As federal and local officials plot out the future of U.S. high-speed rail, a prominent speaker at this week's American Planning Association
conference is urging fellow urban planners to "fight" the prospect of
high-speed rail sharing roadbed with freight lines -- a significant
dilemma for Amtrak, which must split an estimated 70 percent of its track with freight.
Acela can feasibly top 100 miles per hour, but is often relegated to
lower speeds by the need to share roadbed. (Photo: Flickr/pgengler)
Pollock, a principal at the Chicago-based firm Camiros, today outlined
his high-speed rail presentation from the conference for reporters,
focusing on two issues that he depicted as major obstacles to a
successful domestic high-speed rail network.
Pollock noted that two of the three bullet train plans receiving the bulk of early federal funding
-- California's and Florida's -- would build dedicated new track for
high-speed service, while the midwest initiative would attempt to share
track with freight companies.
"As soon as you begin to" rely on track where freight and passenger rail coexist, Pollock said, "you begin to slow down
travel and start to create inefficiencies. Indeed, one of the problems underlying Amtrak for
many years has been it that it has to operate at the pleasure of freight lines on its
limiting effect of shared track on new high-speed service was felt most
acutely in the northeast corridor between Washington and Boston, where
Amtrak has acknowledged that trains are forced to share an
"overcrowded, and often overwhelmed, track."
The northeastern area got just 1.4 percent of the first round of Obama administration high-speed grants, a move that prompted blowback from some Republicans but ultimately was acknowledged to be a consequence of local planning deficiencies and aging track.
shared-tracking approach, according to Pollock, is a "challenge" that
"you have to fight" -- and he outlined another problem facing
high-speed rail planners: "Frankly, you have to fight political demand
for stops, because everybody wants a station."
location of stops along Florida's planned line has drawn particular
criticism in recent days. A recent New York Times report identified
weak links in the state rail system's connections with local Tampa and
Orlando transit, as well as its failure to include the Tampa airport as
Despite his warning of the risk inherent in
splitting track between passenger and freight rail, Pollock did
highlight the value of an improved rail network in the northeast, one
of the few areas in the nation where train travel times are competitive
or more attractive than those for air trips.
closed by emphasizing the importance of a long view in gauging the
success of U.S. high-speed rail. "These things take time" to be
integrated into the culture of travel, Pollock said, warning that five
or ten years would be too short of a period to truly expect bullet
trains to remake American infrastructure.