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New TxDOT rail director looks into future of state’s transportation

Tuesday, January 12, 2010 by Jacob Cottingham

Bill Glavin, the Texas Department of Transportation’s recently appointed Rail Division Director, has a lot to be excited about. As the first head of the new department, his decades of freight industry experience will be instrumental in shaping the future of the state’s passenger rail network. Glavin spoke with In Fact Daily about his vision for the state and the long road ahead for high-speed trains.

 

Before TxDOT, Glavin spent 30 years working for Burlington Northern-Santa Fe, North American RailNet and RVBA and Associates. He said there are many advantages to his freight experience, where among other duties he was chief engineer at BNSF.

 

He stressed that it’s important for the department to bring in technology and ideas that had been working in other countries. “We do not have the patent on knowledge,” he said, “Other people do and we’re anxious to be able to take that and see what applications we have to benefit Texas.”

 

Before any high speed network could be established there are several initial hurdles that must be overcome. The lack of funding for rail in Texas looms largest – though that was a topic Glavin didn’t yet feel comfortable discussing at length so early on the job. Another issue is defining what, exactly, constitutes high speed rail. Currently different industry and government entities are calling anything from 90 – 200 mph “high speed,” and it remains to be seen what Texas’ ultimate goal will be.

 

The average speed at which a train could operate depends on the tracks it travels on. Glavin said a major question for Texans is whether to overlay passenger rail service on top of existing freight lines, or begin building a dedicated independent network. “People are concerned that if we make an investment in improving the freight network for higher speed trains it will preclude a real bullet train,” Glavin said, “But the capacity we build there isn’t going to be wasted because the freight network is going to be growing.”

 

He said the issue then becomes whether or not the people of Texas want to invest in cheap capacity or more expensive capacity. If passenger rail needs end up requiring that rail bridges be widened, that can be an expensive proposition – especially if freight lines would not have needed that additional capacity for several decades.

 

Glavin noted that railroads that are under capacity tend to be in city pairs that are not primed for high speed rail. “Where a market for passengers exists, there’s such a demand for freight that there’s not a heck of a lot of additional capacity to overlay passenger on there,” he said. Another funding issue is how much of the initial capital costs the state is willing want to take on. Although public-private funding schemes are popular, often the public aspect relies on taxes generated from freight lines, effectively hitting those companies twice when they are also expected to pick up the “private” portion of investment.

 

One thing seems certain: interconnected networks will be important to any future system. Glavin cautioned against viewing rail as an end-all solution to traffic and mobility problems, pointing out, “You can’t just dump a trainload of people in a field of crickets without having an interconnected network to distribute the people throughout the area.” To this end, Texas will need to ensure that regional rail systems link up with metro or urban links, and fit in with existing highways and airports.

 

Freight has a similar strategy, Glavin said, as they deal with different requirements for intermodal, general merchandise strategies, and coal – all of which operate at different speeds, frequencies and plans of operation. Glavin sees this as essential to a transportation network. “My view is that when you’re working with highway solutions you have a number of solutions, be it toll roads, express lanes, carpool lanes, interstates, connectors, bike path…  You have to look at the same thing in rail.”

 

In regard to an Austin-San Antonio rail corridor, Glavin said, “The longer we wait, the more difficult and expensive it gets.” Glavin speculated that such a line could require Union Pacific to “move off its current lines and go around the city. Each year we delay it, the further out that bypass has to be because growth is continuing to push out the inexpensive green fields.” Additionally, adding mileage to go around the city in ever widening loops adds cost on for the Class I rail carriers which would utilize a new freight line.

 

Glavin said other issues are problematic to expanded rail on top of freight lines. If a passenger train runs at higher speeds, anywhere from 79-110 mph, the class of the track changes and the maintenance standards required for that also change – and become more expensive. Although Class I’s benefit from the improved maintenance, they don’t get any additional speed. Furthermore, new national standards requiring Positive Train Control, which automatically slows and stops trains headed for a collision, further increase the costs.

 

Glavin also pointed out that although people object to subsidizing rail and specifically cite Amtrak as a failure, he said “there’s no commuter system in the nation that’s not subsidized,” including highways, airports and every other mode of transportation.

 

Another area of concern for the new rail division is safety – especially if higher speed trains were to use tracks currently slated for freight. “If you take a crossing that usually has 60 or 40 mph freight trains and people get up to the gate, and don’t hear or see anything, they’ll go around even though the fast moving passenger train may be heading toward them,” Glavin said. The new division will “need to come up to a way to secure the corridors,” in order to prevent such accidents.

 

Although Texas recently applied for $1.8 billion in federal stimulus funds, those are not expected to pave the way for a high speed network. Only a fraction of the federal funds allocated to rail projects could be used for planning and design – the areas that Texas needs the most work. The rest were intended for “shovel ready” projects and grants that required state matching funds, an acute problem for a state in which the Legislature has not yet appropriated funds for rail. The money that Texas did apply for are short-term improvements to signal time, freight speed, and grade improvements.

 

Glavin stressed the affect rail has on local and state economies, saying that land values near passenger rail tend to increase and businesses flourish when potential customers are let out at stops near them. Given these advantages and the potential for additional federal matching funs, Glavin said it is important to get a plan in order and start buying right of way. “Even if we’re 10 years, 50, or 150 years out from the ultimate solution, we really need to start preserving ROW right away today.”

 

As he juggles meetings with foreign rail companies from across the globe, all of whom see America as an untapped market, Glavin will begin rolling out “visioning workshops” with the public, while staff sorts through any existing data on connection points for a future system.

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