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Strategies for Improving the Project Agreement Process Between Highway Agencies and Railroads

Posted by Content Coordinator on Tuesday, November 2nd, 2010


Executive Summary

North American railroads and public highway departments interact thousands of times annually as the highway agencies conduct projects that cross over, under, or parallel to the  railways. Each interaction requires a thorough review of the safety, engineering, and operating effects that the project will have on the railroad during construction and for decades  thereafter. Although most of these reviews and agreements proceed smoothly, both the highway agencies and the railroads agree that delays and problems occur routinely. These  delays can cause important highway projects to increase in cost, and they can consume valuable staff and engineering resources by all parties.

The focus of this project is to provide recommended standard agreements, standard processes, and best practices that can help both sides reduce the time and cost of project reviews.  To succeed, each must understand the basic needs of the other and both must have common languages, practices, standards, and expectations.

Understanding the Railroad Perspective

A brief history of the railroads’ recent past can help explain their approach to public projects. Railroads have downsized dramatically in recent decades, which has led to a reduction in  non-core staff. As a result, many have outsourced most of their engineering departments that used to focus on public projects. Although much smaller in terms of number of  employees, the North American railroads today are operating at unprecedented levels of volume, efficiency, and reliability (1, 2, 3). This success has been hard-won after decades of  deregulation, downsizing, consolidation, and shareholder demands for increased efficiencies and profitability. As a result, railways are more heavily traveled than ever in their history,  while the railroad staffs are at their smallest. The railroads can tolerate no delay to their operations and they are unwilling to accept risk or constraint to their finite and ever-more- valuable rights-of-way.

The railroads’ approach to public projects is dominated by several overriding factors:

  • Public highway projects seldom benefit the railroads.
  • Projects can constrain future rail capacity.
  • Construction activities can create great risk to workers, railway equipment, and track operations.
  • Railroads cannot tolerate train delays on tightly strung national corridors.
  • Railroads must cover all their costs, including engineering reviews and construction monitoring.

Understanding the State Perspective

The state and local highway agencies are the mirror image of the railroads when they approach highway–railroad projects. Highway agencies are public entities, accustomed to  providing advice and reviews without cost. Highway agency personnel are trained to focus on the public’s expenditures and, therefore, they try to reduce the cost of their bridges and other projects whenever possible. Highway construction projects frequently close travel lanes for months and divert traffic to redundant parallel routes. Highway agencies have long  lead times for planning. They develop their projects much differently with years of analysis, as opposed to railroads, which make capital decisions on an annual basis. Although both  highway agencies and railroads are driven by engineering factors to make investment decisions about linear transportation facilities, they approach their decisions from very different  perspectives.

Dozens of state and local highway agencies were consulted. Their commonly expressed needs from the railroads include the following:

  • Timely and reliable reviews;
  • Better internal railroad coordination;
  • Improved mechanisms for access to rights-of-way;
  • Consistent design requirements; and
  • A spirit of cooperation and a recognition that public agencies have limited time and resources to accommodate railroad needs.

Download full version (PDF): Strategies for Improving the Project Agreement Process Between Highway Agencies and Railroads

About Transportation Research Board
“The mission of the Transportation Research Board is to provide leadership in transportation innovation and progress through research and information exchange, conducted within a setting that is objective, interdisciplinary, and multimodal.”

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