- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Amtrak yesterday proposed a low-cost version of congressional plans to create regional high-speed rail corridors while warning the alternative is freight and passenger railroad gridlock.

Upgrading the eight corridors in the proposal would cost the federal government $1.98 billion over five years, Amtrak officials said. The eight states where the trains would run would be expected to contribute an additional $400 million.

The proposal comes at a time when delays on Amtrak and freight railroads are a growing problem as demand for service outstrips rail capacity.

“If we don’t redress the imbalance in the transportation system, the national rail system is in terrible jeopardy,” said Amtrak President David Gunn.

Amtrak chose the eight corridors in its proposal because states already have committed funds for the upgrade work required for passenger trains to run at least 79 mph.

Any additional improvements needed consist mostly of installing track alongside existing freight railroad tracks or straightening out curves so faster trains can run on them.

“What we have done is try to make it simple for them,” Mr. Gunn said.

Over the past five years, Congress has proposed several plans for developing high-speed-rail corridors. They would cost $10 billion to $25 billion.

The bills never won approval because of opposition to high costs.

Mr. Gunn described the high-speed rail corridors he proposes for development as “incremental.”

The $1.98 billion for the Amtrak plan is separate from the $1.6 billion a year over the next five years the railroad says it needs for its annual budget. Congress gave Amtrak $1.2 billion for this year.

The Amtrak proposal would be less extensive than congressional proposals, but achieve many of the same goals of reducing passenger and freight railroad congestion, he said. The proposal anticipates additions to the system in later years.

The proposed corridors are in California, Illinois, Missouri, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Washington state and Wisconsin.

The Pennsylvania corridor would run between Philadelphia and Harrisburg. The North Carolina corridor would run between Raleigh and Charlotte.

“If we make the investments outlined in this plan, we would triple our ridership between Raleigh and Charlotte,” said Patrick Simmons, North Carolina Transportation Department rail program director.

Another part of the Amtrak plan calls on the federal government to fund freight-rail-infrastructure improvements for states or railroads that contribute matching amounts of money.

The proposal is endorsed by major railroads, such as Norfolk Southern Corp. and Canadian Pacific Railway.

Bill Schafer, Norfolk Southern’s corporate affairs director, said freight railroads can operate efficiently only if they can eliminate scheduling conflicts with the Amtrak trains that share track with freight railroads.

“To do that you need additional capacity,” he said.

Eugene Skoropowski, California’s Capitol Corridor rail project managing director, said the federal government has given an unfair preference to highways and shortchanged railroads.

“There is a matching program at the federal level for every form of transportation except intercity rail,” he said.

Federal Railroad Administration officials said they still are reviewing the Amtrak proposal.

“We’re interested in looking at what they have to say,” said Steve Kulm, FRA spokesman.

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