State Seeks Stimulus Funds to Study High-Speed Rail

by Jamie Walden  on Monday, Aug. 24, 2009 12:00 am  

The Arkansas State Highway & Transportation Department is seeking $500,000 in federal stimulus money to study a high-speed rail route from Little Rock to Texarkana. It's part of a plan that ultimately would halve that five-hour drive from Little Rock to Dallas.

The track is part of a regional route that has been dubbed the South Central High-Speed Passenger Rail Corridor in President Barack Obama's High-Speed Rail Strategic Plan. Obama outlined his plans for a high-speed rail system in April. He compared his initiative to President Dwight D. Eisenhower's push for a nationwide interstate highway system in the 1950s, which transformed the United States.

Meanwhile, Texas has applied for grant money to study a route from Dallas to Texarkana, said Dan Flowers, director of the Arkansas Transportation Department.

The subject of the studies will be a segment of a freight line owned by Union Pacific. The National Railroad Passenger Corp., better known as Amtrak, also uses that route, which it calls the Texas Eagle Route.

The track starts on the West Coast in Los Angeles, sweeps southeast through Arizona and New Mexico, dips down through Texas, then juts upward on its way to Illinois, running through Dallas, Texarkana and Little Rock along the way. Click here to view a map of the Arkansas route and a map of the Obama administration's High-Speed Rail Strategic Plan.

The Arkansas Transportation Department plans to match the $500,000 federal grant - assuming the department receives the stimulus cash - to fill a $1 million pool to fund the study.

Flowers said the applications for a cut of the $8 billion allocated to a high-speed rail system by the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act of 2009 were due Monday. The government received applications for grants totaling more than $102 billion, he said.

If - and that's evidently a big "if" - Arkansas' application is approved, Flowers said, he hopes that the department will get a check by late October.

The Study

Though the Texas Eagle is a passenger rail route as well as a freight route, the transportation departments of the states through which it runs have a lot of work to do to upgrade the route to accommodate a high-speed train.

Step one? Determining what that work is.

The study will analyze what upgrades must be performed on the track to safely accommodate a high-speed train.

To qualify for funding under ARRA, the South Central High-Speed Passenger Rail Corridor must accommodate, among other things, a train speed of between 110 mph and 150 mph.

When planning for a train with that speed, experts say, many factors must be considered.

David Levinson is the chair in transportation engineering in the civil engineering department at the University of Minnesota at Minneapolis. The curves of the existing track are a major consideration, Levinson said in an e-mail response to questions from Arkansas Business.

Levinson cited the Madrid-Seville route in Spain, which has a minimum radius of curvature of 4,000 meters, or about 2.4 miles. The curves of a traditional rail line are much different from the curves that can safely accommodate a high-speed train, he said.

Because the train envisioned for the Little Rock-Texarkana route wouldn't be running as fast as the train in Spain, it's possible that it could safely run on rails with sharper curves.

"If the curve is sharp, the speed cannot be too great," Levinson said.

Holly Arthur, assistant vice president of media and public relations at the Association of American Railroads, said converting a traditional rail line into a high-speed line involves complex considerations.

"There's terrain, the number of grade crossings, the number of towns and cities that it goes through, track configuration, whether or not the track would be shared or dedicated [to one type of train] and then, of course, the volume of freight traffic that exists on the track," Arthur said.

"Just like you wouldn't put semi-trucks on the Autobahn. The Autobahn is shaped to handle high-speed auto traffic. It's long and straight and has long curves. To have a smooth passenger high-speed rail line, you have to think in a similar way. It would need to be engineered in a way that would support that kind of movement.

"The type of track that you have to move a carload of coal doesn't need quite the smooth ride that you would need for your passenger," Arthur said.

The number of grade crossings, or road-rail intersections, and the options to eliminate those junctions are a major part of the study, Flowers said.

"With high-peed trains, you certainly want to avoid as many conflicts as possible," Flowers said.

In most cases, Flower added, the state would have to build overpasses where intersecting traffic occurs.

The study will put a cost to those changes, Flowers said. Who would pay for those overpasses "is undetermined at this time," Flowers said, adding that it would depend on how much funding the rail program gets in the future.

The Obama administration's budget allocated $5 billion to execute the strategic high-speed rail plan. That amount, which comes on top of the preliminary $8 billion, is to be paid out in portions of $1 billion per year.

The engineering firm selected for the project would also attempt to quantify any potential reduced strain on the state's highways resulting from less use. The state would, in theory, reap some savings from reduced use, primarily in the form of fewer road repairs.

Conversely, the firm also would need to determine whether adding high-speed passenger trains to the existing line would crowd some freight trains off those tracks, Levinson said, resulting in freight traffic moving to trucks and the highways. If the firm found that to be a likely outcome, the engineers would then need to calculate the increased strain on the highways.

After weighing all those factors, the chosen firm would determine if using an existing track is the most efficient option.

"Whether you can use the track itself or whether you have to build a parallel track with different characteristics is something that would have to be determined," Flowers said.

"I think new rails would need to be laid in most cases - or existing rails re-laid - as the loads from [high-speed rail] are quite different than freight," Levinson said.

Experts don't know whether using an existing route is more cost effective.

"Because this is new," Arthur said. "This is all very new."

All Aboard

Once Arkansas' Transportation Department gets the federal check, it would immediately begin advertising, requesting letters of interest from engineering firms, which, Flowers said, would definitely occur before the end of the year.

The department would then request proposals from the qualified firms, review the submitted proposals and negotiate a contract.

Flowers said that negotiating, instead of bidding, is a federal requirement.

The selection process could take several months, Flowers said. After the firm was selected, the study should take between 12 and 18 months, he added.

Flowers said the Federal Rail Administration would conduct a feasibility study on extending the route from Little Rock to Memphis.

The route would either continue up to Bald Knob and then over to Memphis or down to Pine Bluff and then across to Memphis. Rail lines already exist in these areas.

The state Transportation Department's study will focus only on the Texarkana-Little Rock route.

Need for Speed

Because the high-speed rail system in this country is in the early stages, officials generally decline to speculate about the impact the incipient industry will have on employment. The administration has indicated that manufacturing should see a boost from a high-speed rail system, which should also create a number of new operating positions.

However, the environmental impact is not unknown.
The Center for Clean Air Policy and the Center for Neighborhood Technology conducted a study in 2006 that indicates that a high-speed rail system would substantially reduce harmful carbon dioxide emissions.

The study concluded that by the 2025, passengers would take 112 million trips on high-speed rail that year, traveling more than 25 billion miles. That would result in 29 million fewer automobile trips and nearly 500,000 fewer flights. At that rate, the country could expect total emission savings of 6 billion pounds of carbon dioxide per year.

"It is a major emphasis of the [Obama] administration to develop a high-speed rail system in the country," Flowers said. "And I think you'll see a lot of emphasis on it in the next few years."



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