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Fixing freight rail

Good story about freight rail in and around Houston and its present and future needs.

The recession has eased the rail traffic problem temporarily, but transportation leaders warn the reprieve will not last. Houston’s population will grow and the widening of the Panama Canal could bring a massive influx of shipping containers to Houston’s port starting in 2014. Train freight could triple by 2035, according to the Houston-Galveston Area Council, a planning agency.

But clearing the blockages in the rail system will not be easy. “Everyone agrees the system is broken,” [Mark Ellis, chairman of the Gulf Coast Freight Rail District] said. “But there’s a lot of fear of change and people wondering who would pay for it.”

Freight railroads are private businesses, and the big players in Houston have already been spending money to upgrade tracks and switches and keep traffic moving through. But they want public help for the more expensive solutions, like building bridges to separate streets from railroad tracks. In exchange, the railroads may consider sharing their tracks or rights-of-way with commuter trains.

When interstate highways were built, many people thought railroads would wither away. Across Houston and elsewhere, rail corridors were sold off and developed. But now railroads seem poised for a comeback.

They have triple the fuel efficiency of trucks, and that makes them cheaper and less polluting.

In Houston, moving freight onto rail could help a lot with air quality: While commercial trucks account for less than 10 percent of vehicular traffic, they emit more than half the region’s nitrogen oxide (the primary ingredient of smog), according to the Houston-Galveston Area Council.

Freight trains could move more smoothly through Houston if there were bigger rail yards and fewer points where roads and tracks cross. The Ship Channel is also a big geographic barrier.

If you haven’t already, read this Washington Monthly article from January about investing in freight rail; see also this post by Christof. Ideally, some of the things that need to be done here and elsewhere would receive state and/or federal funds. I can see some of this happening at the federal level, if we ever get past the health care debate. It just makes a lot of sense.

Improving the freight rail network may also allow for more commuter rail.

Although it is done elsewhere, Union Pacific, which owns most of the tracks in Houston, would prefer not to share its tracks with commuter trains. “We would have concerns about the safety of commingling commuter and freight operations,” said Joe Adams, a vice president for public affairs. “And we have concerns about losing present and future freight rail capacity.”

That means that commuter rail along U.S. 90A is scarcely a possibility right now. That route, which would serve commuters in Sugar Land and other Fort Bend areas, is a critical Union Pacific route, bringing in containers full of Asian-produced goods from ports in California.

But two other freight lines have less traffic, and Union Pacific is working with government planners to free them up for commuter trains. One runs out the U.S. 290 corridor and one runs along Texas 3 to Galveston. TxDOT is considering granting $2 million in stimulus funds for two engineering studies on those routes.

“My goal is to have trains running in three years,” said Harris County Judge Ed Emmett.

That would be a huge accomplishment if it can happen. The pieces are coming together, though there are still a lot of issues, including getting the trains inside the Loop and connecting them to light rail lines. The story notes that there’s an abandoned freight rail line that runs through the Heights that isn’t being considered for use right now, as Judge Emmett doesn’t want to fight that battle. My understanding of this is that it wouldn’t necessarily be all that disruptive to the surrounding areas, but there would need to be a lot of communication done with the neighborhoods to get everyone to buy into the idea. I hope some of that happens while progress is being made on the rest of it. Christof has more.

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