The Federal Railroad Administration (“FRA”) recently published a progress report (PDF) presenting its ambitious vision for the congressionally-mandated National Rail Plan (“NRP”).  The NRP is being developed as part of the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008.  The progress report builds upon the Preliminary National Rail Plan (PDF) submitted to Congress last year.  When completed, the NRP is expected to present a framework for improving our transportation network for future generations.

The progress report emphasizes the importance of efficient and effective rail infrastructure to the nation’s economy and then details the need to build a nation-wide system of high-speed and intercity passenger rail while preserving the nation’s freight rail network.  FRA’s plans include a tiered network of passenger rail corridors, with each tier tailored to the size and needs of the various areas serviced by the system.  These tiers would include Core Express Corridors, which would consist of high-speed rail service on a dedicated track and connect large urban areas separated by distances of up to 500 miles.  The middle tier, Regional Corridors would use a mix of dedicated and shared track to provide service ranging in speed from 90-125 mph and link mid-size urban areas as well as smaller communities in between.  Finally, Emerging/Feeder routes would use shared track and provide smaller or more distant areas with service speeds of up to 90 mph.  FRA’s goal for each of these tiers is to provide connections with communities, and integrate passenger rail with other modes of public transportation.

The FRA also uses the report to address its plan for High Performance Freight Rail and the need to improve the nation’s freight rail network to accommodate long-term capacity needs.  The report emphasizes that freight system performance can also be improved by enhancing the connections between individual modes of transportation in order to make the best use of the inherent efficiencies of each mode, including pipelines, airfreight, waterways, and trucking.  Such improvements to corridors and connections will, in turn, enhance the nation’s economic competitiveness.

Success will require a long-term commitment to passenger rail at the Federal, State, and local levels, similar to the dedication shown to the interstate highway network in the latter half of the 20th century.”

The next steps in the development of the NRP may prove to be the most critical in terms of garnering the political support necessary for an endeavor whose significance and breadth the FRA compares to the development of the interstate highway system in the 1950s.  USDOT and FRA are currently developing criteria to identify regions of the country where Core Express, Regional and Emerging/Feeder corridors could be feasible, analyzing the costs and benefits of high speed and intercity rail and High Performance Rail, and continuing extensive public outreach to identify and aid in the resolution of challenges associated with the initiative.  When issued, the final NRP is expected to include a comprehensive strategy for implementation, including legislative, policy and administrative recommendations.  The ultimate strategy will need to anticipate and overcome the numerous financial and political challenges to such an ambitious undertaking.