Rock to Road

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Shared rail corridors could increase congestion


September 21, 2010
By Rock To Road

Sept. 21, 2010, Ottawa – Passenger and freight trains must share most
rail corridors in Canada. A new Conference Board of Canada report warns
that this could lead to delays that could drive more freight and
commuter traffic onto congested public roadways.

Sept. 21, 2010, Ottawa – Passenger and freight trains must share most rail corridors in Canada. A new Conference Board of Canada report warns that this could lead to delays that could drive more freight and commuter traffic onto congested public roadways.

If solutions are not found to the problems arising from current sharing of corridors, both freight and passenger rail transportation will suffer. This report examines the issue from the perspectives of both freight and passenger rail (including commuter and intercity) operators.

"Transportation congestion is often thought of as a problem for roads and highways. However, the increase in commuter rail services over the past decade and the pre-recession boom in rail freight created bottlenecks on Canadian railways as well," said Gilles Rhéaume, vice-president, Public Policy.

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The commercial relationships and policies that govern how these rail corridors are shared in general are not very well understood by the public. This publication, Shared Corridors, Strange Bedfellows: Understanding the Interface Between Freight and Passenger Rail, provides an overview of the main issues relating to shared rail corridors. It clarifies some of the key issues that have direct implications for policy-makers, especially as the economy rebounds from the recession and rail traffic begins to pick up.

"The bulk of rail lines are privately owned, but there are important public issues at stake in managing passenger and freight traffic in rail corridors," said Rhéaume. "Not only are significant public investments being made in commuter rail, there are socio-economic benefits to making commuter rail services attractive compared to road travel.

"There are also environmental and safety benefits of ensuring that long-distance rail freight remains attractive to shippers. If rail freight is not attractive as possible, more shipments are likely to travel by truck, which would add to road congestion."

In order to realize these public benefits — as well as respecting commercial interests —freight railways and passenger rail operators must work together in three areas:

  • optimizing use of capacity on existing shared rail corridors;
  • upgrading capacity in areas where this is justified commercially and/or by the public interest, such as socio-economic and environmental effects; and
  • ensuring that the outcomes of negotiations between the stakeholders are commercially reasonable and that public funds involved are well spent.

The publication identifies several potential options for railways and passenger rail operators to improve their respective services.

  • Passenger operators could buy existing lines from rail companies, thereby enabling these operators to better control their rail traffic. For example, Metrolinx made two purchases in the Toronto region in 2009. In five years, it anticipates owning up to 90 per cent of the rail corridor it uses.
  • Passenger operators could outsource the maintenance of rolling stock to third-party maintenance providers, achieving significant cost savings, as GO Transit did over a decade ago.
  • Class I railway companies (freight operators) can and are continuing to optimize the use of their respective networks, most notably through their purchases of key U.S. regional railways. For example, Canadian National acquired EJ&E railway that encircles Chicago in 2009, thereby making it possible to move their trains out of the urban core.

The publication is funded by the Conference Board's Centre for Transportation Infrastructure and is based on research, and presentations and discussions at a meeting held in 2009. The Centre for Transportation Infrastructure promotes the development, maintenance and efficient operation of transportation networks. It brings together business and government leaders to discuss the key issues in transportation and undertake research to shed light on these issues.