The ‘Infrastructure Condo’ That Could Help Make High-Speed Rail Happen

As the Obama administration prepares to
roll out its ambitious new investment in high-speed rail (HSR),
right-of-way — primary control over a stretch of train track, whether
existing or envisioned — has become a major consideration for states
that want to jumpstart local networks.

In California, freight railroad Union Pacific is negotiating with HSR planners over sharing right-of-way. In upstate New York, planners concede that
proposed HSR trains may not reach Niagara Falls because of the hard
bargain getting driven by CSX, the freight company that controls

So how can the White House’s HSR plan avoid miring in local right-of-way struggles?

studies professor and transportation expert Anthony Perl outlined his
proposed solution today at the U.S. High Speed Rail Association conference. Perl’s answer to the right-of-way conundrum: the "infrastructure condominium."

term may not roll off the tongue, but his concept is simple. Instead of
freight railroads engaging in high-stakes dealmaking for rights-of-way,
HSR planners would lease the rights to the track.

"Freight railroads can collect ‘rent’
for their rights-of-way," Perl explained today, "and can get involved in the operation end [of HSR] if they’re
interested. All they have to do is sign the right documents … and they’ll
get a check every month."

Perl, director of the urban studies program at Simon Fraser University, explains the concept further in his book Transport Revolutions:

a railway infrastructure condominium, the right-of-way would be owned
separately from the tracks, communications and signalling systems and
electric power distribution equipment. … The tracks occupying a
railway condominium could remain quite segregated operationally, or
some could be integrated into a common network. Rents could be paid to
a ground-lease holder, which in many cases would be a private railway
company that had previously owned the integrated tracks, signals, and
right-of-way. These rents could be used to finance electrification of
America’s freight rail network, which could remain in private hands.

acknowledged that his "infrastructure condo" would not solve all the
difficulties facing the U.S. government’s HSR buildout, and that the
freight industry "would fight such an idea" given that their existing
rail infrastructure stands to receive a major upgrade as part of the U.S. DOT’s first round of HSR grants.

Still, with conservative critics predicting
that the need to accommodate existing track ownership could turn into a
"subsidy" for freight railroads, the prospect of reining in the freight
industry’s bargaining power — while providing it a guaranteed source
of revenue for rights-of-way — could catch on in Washington.

  • Jeffrey W. Baker

    I don’t understand why the government can’t just tell Union Pacific to go get bent. The government gave them their rights of way. The government made the railroads from nothing, because it was clear that the nation needed them to thrive. Now it’s clear that the nation needs high speed passenger rail to thrive, and the government should take actions of the same scope to make sure it happens.

  • This idea won’t work because:

    1. FRA rules do not permit mixing of freight and modern high-speed trains in the same ROW. Until that steam-era regulation is eliminated, it does not matter what financial arrangements are made.

    2. Trying to engineer high-speed line to also handle conventional freight is prohibitively expensive. Freight cannot handle any kind of slope, which severely complicates grade separations, etc.

    3. Acquiring new ROW is not that big a deal anyway. The only reason it is a problem with the CHSRA is because of gross incompetence and corruption (i.e. decision to run trains through Pacheco).

  • patrick

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe it’s the tracks that can’t be shared, not ROW (ROW is basically the land corridor that tracks reside in, if there’s enough space, tracks can be built alongside the existing tracks in the same ROW).

    I think the idea here is to lease the ROW from the freight system and build separate tracks, so the freight operators get revenue from the leased land, and don’t have to worry about conflicts in their schedule on shared tracks, or completely losing the tracks if the ROW is outright sold to an HSR system.

    I believe Pacheco is easier to deal with from a ROW perspective than Altamont. The existing ROWs through Alameda County are in generally significantly narrower, and much more highly used by existing freight operators.

  • Jeffrey W. Baker

    Patrick: the freights say that the ROW can’t be shared, because the tracks can’t be adjacent, because if a freight derails it will block the HSR track.

    Which all sounds like hokum to me because I’ve been to Italy and I’ve seen the freights full of gravel whizzing past passenger trains at 100+ MPH.

  • Patrick: the VTA owns a perfectly good rail ROW running from Diridon station all the way into Fremont. Compare that to this mess for Pacheco:

    Jeffrey: yes, freights and HSR can run side-by-side, and even on the same track. Unfortunately, FRA does not allow the latter, and only allows the former with extreme countermeasures. Until FRA steam-era rules are changed, we are unlikely to see much HSR in the USA, except at ludicrous prices.

  • patrick

    UPRR says they don’t want tracks right next to it, not all freight providers. BNSF is willing to share ROW.

    Diridon to Fremont is not the whole Altamont alignment, plus VTA can’t share with HSR, so you’d either need to lose VTA, or add 2 tracks. There are certainly portions that would not be a problem, but there are significant portions that probably would be. IIRC the Altamont Commuter Express is single track and used frequently by freight, so that ROW would have to add 3 tracks, it’s also very windy. Capitol corridor is double tracked, but also heavily used by freight, and would therefore have to be widened by two more tracks, and I believe the existing ROW is narrower than Pacheco.

    I don’t really care which way it goes, I just don’t believe that Altamont would be any easier than Pacheco. Both have advantages and disadvantages, but Pacheco is chosen and I’m fine with that.

  • Patrick: since you won’t be having CHSRA tunnel under your house, I’m sure it does not matter to you.

    Diridon to Fremont is a clear shot. I don’t know what you mean by losing VTA. VTA does not run anything up there. Of course, it does preclude building a San Jose BART extension — but that can only be considered a positive thing, saving taxpayers $6 billion. Diridon-Fremont is a relatively short stretch of track with only 2 train/hr peak requirement for HSR, so standard 2-track rail line can easily accommodate both BART-type conventional-rail regional service, and the occasional HSR express in the same ROW.

    The other segments for Altamont are reported in Central Valley-Bay Area EIR. Perhaps you just need to read it. The EIR lists a number of possible routings for Altamont, only some of which rely on UP. Moreover, UP has never come out against any of the Altamont alternatives using their ROW (quite the opposite).

  • patrick

    So you are trading 1 house being impacted for another, it’s not as if Altamont will have no impact on anybody.

    I’m fine with canceling SJ BART, but that project is pretty unlikely to be canceled, and still doesn’t address the entire Altamont alignment, only Fremont to Diridon.

    UP is fine with selling/sharing Altmont ROW? I haven’t heard that, do you have any thing to support that?

    I know the EIR lists Altamont options, but they have just the same level of difficulties as Pacheco.

    Altamont has some advantages of Pacheco, and Pacheco has some advantages over Altamont, personally I think Pacheco’s advantages outweigh Altamont’s, but like I said I don’t ultimately care as long as HSR is built.


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