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On sexy, sexy rail infrastructure December 23, 2009 at 8:22 pm

I have a little purple sticky-note half stuck to the shelf above my laptop on my desk that says “Europe has it right: disconnect track from train service”. I often leave myself such notes in the middle of the night (in those few minutes between when I put my computer to sleep and when I put myself to sleep), sometimes reminding myself to do things (I’ve had a pink one up for the past week that says “laundry” that I can remove now, actually), sometimes ideas for screenplays (two lime green notes have been up for the whole semester with ideas for my current project) and, sometimes (as in this case) ideas to turn into blog posts.

Not as many make it into blog posts as should.

But in this case, I was reading, for about the millionth time, some of the Wikipedia pages for several European high speed rail companies and remembered something I was going to blog months (or even years?) ago (and maybe I did, but I don’t recall doing, and can’t find any place where I did, so): the idea of treating rail infrastructure/tracks as completely different from the trains that run on them. The European Union is just getting into doing this by making their member states’ various HSR agencies and companies separate the ownership of tracks and the service of running trains into two different agencies/companies (using France as an example, this means that the ownership of tracks has been transferred from SNCF (the agency that owns the TGV) to an new agency, the RFF, but both agencies are still owned by the French government), the benefit of this setup is that it will allow new companies to directly compete on the level of train SERVICE, without having to build their own (entirely useless and wasteful) track systems. So now (or, in a couple years, since the new rules don’t actually go into effect in the EU for another year or two), for example, a new company could form, buy some train-sets and give the TGV service in France a “run for its money”, using the same tracks as TGV, but not having to be at the mercy of TGV/SNCF (which perviously owned the tracks in what anybody could see was a conflict of interest) in terms of scheduling and track use fees, since all that is now (or will be) handled by a separate company whose sole purpose of existence is to manage, maintain and otherwise oversee the tracks, but nothing more.

tracksAnd I think that’s what we need in America: federally owned and maintained tracks and signaling infrastructure and private companies using that track for freight, cargo and passenger services. (To be fair Amtrak already uses tracks it doesn’t own across most of the country, so this is not an entirely new concept.) Aside from a toll road here and there (my state’s local toll road, the 80/90 Indiana Toll Road was recently sold into privatization on a 99-year lease) and possibly a few airports (I haven’t done an exhaustive study of them all, but Google searches on several big ones revels them to be owned by the local city government) all transit infrastructure in the USA aside from rail infrastructure is government owned. Given my belief that transit infrastructure should be publicly owned (how else are we to get to stores to spend and keep the economy moving? Or to play, work, travel, etc.? It’d be laughable if ever time I stepped into the street outside my home I had to pay someone) I find it strange that a huge component in America’s shipping and even passenger travel system is privately owned. I think that, just like in Europe, if the tracks were owned by a third party (I’m voting federal or at least state governments, but there might be an argument for it being a private company…anyone want to try to persuade me?) I think that would foster better competition in the rail freight industry, take some strain off of rail freight companies (if all they have to focus on is their own trains rather than also having to maintain trackage it would make those businesses more streamlined and probably more efficient at their core business: quickly getting freight to the end users, which down the line is you and me, the consumer) and possibly, by extension, remove some strain from the Interstate highway system (if we can use federal dollars to improve the rail system rather than waiting for rail freight companies to do so it could conceivably speed up the rail system and remove the need for as many trucks on the roads) and, lastly, as much as the freight companies are told they have to give Amtrak the right of way (by way of a federal law) it sure seems to me (after sitting on more sidings than I care to remember on the one and only Amtrak trip I’ve ever been on [I was really excited to take the train before that, now I'm still excited to take a REAL train, but after comparing experiences on Amtrak and the Eurostar in Europe I've come to the conclusion that Amtrak does not represent real train travel in any way more than the tracks the trains run on]) that a third party managing the traffic would make Amtrak’s trips smoother.

This is all to say nothing of the need for high speed rail in America. But I think that the same model could be applied to higher-speed trackage, and, in fact, that federal ownership of the nation’s tracks could make upgrading those tracks to support higher-speed travel much easier than it is now (just look at the fastest trackage in America: it’s owned by Amtrak in the Northeast).

2 Responses to “On sexy, sexy rail infrastructure”

  1. I love the idea of government-owned rails that private companies would use for free, just like our roads system. Of course with the selling out of some state-owned highways to private contractors, the lines begin to blur again!

  2. [...] for rail infrastructure when every other infrastructure system in this country is government owned (I blogged extensively on this late last year), and with the exception of some of the farthest out libertarians, I think we can all see the sense [...]

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