanding apparently was the reason that Ann Purdue, the DOT's high-speed rail manager, resigned earlier this spring.

The majority of the $151 million the state did receive for high-speed rail projects would pay for a second track along the existing rail line between Albany and Schenectady, which has become a bottleneck for Amtrak trains. Some of the remaining money would be used to plan improvements required for high-speed service.

Commissioner Gee's reply said design requirements for 110-mph service would be part of the Environmental Impact Statement that the DOT has begun, and which is being paid for with some of the federal rail funding.

The CSX official, in his letter, said the railroad had been "consistent in every communication with NYSDOT and the New York Congressional delegation in opposing this concept ... (I)ntroducing high speed passenger trains on or in an extremely close proximity to the freight network presents fundamentally unsafe conditions to the public and CSXT employees."

CSXT spokesman Bob Sullivan said that the right-of-way between Schenectady and Buffalo was wide enough in some parts to allow the 30-foot separation. But "there would be some places when there probably would have to be some land acquisition," he said.

Those acquisitions likely would have to be paid for by New York State.

The CSXT line, which originally served the New York Central Railroad, once had four tracks, but two were removed as passenger service waned. Those tracks were closer together than the separation CSX now wants.

A separate passenger corridor might also require the construction of new bridges and culverts. And for passenger trains to operate above 110 mph, road crossings likely would have to be improved or eliminated, requiring as many as 200 new overpasses or advanced crossing gates to be built along the route.

"At speeds above (110 mph), ideally, you want to do away with crossings," said Warren Flateau, a spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration. "There's an absolute prohibition at speeds of 125 mph or higher."

Federal regulations and safety concerns by CSX together would suggest that state officials should be planning a separate, dedicated right-of-way that might be adjacent to the CSX tracks; after all, those tracks go past the stations that serve Amtrak trains.

But it's not clear whether the state wants to pursue this, even though a publicly owned rail line would give Amtrak more control over scheduling and train speeds, while relieving pressure on CSXT's freight line, a main link between the East Coast and the Midwest.

"Passenger trains that travel 110 miles per hour are fundamentally incompatible with the amount of freight on this line," CSXT's letter said. "CSXT's safety concerns are based on operational factors, employee safety, public safety at scores of grade crossings at which the public crosses the railroad, signaling systems and track curvature -- to name just a few.

"A dedicated passenger rail corridor is the safe and effective solution for high speed passenger trains," the letter said.

CSXT suggested that improvements could be made to the existing freight line that would allow passenger trains to travel at 90 mph, up from the current limit of 79 mph.

But, as Buffalo Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, a supporter of passenger rail, said, "90 miles per hour is not high-speed rail."

And CSXT said improvements to boost passenger train speeds to 90 mph would have to be paid for by Amtrak or the public.

DOT spokeswoman Deborah Rausch said that discussions with CSXT were continuing, and that the DOT was pleased that CSXT was participating in the effort to improve rail passenger service.

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