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Monday, May 03, 2010

Pumping up rail Pennsylvania freight capacity a heavy load

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PennDOT says moving freight by rail eases congestion on highways, saves fuel costs and, with some enhancements to the current lines, the state could improve upon its position as an important crossroads for the rest of the country, the Beaver County Times reports. A PennDOT study released earlier this month outlines what officials hope will be the future of the rail industry-freight and passenger-and spells out what needs to happen to achieve the goals the report sets for 2035. And while the report makes it clear that many of the goals must be achieved by both sides of the industry, it sets a few priorities for specific improvements that will help improve freight rail in the state.

"A big part of the study was assembling a complete inventory of rail services from both modes in the state," said PennDOT spokeswoman Erin Waters. "When you look at the report, you get a good sense of how important the freight mode is in Pennsylvania; you also get a good idea of what we need to do to make improvements."

Pennsylvania already has some advantages that make it the fifth-largest railroad system in the country. Most of the 6,000 miles of track in the state is privately owned by one of four railroads: Norfolk Southern, CSX Transportation, Canadian Pacific Railway and Bessemer and Lake Erie Railroad Company. The study says the state also has the largest number of shortline railroads-34 Class II or III operators, specifically-in the country, a plus for manufacturers trying to move goods to larger terminals.

Pennsylvania also has nine intermodal terminals, important connections between rail lines and trucking companies that share the large intermodal containers, and seven port terminals, which can connect trucking, trains and river transportation. One of the latter centers is the Neville Island Freight Cluster, owned cooperatively by 19 property owners, which has easy access to rail, Ohio River barges and Interstate 79.

"It's pretty clear from the study that we don't have to start from scratch," said Shannon O'Connell, spokeswoman for regional planning group Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission. "But there are a few things we need to take care of to make sure we continue to be in a good position."

When rail service declined in the 1970s, the quality of track and facilities declined as well. The study says the larger railroads have the revenue to keep up with maintenance, but the smaller lines do not. And with the industry switching to larger, heavier cars, many of those shortline railroads don't have the track they need to properly support the cars.

"Installing track that's 286K-compliant will be a very important investment if we are going to take advantage of what we already have here," Waters said, referring to the new cars that weigh 286,000 pounds. "Those will be important connections to make, especially if we want to be in a position to promote the growth of manufacturing and agriculture in Pennsylvania."

Another limitation is the state's problem with double-stacked cars, or those that can handle two intermodal containers stacked on a single car. Demand for new capacity is growing, and double-stack trains are one solution, but there are too many bridges and overpasses that don't have the clearance for the larger cars.

"We're talking about a huge investment in infrastructure to make the changes we need to get double-stacked cars across the state," Waters said. "As it stands right now, there are too many choke points - places where those cars cannot travel - for us to be able to grow like we'd like to."

The necessary improvements will come down to finding the necessary funds. And while the Obama administration has showed a renewed interest in the rail industry, much of the attention-and much of the recently awarded grant money, like the $8 billion awarded in January-focuses on passenger rail systems.

"The level of private investment that will be required is huge, but we're fortunate in that the Class 1 railroads in Pennsylvania have been willing to be involved," Waters said.

Officials at the Association of American Railroads refused to comment on the study, but a recent report prepared by the industry group seems to say its members, North American Class 1 railroads and Amtrak, are willing to make those investments. The AAR study said freight railroads invested $9 billion in system improvements in 2009, a year when freight traffic declined dramatically because of the recession.

"Freight rail is the only mode of transportation that is almost entirely self-sustaining," Edward Hamberger, the association's chief executive officer, said in a statement about the group's report. "We sustain a healthy national rail system with private capital and we also deliver tremendous public, economic and job benefits to American businesses and consumers."

"Funding is the big question mark," O'Connell said. "With good planning-like what we see with the PennDOT report-and cooperation, I think we can come up with a mix of public and private funding to make these things happen."

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