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FRA chief: passenger grants to benefit freight

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The first state applications for "shovel-ready" passenger rail projects are due into the Federal Railroad Administration on Aug. 24, and FRA Administrator Joseph Szabo thinks some of the federal grants to follow will need to help freight lines get ready for more and faster passenger trains, reports The Journal of Commerce.

Szabo told The Journal of
Commerce
much of the construction work related to the administration’s
high-speed rail initiative will, in fact, be to add new regular Amtrak
passenger operations or speed them up in corridors owned and actively used by
freight railroads

The Recovery Act provides
$8 billion for high-speed rail projects, and President Obama has asked for an
additional $1 billion a year in the federal budget to keep spurring passenger
use of trains between cities. The FRA’s Aug. 24 deadline is for states to
submit their "Track 1" passenger rail projects they could complete most
quickly.

While the high-speed rail
funding pool will jump-start a few projects to build very fast passenger trains
– in the range of 200 mph — with their own dedicated rights of way, Szabo said
that "in 90 percent of the cases or more, the host railroad will be the
freight."

That means "it is reasonable
to assume that in many cases there is going to be the need for capacity
enhancements" by the freight railroads, he said. "To the extent it can be shown
that it’s a necessary component of the project that is then an eligible expense
for the high-speed rail grant funding."

Rail industry officials say
increasing speeds on a freight line or getting it ready for initial Amtrak
service can mean installing new types of track, upgrading signals and building
more siding tracks to allow slower freight trains to move off a single-track
main line so faster passenger trains can pass.

In some areas where
passenger speeds could go much higher than now, for them to operate in a
freight right of way could require double-tracking the rail line to make sure
there is enough capacity at all times.

Making sure people use
trains for intercity service will require not only faster train speeds but
reliable on-time performance, and regulators are preparing to enforce the
standards even if it means penalizing freight railroads when they slow the
passenger service.

"If the freights are going
to be held to a higher standard," Szabo said, "frankly, they are going to need
additional infrastructure."

Szabo said after states
submit their Aug. 24 applications, his agency will review them and send them to
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood about mid-September, so the first round of
high-speed rail grants should come "early this fall."

He said for freight lines
to adjust to those new demands on train moves within their corridors "it’s only
fair, it’s only reasonable that that will result in additional demands for
capacity improvements, and so that has to be a part of this negotiation."

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