The Steel Interstate System (SIS) is a core national network of high capacity, grade separated, electrified railroad mainlines. It would realize for railroads what the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System achieved for roads, and would become the backbone for movement of both goods and people in the 21st Century. Many more trains of all kinds could be accommodated and they could move much faster, providing truck-competitive speeds for movement of freight, and auto-competitive speeds for movement of passengers. This section describes what such a rail system would look like, how the SIS would transport all kinds of goods as well as people, and how the concept fits into the evolution of rail transportation in America.
Other sections of this website describe many benefits of the SIS in areas such as energy conservation, national security, health & safety, pollution reduction, greenhouse gas emission abatement, economic competitiveness, energy independence, infrastructure investment, and preparing the nation to cope with Peak Oil.
Index of content:
Linkable in-depth information:
- FREIGHT services
- PASSENGER services
- High-capacity means that these main lines would have at least two through tracks, so that trains can be handled in both directions without having to stop and meet oncoming trains. Because the nation’s rail system has stagnated and declined over the five decades that the Interstate Highway System has been built out, many places where rail lines 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 drastically reduces capacity and fluidity of movement because trains inevitably have to stop and wait at the sidings for oncoming trains to pass. The Steel Interstate will require 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 more difficult to install, requiring new grading, bridges, and relocation of equipment.
- Electrified means that 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. 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 world are powered this way today. Electric operation is a key part of the SIS because of certain efficiencies offered versus diesel-powered trains. But most importantly because domestically generated electric power can be substituted for foreign oil. This produces enormous economic benefits that accrue year after year and can help pay for the Steel Interstate System.
- Grade-separated means that 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 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.
- Core network means that there will be a backbone of SIS-caliber railroad main lines, just as there is today a backbone structure of Interstate Highways. In both cases the core network of main routes supports and feeds traffic to and from a larger network of secondary routes. It would consist of between 38,000 and 45,000 route-miles and be largely congruent with the Department of Defense’s Strategic Rail Corridor Network (STRACNET) and the National Association of Railroad Passengers (NARP) Grid and Gateway vision; not including the Federal Railroad Administration’s High Speed Rail corridors operating above 110 mph (see section III, below). Here is what it might look like:
Technologically, rail is capable of economically moving the world's citizens and essential goods without oil, using renewable energy sources.
Electrified streetcars, light rail, subways; and commuter, intercity and High Speed Rail trains can transport us:
- Around city centers
- Between neighborhoods
- Across metropolitan areas
- From bedroom communities to regional work centers
- From small towns to cities
- Between midsize cities
- Across and between mega-regions
- To long-distance flights
Electrified rail can also transport our goods:
- In bulk shipments on unit trains
- From domestic manufacturers to urban markets via high volume merchandise carload trains
- From seaports to regional distribution centers on double-stack "land barge" intermodal trains
- In long distance domestic-market lanes on double/single-stack intermodal trains
- Between mid-range domestic markets on higher-speed, open-technology (iterations of "piggyback") intermodal trains
- At the head end of conventional intercity and true high speed passenger trains, in airline cargo containers or other modern equivalents of Railway Express and Railway Post Office
The North American Steel Interstate System is the common thread that weaves these rail services into a wholistic,seamless, multi-modal, continent-wide transportation system. It would consist of a core network of high-capacity, electrified, grade separated railroad lines.
The North American Steel Interstate System is not an invention. It is a description of how transportation policies can be crafted to take advantage of existing rail technologies—specifically along corridors of national significance. This rail technology is in place and being used elsewhere in the world. It should be in place and used here.
- Speed is greatly improved because there is room on the SIS for through trains in both directions to run without having to stop for opposing trains. Plus there would be extra tracks where needed for faster trains to get around slower ones, or to permit separate passenger train operations. Furthermore, trains can move on the core network over long distances avoiding the congestion of yards and terminals. Trains would exit from the SIS network, just as we exit from the Interstate Highways today, to interface with local rail operations such as yards, terminals, and local industrial switching. The SIS is not a high speed rail system for passenger trains; rather it is a vastly upgraded network of key rail corridors that can serve both freight and passenger trains in a range of speeds up to 110 mph on shared right-of-way, with a typical speed target of 79 mph.
- Reliability is very important to rail operations, both passenger and freight. Today the nation’s rail system is characterized by much lower capacity over recent decades, and rapidly rising traffic.[link to section d, below] This combination is a surefire recipe for congestion, and congestion kills system reliability. The Steel Interstate will provide adequate capacity so that all trains, both passenger and freight, can move fluidly over the network without getting in each other’s way or having to stop and wait. This will enable freight to be more truck competitive and move much better on just-in-time schedules that shippers want. Passenger trains will be able to maintain published schedules and not be delayed frequently by freight trains blocking the lines.
- Capacity of the key SIS corridors would be much greater than today’s existing lines, primarily due to the use of multiple tracks. Trains of all kinds could be accommodated – conventional freight, unit trains, double-stack container trains, open-intermodal trains such as rolling highway (truck ferry), mail and express, perishable cargoes, and passenger trains. Railroads would not have to turn away business desiring to shift to rail because of highway congestion, driver shortages, or skyrocketing fuel costs. This is an important social benefit to the nation, because from an environmental standpoint it should be national policy to maximize freight movement by rail. The SIS makes this possible. Rail traffic will have room to grow again. And every ton or passenger switched from the highway to electrified rail will lessen our chronic dependence on oil to power the transportation sector of our economy.
- Rationale. Why do we need a national rail system for the Twenty-first Century with more speed, reliability, and capacity? The railroad industry’s capacity has been in steady decline. The interstate highway network diverted large amounts of freight, especially time-sensitive and high-value products, away from the railroads and onto the highway. The railroads responded by abandoning many miles of light density lines, taking up double-track on many routes, removing sidings, scrapping freight cars, and otherwise making difficult downward capacity adjustments. In addition to declining business, the steady impact of paying property taxes on every mile of track and piece of rolling stock provided a further catalyst to downsize wherever possible.
Once this downsizing was well under way, however, the rail industry was hit by gradual, then accelerating, traffic growth. U.S. railroad ton-miles have tripled in the period from 1950 to 2005, as shown in this graphic from the Association of American Railroads:
This effect of rising traffic levels and shrinking infrastructure can be seen most dramatically when one is divided by the other to produce a “ton-miles per mile of road operated” number for the industry. In the table below are data for a recent 15-year period as cited in the U.S. Census Bureau’s Statistical Abstract of the United States [Year 2000, table 1060; Year 2007, table 1099]. Over just these 15 years the freight traffic density on the nation’s railroads has risen 91%.
US Class I Railroads
Ton-miles per mile of road operated, 1990-2004
|MILES OF ROAD
TON MILES PER
All indications are that this rising traffic trend will continue now that the economic recovery is boosting rail carloadings, which are largely a function of industrial activity. Plus there has been a huge increase in import/export freight movement in the U.S., with rail providing a key link between the ports and inland locations. This increase in rail freight movement has resulted in some much publicized service failures, where the volumes simply choked shut key lines and terminals. The Steel Interstate will equip the nation with a super-railroad level of infrastructure comparable to what the Interstate Highway System did for roads of the 1950s and 1960s, providing vitally needed new capacity and allowing rail share of freight movement to grow.
Clearly, we tend to use the transportation mode that receives the greatest investment. No wonder we have few choices but to drive or fly. But we can change those political choices.
The plan for shifting mobility responsibilities back to the rail mode now relies more on upgrading the rail network we have instead of adding substantially more route miles to that network. Former FRA Administrator Gil Carmichael described this system in 1999 as "Interstate II." [Ref. 1, 2] Subsequently, the Department of Defense mapped out its 38,000-mile Strategic Rail Core Network (STRACNET) [Ref], which is the starting point for conceptualizing the North American Steel Interstate System.
The model for this high-performance, higher-speed rail network borrows from a study conducted for Virginia (Reebie Associates, March 31, 2004— “Northeast-Southeast-Midwest Corridor Paralleling I-81 & I-95 Marketing Study”), which listed design criteria including: reduced curvature, full double track with frequent crossovers and bi-directional signaling (now referred to as Positive Train Control). The Reebie study went on to say that intermodal trains need to travel at passenger train speeds to be truly competitive with—and divert—over-the-road trucks.
In June 2007, the National Association of Railroad Passengers (NARP) launched its Grid and Gateway vision for passenger rail development over the next 40 years. [Ref] While NARP’s plan envisions an upgraded 45,000-mile network for intercity passenger trains, most of the routes match those on DOD’s STRACNET system.
Much of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) rail grants are being directed at many of these same corridors to bring their eventual top speed up to 110 MPH, which is defined as “Emerging High Speed Rail.”
Routes used by Amtrak would be upgraded as portions of the higher speed rail (HrSR) Steel Interstate System and would feed the Federal Railroad Administration’s designated High Speed Rail (HSR) Corridors.
Rail appears to be developing into a three-tiered system where the top tier—“true” High Speed Rail—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 between 79 MPH and 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 aim of the North American Steel Interstate Coalition is to refine the Concept and promote its inclusion into mainstream transportation policies from the federal to the local level.
Our maxim is, Rail's 21st Century role is to add time-sensitive freight and passenger capacity in corridors where highway dependency is prohibitively expensive and/or environmentally detrimental.
Steel Interstate corridor prototype demonstration in the I-81/I-40 Corridor