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Safety, Security and Capacity of Critical Rail Corridors

Initiated in January 2010, this research project is funded by the Southeastern Transportation Center (STC) and is a collaboration between VECTOR and the University of Tennessee. The proposed research is based on three fundamental premises.  These include –

  • Rail-served corridors are a key component within the nation’s system for freight movement;
  • Safety, security, and capacity within these corridors is a continuing area of concern; and
  • Currently available data and analytical applications are sometimes adequate for the effective evaluation and treatment of rail corridor safety, security, and capacity, but in other instances these analytical tools are lacking.

The U.S. economy is heavily dependent on the delivery of freight to satisfy essential needs. In 2006, this resulted in the movement of approximately 15 billion tons of goods worth roughly $11 trillion.  While many modes support this activity, highways and railroads are the principal means of freight transport (FHWA 2007, Schmitt et al., 2008).  In some instances, major highway routes exist where corresponding rail service is not as available.  However, more often than not highways and rail routes are co-located in the same corridor, offering a mix of competing and complementary services.  These corridors, hereafter referred to as “critical rail corridors”, serve as major economic arteries, whose disruption can have serious implications.

The current volume of freight activity in many critical rail corridors is pushing the limits of the system to meet current demand, both along the line-haul portion of the corridor as well as at corresponding terminals and transfer points (Schmitt et al., 2008).  Moreover, with truck and rail volumes forecast to grow 98% and 88%, respectively, from 2002 to 2035, existing problems are expected to become even more troublesome in the future (GAO, 2008).

Freight congestion in critical rail corridors creates several undesirable effects, notably increased travel times, higher transport costs, and less reliable schedules.  This congestion also has important implications for rail safety, creating an environment for greater conflict among freight services, and between passenger and freight vehicles when both are sharing the same network.  Conflicts also arise when the highway and rail modes intersect one another such as at grade crossings.  From a safety perspective, increased conflicts can lead to both a higher accident frequency as well as the potential for more severe accident consequences (CBO, 2006).  An additional concern of critical rail corridor operations is the movement of large volumes of hazardous and high-valued goods, traveling through heavy population centers, often sitting unattended at yards and sidings.  This creates an environment for both cargo theft as well as vulnerability to terrorist activity (Hoffman 2007).

Operating critical rail corridors in a safe, secure and efficient manner is paramount to the current well-being of our nation.  For this reason, it is important to understand the nature and magnitude of existing problems as well as the potential for mitigation strategies that are cost-effective.  These strategies can take the form of improved technologies, investment in infrastructure, or changes in regulatory or economic policy.  It is equally important to understand the extent to which critical corridors can adapt to changes that may be encountered, such as rising fuel costs, limits on greenhouse gas emissions, increases in container traffic, and disruption of service due to a major event (e.g., hurricane, tornado).