The first state applications for "shovel-ready" passenger rail projects are due into the Federal Railroad Administration this week, 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.
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 HSR 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 HSR 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 applications, his agency will review them and send them to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood about mid-September, so the first round of HSR 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."