Trains For America

More choices for better transportation

High speed freight rail network proposed

Gil Carmichael formerly chaired the Federal Railway Administration and served on the Amtrak board. He was also part of a group appointed to “reform” amtrak. He is 80 years old, highly knowledgeable, and politically astute. He chairs Denver’s Intermodal Transportation Institute and spends his time promoting an intercity mult-track high-speed rail network which would be the backbone of a national freight transportation network. The name for this concept is Interstate II.

He met recently with DC VELOCITY Group Editorial Director Mitch Mac Donald to discuss both his background and his vision of the freight transportation system of the future. It is a fascinating interview and here are some relevant points.

Q: Of course, if they want to maintain that momentum, the rails will have to invest in infrastructure. I know you’ve been advocating the expansion and upgrade of the nation’s rail system for almost 15 years. Weren’t you the first to use the term “Interstate II” to describe the nation’s future rail system?

A: Yes, I can claim ownership of that term. I first used it in a speech in the early 1990s to a group of road and highway construction professionals in Washington, D.C. I told them that they had built the Interstate Highway System in the last century, but what about the 21st century? I warned them they would be missing the boat, so to speak, if they didn’t start looking at the construction of the railroad rights-of-way in this century.

Our Interstate Highway System was built in the 1950s and later. There are four lanes, asphalt and concrete, lanes separated. You can go from one side of the country to the other without stopping—with overpasses and underpasses, too. I call that highway system Interstate I. Interstate II, I hope, is going to be utilized as a railroad right-of-way network all around North America—Mexico, the United States, and Canada. The rail system in this country used to be double-, triple-, and quadruple-tracked. The rights-of-way are still there. The railroads, though, have scaled back in many lanes to single tracks. We are just now seeing that change with some re-establishing of at least double tracking along the rights-of-way. But if we really want to do something right, we need to go back and double-, triple-, and quadruple-track wherever we can. We also need to invest in grade separation where rails and roads intersect. The railroad rights-of-way are already bought and paid for and are just sitting out there. We should go build this thing I call Interstate II. Interstate II will be about 30,000 miles of double track connecting all the major cities.

If we put our minds to it, we should be able to do it in this century.

Q: What has to happen to make this new concept a reality?

A: It is already starting. There is no other choice. Aside from the efficiencies, the environmental benefits, and the capabilities the railroads offer, the only other real option we have for moving people and freight by surface transportation is the current Interstate Highway System. By all accounts, and without even getting into the problems that have been so heavily covered in the mainstream press since the Minneapolis bridge collapse, the Interstate Highway System is quite simply maxed out. The era of trying to expand the Interstate Highway System is at its end. The next era belongs to Interstate II and the rail industry.

The obvious question was not asked. Will intercity passenger trains be allowed on Interstate II? The right-of-way exists because of public-private partnerships. Furthermore, taxpayers are being asked to make a hefty contribution to the system. Will modern fast (not HSR, just “fast”) passenger trains be included in the mix?

Put another way, will construction and highway interests, and the railroad lobby, include the American people?


Filed under: Passenger Rail Transportatio Policy

Look for more rail congestion

We don’t make up the news, we just report it.

E. Hunter Harrison, former Memphian and CEO of CN Railway, spoke  to the Economic Club in Memphis last night about projected growth of traffic between the developing Prince Rupert, B. C. port and the Tennessee rail hub. Since this growth occurs on the line of an Amtrak service that has something of a reputation for good time keeping, this is reported without comment (for now). The entire story (it’s a good one) is in the Commercial Appeal.

With CN’s announcement last week that it intends to buy a major portion of the Elgin, Joliet and Eastern Railway Co. in Chicago, Harrison’s own number suggest CN will be able to get cargo to Memphis in 100 hours from Prince Rupert — 3,100 miles away — as early as 2011.

In the same year, he says Memphis will be receiving a milelong train a day from Prince Rupert alone, double stacked with import containers.

The combination of the investments will change CN’s entire U.S. network.

“We currently have seven primary yards in the U.S. All will be downsized to focus on Chicago and Memphis.”

Container imports are expected to rise 350 percent by 2020, creating immense stresses for the U.S. transportation sector. Improved rail efficiencies must cope with this problem, he said.

In Memphis alone, Harrison said, CN has invested nearly a half-billion dollars since 2004, opening a new intermodal terminal at Frank C. Pidgeon Park in 2005, and beefing up its rail car yard at Johnston Yard.

Filed under: Passenger Rail Transportatio Policy

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October 2007