2nd Half 2008
By CAITLIN SULLIVAN/Staff
A Virginia group that advocates expanding rail said the slumping economy might just be a good thing.
Less money for highway building and more interest in improving infrastructure and creating jobs could equal more room for rails, supporters say.
“I think one of the things that’s encouraging is there’s no longer much money for highway construction,” said Rail Solution Executive Director David Foster.
Rees Shearer, chair of the grassroots advocacy group, said the crisis in transportation funding could have some advantages. The justification for improving rail ? fuel costs, pollution and futurre availability have only increased since 2003, when Rail Solution got its start.
“As we sit and wait to see where the money is going to come from, the advantages for rail will only increase,” he said.
Good news for the group began earlier this year with the January announcement that STAR Solutions, a group planning expansion and construction on Interstate 81, had pulled out.
“It’s kind of the beginning of a new era for us,” said Foster. “We’re now not fighting STAR Solutions everyday. Now we can direct our attention to more constructive efforts.”
More good news came earlier this month in the form of a six-state memorandum of understanding “to establish a seamless freight and passenger network along I-81 from New York to Tennessee.”
Shearer though is concerned that the memorandum doesn’t allow for citizen input, leaving the fate of the project to the six governmental bodies.
A feasibility study and action plan is set to be released soon said Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation’
The study is part of the 2006 House Bill 1581 to determine if it makes sense to move long-haul, through-truck traffic to intermodal rail along the 81 corridor. The bill also incorporated a requirement to find out what is needed to divert 60 percent of the through-truck traffic to intermodal rail.
“The reason that we wrote in the goal for a 60 percent diversion for through trucks is because it would avoid additional cost to expand the highway,” Shearer said/
It’s that freight traffic, not passenger traffic, that’s overcapacity, overall, he said.
“There’s a long-term plan in place for an eight-lane interstate,” Shearer said. “Why build eight lanes for truck capacity, spend billions of dollars, have diesel pollution, eat up all kinds of land, plus from a national security standpoint rely on more oil? If you invest in pavement there is not going to be enough money in the world to build an eight lane interstate and a railroad. If you build the pavement you negate the option for improvement on the railroad.”
Shearer said facts and figures support an improved rail system, politics doesn’t.
“It’s the political will that makes the decision to invest in more and more roads that gives us less productivity or invest in rails that give us more productivity,” he said.
Washington State-based rail expert Hal Cooper said at the meeting that 9,600 cars does the same amount of damage to the road as one 40-ton truck.
In addition to lobbying local officials for support, Rail Solution is also looking bigger. A national rail system may even be favorable in this tight economic environment because it could create jobs and strengthen infrastructure.
“Although money is short there is going to be an imperative to put money into the economy and transportation will be high on that list,” he said.
Cooper said that when gas hit $4 a gallon and oil $120 a barrel, people’s thinking changed. They began look for alternatives.
California voters passed a high speed rail system plan in November, the first in the country.
“The Midwest will be next in maybe two years and then will come the Southeast,” Cooper said. “But that could be accelerated depending on the political system.”
Cooper said there’s a good prospect for an improved rail system in Virginia, but with all the different groups working for the rail system it may make it more difficult.
“There are quite a few groups, five I think,” he said. “Certainly you speak stronger with one voice than with five."
Bristol Herald Courier
By Debra McCown
Reporter / Bristol Herald Courier
Published: August 12, 2008
ABINGDON, Va. - It's not your imagination: There really is mmore freight rumbling down the railroad tracks these days.
As diesel prices rise, the movement of agricultural products, coal and intermodal freight - or containers that can be shifted between truck to rail - hass increased, particularly in the past two or three years, said Robin Chapman, spokesman for Norfolk Southern.
"As diesel fuel becomes more expensive, the rail alternative becomes more competitive, and so some of our biggest customers are trucking companies," Chapman said.
"Our big trucking customers ... have told us they would love to use us more if we had the capacity to provide more trains," he said.
Hernan Vera is group director of sales and marketing of U.S. supply chain solutions for Ryder, a large transportation logistics provider based in Miami. He said fuel prices are "causing many retailers to rethink everything."
That means the number of deliveries being made, the method of transportation and everything in between. In some cases, the solution is rail.
"Right now, there is a cost difference, there is a savings going to rail," Vera said, "but there's a tradeoff: You don't have the flexibility, and it takes more time to get the product to your customer."
Some folks in Southwest Virginia and up and down Interstate 81 are seeking to tackle that problem and create a new type of rail service. Their project, called "Rail Solution," is getting more attention as fuel prices continue to rise.
They see a public-private partnership as the way to make transportation efficient for freight and passengers, said Rees Shearer, chairman of the group and an Emory resident.
"We feel like for the future of the United States and certainly for the future of the corridor along Interstate 81 in Virginia, we need to be thinking beyond the pavement," Shearer said.
Among the issues he said are driving the need are fuel prices, land prices and the potential effect on the sagging economy of a speedy alternative to highway trucks in the high-traffic corridor between Knoxville, Tenn., and Harrisburg, Pa.
"What we envision is what's called a steel interstate, not grandmotther's railroad," Shearer said.
"It is a high-efficiency, higher-speed railroad that would provide service on a regular basis, scheduled and truck time competitive. In other words, you can offload your truckload in Knoxville and it would arrive in Harrisburg to be picked up by another truck at the same time roughly as if you had just driven straight through," he continued.
To do this, he said, the rail infrastructure would need rebuilding, much like highways would in preparation for increased truck traffic.
Chapman said Norfolk Southern is also working on a rail system improvement plan, called the Crescent Corridor, to increase capacity to meet customer needs. The project involves double-tracking sections of and adding passing sidings along the company's rail line, which parallels the interstate. Much of the traffic moving between New Orleans and New Jersey is moving by truck, Chapman said.
"And a lot of that could move by rail if we had the capacity to handle it," he said. "One impact that people are likely to see from this is fewer trucks on the highway, or at least not as much growth of trucks on the highway as the economy grows, by shifting some of that traffic off the highway onto rail."
Vera said as fuel prices continue to increase, so does the viability of a concept like Rail Solution. But it will take intense coordination among railroads, businesses and government.
"It would take ... a lot of planning. Now, will the benefits of that planning and coordination be worth it? I think it could be if everyone works together," he said.
"I think as the price of fuel continues to go up, everything is going to continue to be looked at," Vera continued. "I think we're at a level now that we've never had contingency plans, and we don't have contingency plans for $6- or $7-a-gallon fuel … and I think what would not bee viable at $4 a gallon would absolutely be viable at $7 a gallon."
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