The Steel Interstate System (SIS) concept: A core national network of high-capacity, grade-separated, electrified railroad mainlines. The Steel Interstate will accomplish for railroads what the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System achieved for highway speed and safety.
The SIS will become the backbone for movement of both goods and people in the 21st Century. Many more trains of all kinds will be accommodated and these will move much faster. SIS freight trains will operate at truck-competitive speeds. Passenger trains will travel at auto-competitive speeds.
This section describes what the Steel Interstate System will look like, how the SIS will transport people and all kinds of goods, and how the concept fits compatibly into the evolution of transportation in America.
- High-capacity: Main lines would have at least two through tracks. This critical feature means that trains can be handled in both directions without having to stop and meet oncoming trains. Because the nation’s rail system had stagnated and was intentionally downsized over the last half of the 20th century, many routes where rail once featured multiple tracks, today have only one. Modern signaling systems permit trains to operate in both directions on a single track with periodic passing sidings, but this design drastically reduces capacity and fluidity of movement because trains inevitably have to stop and wait at the sidings for oncoming trains to pass. Many key routes, especially in the western U.S., have actually reached their maximums.
- Electrified: The SIS network will be powered by electricity, provided to electric locomotives from a system of overhead wires called catenary. A spring-tensioned device on top of the locomotive, called a pantograph, presses against the catenary making a solid contact for the electric current to flow. Today in North America, only Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor passenger operation uses such an electrified system. Virtually all of the trains in the rest of the country are powered by diesel locomotives, where fuel is burned on board to generate electricity to power the locomotive’s traction motors. Electrified rail operations are not technically new or complex - railroads throughout much of the developed world are powered this way today. Electric operation is a key part of the SIS because of certain efficiencies offered versus diesel-powered trains. Importantly, domestically generated electric power can be substituted for foreign oil. This change-out produces enormous economic benefits that accrue year after year and can help pay for the Steel Interstate System.
- Grade-separated: Rail lines of the Steel Interstate will not cross roads and highways at grade, but will pass over or under using bridges or underpasses. Again, this is analogous to the design advancement brought about in Interstate Highways. No longer was it necessary to drive through every town en route and stop at traffic light-controlled intersections. Rail operations will be substantially expedited by having all major grade crossings eliminated. Increased train frequencies and speeds will not adversely affect the driving public, and safety will be greatly improved by removing a major cause of vehicle/train collisions. This feature is very expensive to implement in major metropolis.
A genuine Steel Interstate network is defined by the capacity and speed afforded by multiple tracks. In some places a second track can be added rather easily on rights-of-way that once had two or more tracks. In other places the added track capacity will be much more challenging to install, requiring new grading, bridges, and relocation of equipment.
Explore the many benefits of the SIS in areas such as national security, health & safety, pollution and greenhouse gas emission abatement, economic competitiveness, energy efficiency and independence, lower cost infrastructure and mobility, and helping facilitate the nation's transition to renewable energy.
Rail's 21st Century role: Add time-sensitive freight and passenger capacity in transportation corridors where highway dependency proves prohibitively expensive and/or environmentally detrimental.
Rail is moving towards a three-tiered system where the top tier—“true” High Speed Rail (HSR)—will be dedicated passenger-only lines reserved for speeds above 115 MPH; ideally above 150 MPH. Travel market demand will indicate which routes justify the speed and traffic densities for HSR development.
The middle-tier North American Steel Interstate System will comprise between 36,000 and 45,000 miles of upgraded, existing main line routes, with a minimum of two through tracks and a maximum speed range of 79 to 110 MPH. This network will reach most communities now served by the Interstate Highway System, compatibly moving most non-local shipments and midrange intercity passengers.
The bottom tier of North American rail lines will be retained and improved to serve current and future users of conventional rail services, as well as extending the reach of trains that use the high- and higher-speed rail lines.
The North American Steel Interstate Coalition will refine and promote the Steel Interstate concept and organize stakeholders to work together to incorporate the concept into mainstream transportation policies from the federal to the local level.
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