I had a long discussion with Stanley Forczek, a retired executive with Amtrak on Monday January, 10th. What I learned was hair raising and enlightening. High Speed Rail in Arkansas may be more possible, and more desirable, after all. I had kind of given up hope. What I gained from our discussion was a new perspective on passenger rail. Mr. Forczek is someone who knows from decades of experience at Amtrak. In the past ORBTS have discussed a, for now, fictional company called Arkansas Traveler Passenger Railroad Company, trade name Travel Rail. Let’s talk about the decisions Travel Rail has to make to create passenger rail in Arkansas. For one thing is Travel Rail going to use existing freight line rail or build dedicated passenger railroad tracks?
The first issue we need to address are the fundamental differences between rail beds. Rail beds have a certain tilt built into them. For a passenger train the tilt is in the same direction as the turn. So if the turn is to the right the train tilts to the right. For freight rail, the tilt is in the opposite direction. A right turn in the track means the freight train tilts to the left. That’s because a freight train is trying to balance its load while it makes the turn. Think of two people traveling over uneven ground. One is a runner, fast, light of foot. The other is a worker carrying a heavy load on their head. They have to cover the same ground but each has to adapt according to their load. A freight train can be up to 350,000 – 375,000 tons and moves slowly at 14 MPH average speed. A passenger train is lighter and can travel much faster up to 250 MPH+.
Travel Rail wants to provide passenger service and is looking at using existing freight rail. Because of the freight rail bed speed is limited in theory to 90 to 110 MPH. According to Mr. Forczek actual speed will top out at 85 MPH based on Amtrak experience. Now if Travel Rail wants to provide commuter service between Fayetteville and Bentonville or Little Rock to Cabot, or LR to Pine Bluff, even 80 MPH is too fast. The train will likely only travel from 40 to 45 MPH. Maybe top out at 60 MPH on the way to Pine Bluff. So sharing tracks with a freight hauler is perfectly fine. There are many modifications that have to be made but it can be done.
If one wants to go faster and travel further Travel Rail may need to look at building new railroad tracks. Here the stingy, cost adverse critics will start to cry about how it costs too much. Or we will end up with “a train to nowhere”. Funny when there are highways or airlines covering the same ground no one whines about highways or air routes to nowhere. Here is another fact, highways don’t generate money or income. Highways don’t employee people. Highways don’t pay taxes. Railroads do all three, including paying property taxes.
According to Mr Forczek the new track will cost $20 million per mile for tracks. So if Travel Rail wants to build high speed service from NWA to Little Rock we are looking at between 140.5 miles as the crow flies and 192 highway miles. That’s $2,810,000,000 to $3,840,000,000 for those slow of math (as I am). That includes the overhead catenary wires, signaling, and everything. In the past we have used Deutsche Bahn, Germany’s high speed passenger rail service as a model. For a similar distance in Germany, DB trains run from 140 to 160 MPH. Comment below if you have additional information as I am limited to prowling the internet.
So our NWA to LR run is limited to 150 MPH. If Travel Rail uses limited stops like DB’s InterCity Express (ICE) that means we cover that distance in about one and a half hours depending on the route. One of the reasons we can control costs is that Arkansas is sparsely populated. That means Travel Rail doesn’t have to plow through hundreds of billions of dollars of urban or industrialized property. We have to get around the Ozark National Forest, unless we get clearance to go through a national park. I’ll have to check on that. We will have farmers and ranchers to deal with. I don’t’ want to minimize them, they are important too. We had a comment on the ORBTS Facebook group that money spent providing rural Arkansans with rail service is wasting money. So rural people aren’t worth investing in? No rural people deserve the best we can offer. Including the ICE train.
Here is where being pals with the Commissioner of State Lands comes in handy. This elected official knows who owns what, and how much they owe in property taxes. Hmmm. So if someone is having trouble, Travel Rail can help out. That should cut down on the Not In My Backyard resistance some HSR projects encounter.
Also by designing a new route Travel Rail can avoid an obstacle known as the dreaded highway crossing. I have seen how people across this great land of ours treat railroad crossings, and it isn’t pretty. I started to publish a YouTube video of trains crashing into cars and trucks either broken down, stuck, or carelessly parked on the tracks. I didn’t because there are people in those vehicles and the wrecks are distressing. That’s why we want the Arkansas Department of Transportation to build overpasses for highway traffic. If the new track is crossing county roads we will want those closed and traffic diverted to an over or under pass.
And what about those overhead wires? Catenary wires are necessary to deliver enough electricity to move the train at 140 to 160 MPH. So there is the cost of transmitting power to the catenary wires, the cost of building them, and the cost of generating the electricity. At Travel Rail we are going to be smart when we approach the owners of the electric grid. Since we are dealing with a largely rural area, Mr Forczek suggests we ask for power to be delivered to stations where there are no transmission lines. Why you ask? Because the catenary wires can not only provide energy to the train but ALSO transmit electricity to these rural areas! Travel Rail can get the Grid owners to build the catenary wires for them, thus reducing costs. As I said at the beginning this is enlightening. Get it? No. Nobody gets me. Sigh.
And of course we are designing the rail beds we need to make this work. Mr Forczek asked me why do Japan and Europe have high speed rail and America doesn’t? I thought it was due to fossil fuel and automotive company greed. No it’s because Japan and Europe were bombed during WW2 and America wasn’t. America’s rail beds date back from 1830 to the early 20th century. Our own Arkansas and Missouri Railroad rail bed dates back to 1880 (built) to 1882 (starting service). Europe and Japan had to recover from the War and that took decades. During those decades they created the HSR system we want to emulate.
Even though Travel Rail is starting from scratch for their ICE service, this is starting to look more desirable, economical, and doable that we have thought. This HSR system will connect NWA to Little Rock and all the rural areas in-between. As we have established Connectivity is Density. If we build up our bus system in NWA, with commuter and light rail in the mix, with Little Rock building their own commuter rail system from Cabot to Pine Bluff, we aren’t just connecting Fayetteville to LR, we are connecting larger metro areas and their transit networks together. #ConnectivityIsDensity indeed.
We also discussed light rail. As we look around I think we find a lot support for light rail in NWA. Mr Forczek describes light rail as a people mover. Light rail only travels at 40 to 45 MPH top speed and goes through more heavily populated areas. That is why light rail beds require a different design from passenger or freight rail. In any case as we look at solutions for crossing I 49, we can use Northwest Arkansas Community College campus on 14th Street in Bentonville. There are railroad tracks that go into the campus. And NWACC is already a multimodal station with cars, bikes, and buses converging there. A light rail service can pick up commuter rail passengers and take them on to Walmart World HQ or on to XNA our national airport. That also connects Centerton, another growing suburban area to our transit network. More connectivity and more density.
I didn’t get into the massive number of skilled labor jobs this will create. Maybe 10,000 workers making between $60K to $100K a year for say 5 years. Or the new small business opportunities, or the tens of thousands of jobs supported in the wider community. Or the opportunity to build attainable/affordable housing. Or how rural Arkansa is dying economically and how this will rebuild entire economies. Yeah, this can work. More to come.